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For the Steelers to make the playoffs, the offense must be better in the red zone

The Pittsburgh Steelers could still be a playoff team, but to do so they will need to improve their red-zone offense.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The undermanned Steelers fought valiantly on Sunday night in Los Angeles, storming back from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit before falling to Justin Herbert and the Chargers, 41-37.

It was a roller-coaster ride for Steelers’ fans. The team bumbled through the first three quarters. They could not run the ball on offense and, minus T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, could not stop the Chargers and their brilliant young quarterback on defense. Early in the fourth, however, a blocked punt from reserve safety Miles Killebrew changed everything. The Steelers flew around for the next ten minutes and, improbably, a 27-13 deficit turned into a 37-34 lead. Then, just when it felt like they might pull off a comeback-for-the-ages, the defense blew a coverage on L.A.’s final possession and gave it right back.

To quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” There’s no telling how it will end.

A recap of the contest would likely include Herbert’s brilliance, 382 passing yards, 90 rushing yards, 3 TDs, Austin Eckler’s big night, Killebrew’s momentum-changing play and the fabulous Cam Sutton interception of a throw that ricocheted off of Cam Heyward’s helmet.

It would probably exclude the fact that Pittsburgh, despite scoring 37 points, mustered just 300 yards of offense. Amazingly, 187 of those came on three possessions: a 13-play, 57 yard drive that opened the game; a 12-play, 73 yard drive on their second series; and a 10-play, 57 yard drive in the late 3rd/early 4th quarters. Those three drives ate up 17:34 of game clock and on each one the Steelers penetrated the red zone. And yet they produced just two Chris Boswell field goals.

It’s easy to pin the loss on the defense. They surrendered 41 points, after all. But on a night when that unit was missing three of its best players, it was a safe bet L.A. would score some points. To win, the Steelers’ offense needed to make the most of its opportunities. They did not.

Pittsburgh’s problems in the red zone were mostly to blame. While the Steelers have not been a terrible red zone team overall, they rank 17th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, their red zone failures have had a distinct impact on several contests this season.

Take the first meeting with Cincinnati back in September. The Steelers had an 18-play, 88 yard drive culminate in a 26-yard field goal and a 12-play, 73 yard drive end in a turnover on downs. Two weeks ago, against the Lions, they had a 13-play, 73 yard drive stall at Detroit’s 2 yard line and a 13-play, 69 yard drive come to a halt at the 5. Both ended in field goals. A touchdown on either one would have likely produced the decisive points in a disappointing 16-16 tie.

While there are several factors that will determine whether Pittsburgh ultimately makes the playoffs, red zone offense is among the most important. Here’s a look at their struggles in that area this season, with some thoughts on how they might improve overall as they head towards a huge division game this Sunday at Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh’s shortcomings in the red zone have been the product of mental and physical mistakes, poor execution and questionable scheme choices.

In the first matchup with Cincinnati, they turned a 1st and goal from the 3 into a 2nd and goal from the 23 on an offensive pass interference penalty, a sack and a false start, ostensibly killing the drive. The OPI came on a bubble screen thrown to tight end Pat Freiermuth where Chase Claypool was called for blocking before the ball was thrown:

Claypool’s error notwithstanding, the fact offensive coordinator Matt Canada aligned in an empty set from the 3-yard line summarizes the primary struggle the offense has faced all season: they are not good enough up front to make tough yards in the run game. So, they have to get creative, which requires a higher level of execution and increased risk.

Canada’s creativity in this instance came with a flaw. With three Cincinnati defenders aligned over the three Pittsburgh receivers in the bunch to Roethlisberger’s left, a bubble screen to Freiermuth made little sense. The Steelers did not have a player to block safety Jesse Bates (30), who came in untouched to make a quick tackle. To Roethlisberger’s right, there was a similar situation: two defenders over top of two Pittsburgh receivers. There, the Steelers ran a quick screen as well, which also would have failed had Roethlisberger thrown in that direction. In instances like these, the Steelers need to tweak their scheme to allow Roethlisberger to get out of a dead play-call. They can’t waste plays in the red zone and expect touchdowns.

In the Detroit game, Pittsburgh trailed 16-10 when they embarked on a long drive on their first possession of the second half. They had a 1st and goal from the 5 yard line where, in a hard rain, without two of their top receivers, they had backup Mason Rudolph throw three straight passes, all of which fell incomplete. The first of these was another quick perimeter throw, this one to James Washington:

Pittsburgh’s attempt to use slot receiver Diontae Johnson as a moving pick was sniffed out immediately by the corner, who avoided Johnson and quickly closed on Washington. And left guard J.C. Hassenauer was unable to cut off the middle linebacker, who converged on Washington as well. Even with a good throw from Rudolph, this play would have gained a yard at best.

The 2nd down play was flawed as well. Canada had Johnson motion inside from his slot alignment, then attempted to sprint him back to the flat at the snap. Rudolph rolled right, trying to find Johnson, then looked lost as he searched for a second option. With Ray-Ray McCloud blanketed by the corner near the pylon, Rudolph simply flung the ball out of bounds.

Conceptually, this play is hard to understand. The objective of Johnson’s motion seems to have been to bring the slot-corner inside so Johnson could subsequently beat him back to the flat. Detroit bumped the coverage, though, meaning the slot-corner didn’t run with Johnson. Instead, he handed him to the safety. That left the slot-corner in perfect position to defend Johnson when he reversed his course at the snap. Canada may have run this type of motion because he saw Detroit in man-coverage on the previous snap. Even so, Johnson’s motion was too abrupt to make any real difference in the alignment of the slot-corner. The execution of the motion was poor in relation to the timing of the snap.

These problems reared up again Sunday night against the Chargers. The Steelers went 73 yards in 12 plays on their second possession but came away with no points. With another 1st and goal from the 5, they ran a jet sweep to Claypool and an inside run to Harris that got them to the 2. On 3rd down, they ran this play:

It’s a curious call. Not because it isn’t sound. Throwing a jump ball to the 6’4” Claypool against 5’10” corner Asante Samuel Jr. isn’t a bad call at all. The physical mismatch is inviting, and had Claypool continued to run under the ball rather than turning to face Roethlisberger, and then backpedaling, he may have caught it.

The call is curious given the subsequent decision to go for it on 4th down. If Pittsburgh knew they were going on 4th, why throw a low-percentage jump ball on 3rd? Why not run the ball, or use play-action, or find something that wasn’t boom or bust? Even a run to Harris that only gained a yard would have increased their options on 4th down. The 3rd down incompletion took a running play completely off the table. So, the Steelers did this:

This is shovel-option, with Harris the swing option and Freiermuth the inside pitch. L.A. didn’t seem particularly surprised by the call, likely because the Steelers have run it several times on the goal line this season. The bigger issue is that, again, Pittsburgh had a numbers problem. With safety Derwin James (33) lined up over top of Freiermuth at the goal line, there were seven L.A. defenders in the box against just five Pittsburgh blockers. Even though end Joey Bosa fell off to chase Roethlisberger as he rolled to his right, there was still no one to account for James, the best tackler on L.A.’s defense. Predictably, James came across to make the play. Linebacker Kyzir White (44) ran free to the ball as well when Hassenauer, the pulling guard, left him unblocked.

When the Steelers managed the numbers effectively, they were much more successful. Later in the game, for example, they ran yet another perimeter screen, this one for a touchdown. They used motion from Harris out of the backfield to create a four-receiver set to the field, which drew the defense in that direction. They then threw to Freiermuth, who was split out one-on-one with corner Michael Davis (43) to the boundary:

The key to making this play work was the ability of left tackle Chuks Okorafor and center Kendrick Green to get out in space to block for Freiermuth. Okorafor’s pancake block on Davis was a beauty while Green did well to get his big body on the safety. This play was well-timed and well-executed.

So, too, was the touchdown pass to Eric Ebron on the previous series. While this looked like a flat pass, it was a perimeter screen in disguise. Watch the receivers aligned outside of Ebron. Neither ran a route. Their blocks effectively sealed the edge and, with L.A. playing its safety loose, Ebron had space to run after the catch:

On both plays, good execution yielded good results. Both plays had a chance to succeed, however, because of simple math. The Steelers had enough blockers to account for L.A.’s defenders on the perimeter.

Pittsburgh’s struggles in the run game are likely to continue. This means Canada will continue to rely on smoke and mirrors to score points in the red zone. To improve in this area, the Steelers must execute better and eliminate self-inflicted wounds. And, given their reliance on perimeter screens, they must avoid being outnumbered at the point of attack. When they are outnumbered, Canada must create a check-out option so Roethlisberger can escape dead plays. Doing so could be the difference between finishing drives with touchdowns instead of with field goals. Or, put another way, the difference between a post-season ticket and an early ticket home.