The Pittsburgh Steelers just won their fourth-straight game on Monday night. One reason the Steelers had enough points to secure the victory is due to finishing their drives into the red zone by scoring touchdowns. What did the Steelers do in Week 9 to be so efficient in the red zone? That’s the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Before getting into red zone percentages, it’s important to understand exactly what is being measured. Although scoring in the red zone is important, the percentages are based off of scoring a touchdown when a team reaches their opponent’s 20-yard line. Therefore, if a team gets into the red zone three times in a game and scores one touchdown and two field goals, the red zone percentage is 33%.
Now that this is been established, the Steelers are currently ranked 14th in the NFL in red zone percentage on the season with 61.90%. Steelers has scored 13 touchdowns on their 21 trips into the red zone in 2021. On the eight drives in which they did not get into the end zone, the Steelers have six field goals and two drives which ended with a turnover on downs. Those two drives were the faked field goal against the Cleveland Browns and a late 4th & 10 attempt from the 11-yard line against the Cincinnati Bengals when trailing by two touchdowns (yes, that was the infamous “throw behind the line of scrimmage on 4th & 10” play).
In recent weeks, the important thing to see is that the Steelers have seen their trips into the red zone increase. Over the last three games, the Steelers have 11 drives which they reached the red zone. The Steelers had four red zone drives against the Seattle Seahawks with two ending in touchdowns with two others ending in field goals. Against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers once again had four red zone drives with two of them resulting in touchdowns, one resulting in a field goal, and the other a turnover on downs on the failed fake attempt.
In Week 9 against the Chicago Bears, the Steelers did have one less drive into the red zone in the game, but did finish off every drive with a touchdown finishing three for three. It should also be noted that on two of the three touchdown drives, the Steelers were presented with a 4th & 1 outside the red zone but within field-goal range. On both occasions, the Steelers went for it and were successful in order to help finish off the drive.
So there are the numbers with the Steelers red zone efficiency. But what does the film show us? Geoffrey, you’re up!
The Film Line:
The Steelers three-for-three finish in the red zone in Week 9 wasn’t just a nice improvement on their season numbers, it was necessary to secure a win. But how they pulled it off could be a recipe for future success and offensive improvement. Let’s take a look.
Steelers v Bears, 1st quarter, 10:19.
James Washington is the receiver to the top of the screen, on the 25 yard line.
That’s not a red zone play and it isn’t a touchdown, but it is critical to the Steelers offense. Watch the defensive end to the bottom of the screen, he is going for Najee Harris and can’t help stop the sweep at all, no one blocks him and he does nothing to flatten Washington’s run. Freiermuth is right there to block the linebacker that is tasked with reading the sweep and it’s 13 yards.
Steelers v Bears, 1st quarter, 9:46.
Najee Harris is the running back.
This is a fantastic run by Najee Harris. He hits the hole fast, sees the linebacker and reacts quickly to shed him, switches targets quickly and his second stiff arm puts him in the end zone.
But look at #98 and #58. They get wide quickly, and it helps line up the blocks for the offensive line to create the hole for Najee Harris. Look at #94, he wins the outside lane, where the sweep is, but can’t get back into the play with Zach Gentry in his path. It’s a seriously great block from Gentry, he’s become an impressive run blocker in just his second season.
The Steelers don’t run outside a lot with Najee Harris, but teams are thinking laterally and allowing lanes like this when they get spread out too far inside. A lot of Matt Canada’s offense is geared to attack laterally, in order to spread a defense thinner in the middle for the run game.
On the second red zone appearance for the Steelers, it was the passing game that put in work to earn the score.
Steelers v Bears, 2nd quarter, 13:37.
Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
The double slants to the bottom put Claypool 1v1 with the corner and Claypool has the positioning to make the play, but Ben Roethlisberger sees the defensive end approaching, and reworks his arm angle and timing to avoid the defender. The throw is late, and the window is closed. Claypool rightly is heading deeper, the quick throw angle is gone, any completion is going to need to be a different throw.
One of the problems with a quick throw offense is the execution has to be on point or the play will not work. That is even more observable in the next two plays from that possession.
Steelers v Bears, 2nd quarter, 13:33.
Pat Freiermuth is the receiver on the line, right in front of Chase Claypool (#11) to the bottom of the screen.
This is a nice little play. The crossers attack man defense, while against zone they clear the middle out for Pat Freiermuth. A little physicality from the linebacker slows Freiermuth down though, and the defense is able to recover enough to convince Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball away. Maybe he could have fit the ball in, but you don’t take that chance on second down.
Steelers v Bears, 2nd quarter, 13:28.
Pat Freiermuth is the receiver second from the top of the screen.
This is another quick route, and it looks like the design is for Ben to look to the top, then find James Washington in the middle of a rub from Chase Claypool. I don’t know exactly how the Steelers intended this to be run, or what they expected the defense to do, but against what actually happened you’d want James Washington to cut quicker so the linebacker can’t get hands on Chase Claypool and cover Washington’s route. I think that’s the intended throw because Freiermuth is essentially just boxing his defender out of the middle, the throw was supposed to go to the middle. This play works though, because Ben Roethlisberger can see he doesn’t have pressure coming from his blind side, and takes the time to find something else.
And that’s where Pat Freiermuth stands out. The receivers move, but none get any real separation, except Pat Freiermuth, who does a beautiful job ditching his defender and getting open for the score.
Getting open after a play breaks down is a key attribute for any receiver that plays with Ben Roethlisberger, and while Chase Claypool and James Washington don’t show that trait here, Pat Freiermuth does.
Steelers v Bears, 3rd quarter, 2:14.
Pat Freiermuth is the receiver to the top of the screen.
This time there was no extended play, it was a simple 1v1 with a defensive back, and Pat Freiermuth shows he can be the big, physical possession receiver the Steelers need for plays like this. Take a look at the battle between Freiermuth and the defensive back.
The defensive back isn’t giving anything to Freiermuth here, but he can’t stop the rookie tight end from coming down with the ball.
In 2018 Antonio Brown scored 15 TDs by having the two traits Freiermuth showed against the Bears. First, the ability to beat a defensive back 1v1 reliably, and second, being the guy who got open when the designed play broke down. The Steelers offense will benefit greatly if this effort from Pat Freiermuth wasn’t just one good game, but something that can become a major force in the Steelers red zone offense.
As for the running game, having the outside threat to help open up the inside lanes will be beneficial just about anywhere on the field. As long as the Steelers use the correct personnel grouping and do not telegraph which type of play— running inside or outside— they can use it to their benefit against the defense.