I’ve been trying to write an article about everything that went wrong with the Steelers’ offense in 2020 that illustrates its failure. While I’m aware that explanations such as, “The line sucked,” or “Roethlisberger is done” may be tempting, they are but simple pieces of a broader narrative. An NFL offense is a complicated thing; reducing it to its lowest common denominator will not tell the entire story.
Unfortunately, every time I started to put my thoughts down, I realized I was beginning the “War and Peace” of BTSC articles. Most of my articles are fairly long to begin with — generally in the neighborhood of 1800 words — yet 1800 words felt like it would just scratch the surface.
Then, while re-watching the week fourteen contest against Buffalo, I came across a single play that said just about everything I had been hoping to communicate. It was only one play and yet it spoke volumes. There it was — my article, in vastly simplified form.
Here, then, I will endeavor to explain how this one play tells the tale of that frustrating Pittsburgh offense. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, make it 1800.
We begin on Pittsburgh’s second possession of the game, a 2nd and 6 play with 11:28 remaining in a scoreless first quarter. The Steelers had run five plays to that point — all passes — completing three for 20 yards. This was their first rushing attempt of the contest.
Here is the play in its entirety before we break it down:
It started with Ben Roethlisberger under center and the Steelers in a 2x2 formation. Tight end Eric Ebron lined up as an H-back into the boundary and receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool were in a two-man bunch to the field. Buffalo aligned in 4-2-5 personnel with nickel corner Taron Johnson (24) kicked to the bunch. They showed a pre-snap two-high shell with the alignment of the corners (outside leverage) suggesting cover-2:
Buffalo’s pre-snap alignment reveals the first problem with the Steelers’ offense. Roethlisberger finished 29th in yards-per-pass-attempt in 2020. His diminished deep-ball capability hampered the offense by emboldening safeties who were not worried about him throwing over their heads to crowd the box. As evidence, look at their alignment above. Buffalo’s safeties are in a cover-2 shell but they are sitting at ten yards. In most cover-2 situations, safeties align anywhere from 12-15 yards. The difference is subtle but telling.
From that initial 2x2 set, Pittsburgh motioned Ebron across the formation to create a trips look to the field. The Bills responded by dropping safety Micah Hyde to become an extra box defender and rotating the opposite safety (Jordan Poyer) to a single-high look. The boundary corner slid inside on receiver Diontae Johnson, suggesting he was now locked in single coverage. Taron Johnson, the nickel corner, walked up to press Smith-Schuster:
Hyde’s presence put Buffalo in a plus-one situation. They now had eight defenders in the box against seven Pittsburgh blockers. The numbers suggested this was a bad look against which to run the football.
The reason Buffalo configured this way was because, once Ebron motioned over, they felt confident the Steelers would run. Why? Because Pittsburgh, at 85%, had the highest run-ratio in the league when they went under center. Only Baltimore (80%) was even close. The Steelers were also last in the league in play-action frequency. And, when the Steelers went heavy or 3x1 with the tight end in an “attached” alignment, they were extremely run-oriented. So, by week fourteen, the tendencies were obvious. Buffalo had little doubt this would be a run.
Naturally, this meant they would play downhill to the football. The Steelers tried to blunt their aggression with some Matt Canada-inspired jet motion from Chase Claypool. This had an unfortunate side effect, as it forced another rotation from the defense. As you can see below, Taron Johnson ran with Claypool but the motion brought Hyde closer to the line of scrimmage. This was a problem because, to account for him as a run defender, Smith-Schuster had to block him. There was simply no way he could get over fast enough to cut off Hyde. Hyde would run unblocked to the ball-carrier, which was a win for the Bills.
The lack of a play-action threat presented another problem. Look at the field-corner’s posture in the image below. He had no reservations about getting into a run fit well before Roethlisberger handed off the football. Had Smith-Schuster worked back outside off of his initial release, he would have been wide open on any type of play-action pass:
It’s easy to scheme plays in retrospect, of course. The broader point is that, as the season progressed, the predictability of Pittsburgh’s offense made defenses feel very confident in their ability to diagnose what was coming.
As for the play itself, the Steelers ran counter-gap, which has been a staple of their offense for years. On counter-gap, the play-side linemen (in this case the center, right guard and right tackle) all block the player in the immediate gap to their left. The backside guard pulls and kicks out the edge defender while a second puller (Ebron) serves as the lead blocker for the back. It is a power run concept predicated on displacing the edge player and creating movement up front.
Here, the Steelers did neither. The jet fake to Claypool failed to hold the edge (Jerry Hughes), who charged up the field at the snap. This made the kick-out block from guard Matt Feiler almost impossible:
You can see how Hughes (circled above) disregarded Claypool and compressed the hole. Had Hughes at least honored the possibility of a sweep, Feiler would have had an extra step to make his block. Why didn’t Hughes bite? It may be because, by week fourteen, the Steelers had stopped giving the ball to Claypool on these types of plays. Roethlisberger never really seemed to sign off on the pre-snap movements Canada had introduced earlier in the season. By the Buffalo game, they existed merely as window dressing. The motion did little to dissuade Hughes from bursting forward at the snap.
Also evident in the photo is the clear path of Hyde to the football. Even if Hughes had been blocked, Hyde was going to come clean on James Conner. Thus, the predictability of the Steelers in this situation created two significant problems: Buffalo got a plus-one box advantage the Steelers could not remedy; and their certainty that a run was coming allowed them to assault the line of scrimmage.
The other essential element to counter-gap is movement. Here was another area where the offense failed in 2020. The line just wasn’t good enough to push opposing defenses off the ball. So often we watched Steelers’ ball-carriers charge into the backs of their linemen like the doomed marching band from “Animal House” that was led into a brick wall by a Delta fraternity operative. To say the line was “soft” might be harsh. Clearly, however, they were not a physical unit.
On the play in question, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro were the guilty parties. Both were beaten badly despite advantageous scenarios in which to execute their blocks:
DeCastro’s angle on Vernon Butler in the A-gap should have allowed him to get movement, or at worst, to hold the gap. Instead, he was driven two yards into the backfield. Pouncey, meanwhile, had help from left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who chipped the backside 3-tech (Ed Oliver) before hinging out to block the end. Villanueva’s chip should have allowed Pouncey to seal Oliver and prevent him from affecting the play. But Pouncey never wheeled his hips, then got knocked off the block by Butler’s penetration. This allowed Oliver to cross Pouncey’s face and stuff Conner in the hole.
There is simply no way a backside 3-tech should make the tackle on a counter-gap play. Butler and Oliver are nice players but they are not superstars. They are, however, quicker and stronger than Pouncey and DeCastro at this point in their careers. The Steelers’ veterans simply got overpowered and out-muscled by younger, more aggressive defenders.
When you look at the Steelers’ starters up front, there is a glaring need for physicality. Pouncey and DeCastro have always relied more on technique and agility than outright brawn. Now though, their lack of muscle is detrimental. Villanueva is more of a technician than a mauler as well. Feiler is what he is — an undrafted free agent with position versatility more suited as a reserve. And third-year player Chuks Okorafor, who was a project when the Steelers drafted him, is still developing. The unit has done a nice job of protecting Roethlisberger and keeping him upright. But, when they need to out-muscle a defense, they simply can’t do it.
Of course, being predictable with the play-calling hasn’t helped. Nor has the running back situation, where Conner and Benny Snell Jr. have struggled. Their job was made difficult in 2020 by all of the factors noted above. However, neither back was effective at earning tough yards. Conner finished 30th in the league in yards-after-contact-per-attempt. Snell finished 37th. The Steelers weren’t particularly good at creating space for their backs. And their backs, unfortunately, weren’t particularly good without it.
What, then, does this one play tell us about the 2020 Pittsburgh offense? It exposes the glaring tendencies inherent in their play-calling. It reveals how their inability to push the football down the field emboldened opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage. It shows that by ignoring the play-action pass defenses were able to aggressively attack the run. It exposes how their offensive line was not physical enough to sustain a viable rushing attack. And, while not specifically evident here, it touches on how their backs struggled to make tough yards on their own. In this one play, we see the fatal flaws of a unit that doomed the 2020 campaign.
Fortunately, the Steelers seem to recognize these things. They have replaced several coaches, including the coordinator, and seem intent on addressing their needs on offense in the upcoming draft. They have two physical lineman in Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner who should start next season, and a new line coach in Adrian Klemm who, according to Ramon Foster, promotes an aggressive style of play. New coordinator Matt Canada is bound to bring fresh ideas to a playbook that was stale down the stretch. What happens with Roethlisberger remains to be seen but, should he return, it must be with the understanding that change is required. If the team-first attitude he’s been promoting this off-season is genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem. A re-vamped offense is essential for the Steelers to compete in 2021.