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For the Steelers to make the playoffs, the offense must run through Ben Roethlisberger

The Steelers’ playoff hopes remain alive, but if they want to get to the dance, and do some damage, the offense needs to run through Big Ben.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers kept their playoff hopes alive on Sunday with a comeback win over the Tennessee Titans, scoring the final 16 points in a 19-13 victory.

The decision puts Pittsburgh at 7-6-1, just outside the current playoff picture. With games remaining against the Chiefs, Browns and Ravens, all of whom are playoff contenders, they control their own destiny. Winning all three contests would surely lock up a wild card or even division title for the Steelers. Winning two of three could get them in, too, depending how the chips fall elsewhere in the AFC. One way or another, it’s going to be an exciting finish.

To meet the challenge of qualifying for the post-season, the Steelers must re-think their approach on offense. The unit has struggled all year but reached a new low against Tennessee. They mustered just 168 yards on 45 plays for an average of 3.7 yards per play. They earned just 12 first downs and 35 yards rushing. They were 2-of-11 on 3rd down. The victory was earned on the back of an opportunistic defense that produced four turnovers, each of which handed Pittsburgh the ball in Tennessee territory. The offense could not take advantage, however, and settled for Chris Boswell field goals on all four possessions. While Boswell’s kicks inevitably won the game, the inability of the offense to reach the end zone on a single opportunity the defense provided was, in a word, discouraging.

While the offense struggled from start to finish against Tennessee, they have been particularly bad over the past month in first halves. Pittsburgh has scored just one touchdown in the first half in their last five games. Their first half possessions over that stretch have gone like this:

FG, turnover on downs, TD, interception, FG, punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, FG, missed FG, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, FG, missed FG.

That’s 23 possessions amounting to 13 punts, four field goals, two missed field goals, two interceptions, one touchdown and a turnover on downs. Their 19 total points in 23 possessions equates to a points-per-drive average of 0.82. In a league where the best offenses earn 2.5 points per drive or better, and where the average is about 2.2, the Steelers’ first-half numbers have been well below the line.

The numbers have been even worse on their initial drive of the second half. The Steelers have punted on every opener the past five weeks and have scored just 6 points in 9 possessions since reaching the end zone against Denver in Week 5.

Things pick up considerably around the middle of the 3rd quarter, however. Over the past five weeks, excluding their opening drive, the Steelers have scored 95 points on 26 second-half possessions. That’s 3.65 points-per-drive. NFL teams average about 11 drives per game. At a clip of 3.65 points-per-drive, then, the Steelers would score 42 points per contest if they could somehow sustain this rate for an entire game.

This is unrealistic, of course, for reasons we’ll examine shortly. But it provides a stark and interesting contrast to the previous numbers. Here they are again, side-by-side, for comparison’s sake:

1st half + opening drive of 2nd half, last 5 weeks: 28 possessions, 19 points, 0.67 points-per-drive, approximately 7 points per 60 minutes.

2nd possession of 2nd half through end of game, last 5 weeks: 26 possessions, 95 points, 3.65 points-per-drive, approximately 42 points per 60 minutes.

What a difference.

To what can this be attributed? First, in their games against the Chargers and Vikings, the Steelers trailed significantly by the middle of the third quarter. Minnesota led 29-0 while Los Angeles built a 27-10 lead. Both teams subsequently fell into soft zones on defense, thereby alleviating pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and allowing him to find open receivers. Pittsburgh’s scoring numbers are somewhat inflated by the methods those defenses employed.

A more encouraging reason for their late-game success involves the no-huddle. It’s one thing to move the ball against a soft defense when your team is down three scores. It’s another to do it in a tight contest. That’s what Pittsburgh did in their 20-19 win over Baltimore, when the offense put up 17 fourth-quarter points with Roethlisberger calling most of the plays at the line. Roethlisberger went 11-12 for 142 yards and two touchdowns while running the no-huddle throughout.

Herein lies the key to Pittsburgh’s success these next three weeks. With so little time remaining, there’s not much they can do to change things from a personnel standpoint. They are who they are. The line is bad, the quarterback is immobile, the receivers struggle to separate from coverage and the running back looks like he may have hit the fabled “rookie wall.” What to do, then? How can they possibly change their approach as they head into the most crucial stretch of the season?

The answer is fairly clear. Turn things over to Roethlisberger.

It’s a gamble, of course. While Roethlisberger has played well over the past month, he’s 39 years old, has limited mobility and plays behind a bad offensive line. Asking him to carry the offense is a risky proposition.

Then there’s the question of what elevating Roethlisberger to de facto play-caller would do to Matt Canada. While Canada has certainly struggled in his first season as coordinator, the situation he inherited includes all the limitations cited above plus the fact Roethlisberger is a poor fit for his preferred system. Canada and Roethlisberger were always an odd couple, with the former’s reliance on pre-snap movement, play-action and read-options clashing with the latter’s preference for keeping defenders as static as possible. Is it fair to neuter Canada without ever providing him the tools to be successful?

Finally, there’s the question of what “turning the offense over to Roethlisberger” would look like. The simplest answer is to let him call more plays from the line. But the Steelers may not have enough offense in their no-huddle repertoire to operate that way for an extended period. No-huddle packages tend to be limited to what a team can execute in specific situations. They contain few personnel changes, little in the way of shifts or motions and schemes that are fairly basic. Asking the Steelers to operate this way for 60 minutes may be unrealistic.

These are all legitimate concerns. The alternative, however, is worse. When the Steelers execute their structured offense, meaning plays where calls are scripted or communicated from the huddle, the numbers are pedestrian. Over the past five games, they look like this:

Plays: 238

Total Yards: 1,107

Yards Per Play: 4.6 (league average - 5.45)

By contrast, here are the numbers over that same time on plays called from a no-huddle tempo:

Plays: 57

Total Yards: 358

Yards Per Play: 6.3

The sample size is much smaller from the no-huddle, of course. The Steelers have called about 80% of their plays from a structured fashion and only about 20% from the line of scrimmage. A larger percentage of no-huddle plays could potentially reduce its effectiveness.

Or maybe not. Maybe it would allow Roethlisberger more freedom and a chance to play from his comfort zone. He did so against Baltimore, running 13 no-huddle plays for 115 yards. Against Minnesota, he ran 14 for 102 yards. Against the Chargers, it was 11 for 91. In each instance, the Steelers scored points off of drives from which they predominantly operated on-the-ball. While softer defensive structures helped at times, Baltimore mostly played their base defense against the no-huddle. Los Angeles eventually abandoned their cover-2 and brought the blitz. Roethlisberger had success against each.

Oddly, the Steelers used the no-huddle on just four plays against Tennessee last week. Two came on their only touchdown drive of the afternoon. They ran no snaps from this tempo on the three drives that produced Chris Boswell field goals following Tennessee’s second half turnovers. Perhaps, in a close game, with their defense playing well, they were content to burn clock and play for field position. The no-huddle had served them well in previous weeks, though, so its exclusion from the game-plan is confounding.

Here’s one other argument to suggest more no-huddle could work in Pittsburgh’s favor. Pittsburgh’s struggles in first halves and on their initial possession of the second half have largely been a product of predictable play-calling. Here are their calls in these situations over the past five games:

Plays: 146

Yards: 539

Yards-Per-Play: 3.7

Runs (49) Harris (38), Snell/Ballage (6), WRs (5)

Passes (97) 0-5 air yards (66); 6-10 air yards (3); 11-20 air yards (2); 20+ air yards (18); sacks (8).

Those 146 snaps amassed 539 total yards for an average of 3.7 yards per play. This is well below the league average of 5.45 yards per play and below the Steelers’ average of 5.0. With 110 of their 146 calls (75%) either an inside run to a back or a pass traveling 5 yards or less beyond the line of scrimmage, defenses feel emboldened to load the box, crowd Pittsburgh’s receivers and get aggressive.

Out of the no-huddle, the Steelers are slightly less predictable. Of their 57 no-huddle plays the past five weeks, their calls include:

Runs (24): Harris (22), Snell (2)

Passes (33): 0-5 air yards (16); 6-10 air yards (10); 11-20 air yards (3); 20+ air yards (2); sacks (2)

Here, 40 of 57 plays are inside runs or short passes. That’s still a high percentage (70%). What’s interesting, though, is how often they attack the intermediate zones. 13 of their 33 passes from the no-huddle traveled between 6-20 air yards. That’s a rate of 39%. In their base offense, only 5 of 97 throws targeted this area of the field (5%). Because defenses are more aggressive against Pittsburgh’s base, they play more Cover-1 and press-man. The middle of the field is closed against these looks, so the Steelers throw low-percentage jump balls instead (18 of 97 passes). Against the no-huddle, teams play more two-high looks. This eliminates the sideline jump-ball but opens up hook, curl and dig routes that attack the void in the middle. Roethlisberger has taken advantage by being more patient in the pocket and attacking these areas more often.

The numbers speak for themselves. The Steelers average more yards-per-play running no-huddle than not, and more points-per-drive from the mid-third quarter on, when they’re more likely to use the no-huddle. That last point, “from the mid-third quarter on,” is telling. Of the 57 no-huddle snaps charted above, only four came in the first half or first possession of the second half. The Steelers generally reserve their use of the no-huddle for the final 20-25 minutes of the contest. With the success they’ve had with it, why not deploy it earlier?

The closest Pittsburgh has come to basing out of the no-huddle was in the second half of their 2020 game against Indianapolis, where Roethlisberger threw three second-half touchdowns to rally them from 17 points down to a 28-24 victory. The Steelers went no-huddle on nearly all of their second-half snaps in that game. They have not returned to that style of offense since.

Nor do I think they will now. My sense is they are committed to “doing what they do” and will run their traditional game plan the final three weeks with the hope they can execute better. I think that’s a fool’s errand. With 14 games in the books, it’s wishful thinking to expect the offense to suddenly click because the playoffs are on the line. The Steelers will have to make tangible change to find greater success. With no personnel options to speak of, that change must come from their philosophy.

A greater commitment to the no-huddle, or to giving Roethlisberger more freedom to run the offense, undoubtedly comes with risk. But the price of doing nothing is riskier. The Steelers should turn things over to their veteran signal-caller these final few weeks, live with the results and never look back.