Ben Roethlisberger took the field for the first time in 2021 on Saturday night in the Steelers’ third pre-season game against the Detroit Lions. It was also the first glimpse Pittsburgh fans got of a Roethlisberger-led offense under new coordinator Matt Canada. The results, in a word, were spectacular. Roethlisberger went 8-10 for 137 yards while producing two touchdowns in three drives. While the numbers were impressive, the ease with which he operated Canada’s system was equally so.
Before we dive in and examine what transpired, a quick note about how I’ve formatted this article. This is written in the same fashion I use when breaking down film. Generally, whether it’s for my work at BTSC or an opponent for whom I’m game-planning, I use a notebook-style approach that charts basic information like personnel groups and formations while supplementing it with information that might be useful in some way. I’ve done the same here, and have added explanations to my notes where necessary. If you like the format, let me know in the comments and perhaps I’ll revisit it at some point. If not, let me know that as well. Tis the pre-season, after all. Time to find out what works and what doesn’t.
1ST POSSESSION - 15:00 1st quarter, 0-0
(A false start by LT Chuks Okorafor on the first play put the Steelers in a 1st and 15. It’s the second false start on Okorafor in as many weeks and wiped out what would have been a decent gain on a quick throw to Diontae Johnson),
Play #1: 1st and 15, -20 yard line, MOF (middle of field)
Personnel: 11 (Ebron TE; Johnson, Washington, Smith-Schuster WR; Harris RB)
Formation: 2x2 with motion to 3x1 bunch; DJ solo on backside.
Play/Result: Smash concept vs 2-high. Complete to Washington for +3.
Notes: Call was a traditional cover-2 beater with Ebron running the corner and Johnson and Washington working underneath. Receivers wound up in the same area. One appears to have run the wrong route. DJ’s body language suggests it was Washington.
Play #2: 2nd and 12, -23, RH (right hash)
Personnel: 11 (Gentry for Ebron at TE)
Formation: 2x2 with TE to the boundary.
Play/Result: Power to TE; Harris for +8.
Notes: Great line surge. RG Turner good push on the 1-tech. RT Banner great block on the backside backer. Excellent pull from LG Dotson. Physical run by Harris.
Play #3: 3rd and 4, -31, RH
Personnel: 11 (Ebron for Gentry)
Formation: 2x2 with shift to 3x1 bunch to the field; DJ solo on backside.
Play/Result: Quick outs taken away by Detroit; pressure forces Roethlisberger to scramble. Throw to Ebron at midfield. Dropped, INC.
Notes: Okorafor beat easily on a dip-and-rip move (see GIF below). He needs to anchor and be stronger. The drop by Ebron. Ugh. BTSC Open Thread must have exploded. Nice play-extension by Ben. Looked like his younger self. Good to see he can still do it but not sure the Steelers want that in pre-season.
Drive Totals: 3 plays, 6 yards, Punt
2ND POSSESSION - 11:14, 1st quarter, 0-0
Play #1: 1st and 10, -18, LH
Personnel: 11 (Ebron TE with Harris RB and same receivers)
Formation: 2x2 with yo-yo motion from JJSS in the slot.
Play/Result: Inside zone left; Harris for -1.
Notes: Playside 3-tech sheds block of LG Dotson at line of scrimmage. Center K. Green too fast climbing off of the double-team on the backside 1-tech. The 1-tech beats RG Turner across his face as a result. Both DTs collapse the cutback lane, Harris swallowed up by backside pursuit.
Play #2: 2nd and 11, -17,
Formation: 3x1 to field with Ebron shifting to 2x2.
Play/Result: Stick concept — double speed-outs to the open end, OTB (over-the-ball) with Ebron. Complete to Washington, +8.
Notes: 2nd and long so Canada runs a quick concept to create 3rd and short. Strategy is successful. Nice catch by Washington using his hands on a ball thrown hard and away from his body.
Play #3: 3rd and 3, -18, RH
Personnel: 11 (Freiermuth for Ebron)
Formation: Empty; stack to the boundary, trips to the field.
Play/Result: 4-Verts with a shallow cross from Harris; complete to Johnson for +43.
Notes: Nice ball from Ben. Johnson (top of the screen below) smokes CB Okudah by attacking his pre-snap leverage then bursting across his face. No small-ball from Canada on 3rd and 3. Shades of Bruce Arians.
Play #4: 1st and 10, +32, RH
Formation: 3x1 bunch to the field, DJ solo on backside.
Play/Result: Play-action pass. Roethlisberger looking downfield but everything is covered. Throws the check down to Harris. High throw, INC.
Notes: Nice idea from Canada here. He has some momentum and tries to capitalize with play-action. He’s trying to pull in the backers with the run fake and throw behind them (looks like Ben wanted Juju on a deep cross). Nothing there, though, so Ben threw the check down, which was also covered. Good call from Canada, better defense from Detroit.
Play #5: 2nd and 10, +32, RH
Formation: 2x2 with bunch looks to both sides; Juju motion to 3x1 bunch to the field.
Play/Result: Man-beaters vs. cover-1 look; Option route to Harris complete for +7.
Notes: Detroit shows blitz and Roethlisberger sees it. He identifies a linebacker in 1-on-1 coverage versus Harris out of the backfield. Harris has an option route. The backer sits outside so Harris breaks opposite. Easy throw and catch.
Play #6: 3rd and 3, +25, RH
Personnel: 11 (Ebron for Freiermuth at TE)
Formation: 3x1 bunch to the field, DJ solo on backside.
Play/Result: Mesh route with a flat concept from Juju. Complete, +11.
Notes: Detroit brings a nickel blitz from the field. Roethlisberger sees it immediately and throws hot to Juju. Nice finish by Juju on the run gaining 5 yards after contact.
Play #7: 1st and 10, +14, LH
Formation: 2x2, TE to the boundary, Juju in the slot.
Play/Result: Zone right insert with Ebron coming inside to block LB; Harris for +6.
Notes: Strong playside blocks from Green and Turner. Good block from Ebron coming inside to cover up backside LB. Another tough run from Harris. He almost always falls forward after contact. Not sure I like the wrinkle with Juju faking bubble to widen the alley player. I’d rather have Juju just block him.
Play #8: 2nd and 4, +8, RH
Personnel: 11 (Freiermuth for Ebron)
Formation: 2x2 with TE to boundary; Roethlisberger under center for 1st time. Juju yo-yo motion.
Play/Result: Counter-Gap left. Harris for -3.
Notes: Turner slow on the pull and stuffed by the 5-tech with a nice wrong-arm. Harris bounces off of Turner and is dropped by run-blitzer off the backside edge. Turner looks like he can still bully people at the point of attack in the run game. But he pulls like late-career Ramon Foster.
Play #9: 3rd and 7, +11, RH
Formation: 2x2, bunch sets to both sides.
Play/Result: Mesh concept with Harris crossing out of the backfield with Washington. Freiermuth running “high hole” between the LBs. Roethlisberger to Freiermuth — TOUCHDOWN!
Notes: Vintage pump fake from Roethlisberger and then a dart to Freiermuth, who makes a great leaping catch. Nice pass pro from the OL allows Ben to step up in the pocket after the pump fake. Freiermuth with a nifty double move on the safety to get open.
Drive Totals: 9 plays, 82 yards, Touchdown
3RD POSSESSION - 5:10 1st quarter, 7-0 Steelers
Play #1: 1st and 10, -42, LH
Personnel: 12 (DJ and Juju WR, Ebron and Gentry TE); Moore in at RT for Banner
Formation: Heavy with both TEs to the boundary, DJ and Juju bunched to the field; Roethlisberger under center.
Play/Result: Play-action fake to Harris, Roethlisberger looking for the deep shot, checks it down to Harris. Complete for +46.
Notes: A two-yard checkdown becomes a 46 yard gain because of hard running after the catch by Harris, terrible tackling from Detroit and a nice cut-off block from Ebron (see GIF below). Watch the awful effort from #44 on Detroit while pursuing Harris. That’s losing football.
Play #2: 1st and 10, +12, RH
Personnel: 11 (Washington for Ebron, McFarland for Harris at RB)
Formation: 3x1 bunch to the field, DJ solo to the boundary.
Play/Result: Zone right, McFarland for +3.
Notes: Butt-kicking block from Gentry as he washes the 5-tech into the A-gap. Hard run from McFarland for a tough 3 yards.
Play #3: 2nd and 7, +9, MOF
Personnel: 11 (Ebron for Gentry at TE)
Formation: Nub Trips (3 receivers to the left, TE solo to the right).
Play/Result: Jet motion to the TE side to DJ, +1.
Notes: Curious call coming out of a timeout. Steelers were clearly outnumbered to the TE side. Safety came unblocked to make the tackle. First call of the night by Canada that had me scratch my head.
Play #4: 3rd and 6, +8, RH
Personnel: 11 (Harris for McFarland at RB)
Formation: Empty, Harris in the slot with DJ to the boundary, TE/trips to the field.
Play/Result: Freiermuth on a double move to the back of the end zone - TOUCHDOWN!
Notes: Another great ball from Ben but what a route and catch by the TE. Freiermuth beats man-coverage from #44 with a great head fake (that’s karma for not hustling earlier; rough drive for 44). Ball is on Freiermuth’s back shoulder and he opens his hips and snatches it. Hyperbole alert: this kid is great!
Drive Totals: 4 plays, 58 yards, Touchdown
First, the numbers: 3 drives with Roethlisberger, 16 plays, 146 yards, 9.1 yards per play, 14 points. There were 2 explosive plays (20+ yards) and the offense went 4-5 on 3rd downs with the only failed conversion the result of a dropped pass.
The 3rd down conversions were largely a product of Roethlisberger’s ability to diagnose Detroit’s defense. He located Johnson one-on-one on the 4-Verts to get the first TD drive going. He threw hot against the blitz to Juju to pick up another 3rd down. And he found favorable matchups with Freiermuth on both TDs to convert two others. To say he looked sharp would be an understatement.
Freiermuth, of course, was spectacular. He is going to be a problem for linebackers and safeties alike. His route running was excellent and his ability to elevate and track the football above his head makes for a huge catch radius. He may be the best receiving target the Steelers have had at tight end since... well, I don’t know. I’m having a hard time coming up with someone comparable.
The Freiermuth-Ebron-Gentry tight end trio could be really good. Ebron dropped that ball on the first drive but rebounded to throw some nice blocks and add 4 catches for a team-high 59 yards. Gentry’s blocking has been remarkably good. Canada will have a multitude of options with those three.
The offensive line had a few hiccups but continued to display a physical disposition. They kept Roethlisberger clean, too, as he was not hit once. Najee Harris touched the ball 6 times and produced 63 yards.
As for Canada, he called a great game. While he didn’t mix his groups much — 15 of 16 plays were from 11 personnel — he had a good feel for what Detroit was doing defensively. He spread the ball around well (seven different players touched it on Roethlisberger’s three drives) and he shifted or motioned on almost every snap to help diagnose coverage. He incorporated some play-action while still allowing Roethlisberger to get the ball out of his hand quickly on most throws. His used an array of bunch sets to get extra blockers at the point of attack in the run game and to run picks and crossing routes in the passing game. He created favorable matchups by getting DJ singled up on the backside of 3x1 sets and Freiermuth and Najee Harris one-on-one with linebackers. Roethlisberger looked extremely comfortable. The offense hummed.
It was a stellar debut for the Roethlisberger/Canada pairing. The question now is, can they do it when the games count? We’ll find out soon enough.