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Why 1st downs will be critical for the Steelers offense vs. the Bengals in Week 3

The Pittsburgh Steelers will need to perform better on first downs offensively to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday in an AFC North clash that, while it’s early in the season, will give the winner at least a share of the division lead (all four teams are 1-1). Before we get to that game, though, let’s look back at an issue that plagued the offense in last week’s 26-17 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.

1ST DOWN WOES

While the Steelers were decimated by injuries on defense against Vegas, their offense was the same group that played in Week 1 vs. Buffalo. A solid performance on their part was necessary for Pittsburgh to emerge victorious.

That didn’t happen. The offense stunk. The Steelers generated 331 yards, but a big chunk (130) came in the 4th quarter when they were playing catch-up. For the first three quarters, they largely resembled the unit that limped across the finish line last season. The rushing attack faltered (14 carries, 39 yards), Ben Roethlisberger failed to connect with his receivers on deep balls and they could not sustain drives. On a day when they needed to control the clock and keep the Raiders off the field, they had just one possession that lasted more than four minutes.

Buried beneath these somewhat obvious factors was something subtle yet telling. The Steelers were terrible on 1st down, forcing them to play behind the chains most of the afternoon. “Behind the chains” is a term used to describe inefficient plays that create long-yardage situations. Generally speaking, down-efficiency is perceived as follows: a 1st down play is efficient if it gains 4+ yards; a 2nd down play should generate at least half the yardage necessary for a 1st down; and a 3rd down play should convert the 1st down.

Using that metric as a gauge, the Steelers were efficient on just 41% of their 1st down plays (9 of 22). By contrast, the Raiders had a 63% 1st down efficiency rate (19 for 30). The Raiders averaged 6.4 yards per 1st down play, which often put them in 2nd and short-to-medium situations where they only had to gain a few yards to convert a 1st down or set up a makeable 3rd down.

The Steelers averaged 3.2 yards per play on 1st down. On 12 of their 22 1st downs, they gained two yards or less. This had a trickle-down effect. It consistently forced them into passing situations on 2nd down. Roethlisberger managed to connect with Chase Claypool for 52 yards on one of those snaps, but was just 9-14 for 53 yards and a sack on the others. Subsequently, they found themselves in a lot of 3rd and long situations, where they converted just 5 of 12. Their 1st down inefficiency, then, had them swimming against the tide on most of their drives.

Why were the Steelers bad on 1st down against the Raiders, and what must change this week to be successful against Cincinnati?

Let’s start with Matt Canada. While it’s early in Canada’s tenure as offensive coordinator, he’s already established a tendency he will have to break to prevent opposing defenses from teeing off on his line. When Canada uses long or jet motion from his wide receivers, the Steelers run the football. Period. They did so last year and they are doing so again this season. I know it, many people reading this know it and you can bet the Raiders knew it.

So, on Pittsburgh’s second 1st down snap of the contest last Sunday, when Juju Smith-Schuster ran jet motion from the slot across the formation, Vegas attacked. With no fear of a pass, they rolled their backers to the motion and slanted their front away from it, a classic run-blitz designed to create penetration and muddy blocking schemes. The aggressive get-off from their front put both of Pittsburgh’s rookie linemen, center Kendrick Green and left tackle Dan Moore Jr, on their heels. With nowhere to run, Najee Harris did well just to fight his way back near the line of scrimmage. The Steelers now had 2nd and 11, and the drive faltered as a result.

Canada must break this tendency going forward, especially on 1st downs. 1st down is a great play-action down, especially early in contests when defenses tend to be aggressive. Any sort of flood concept off of the motion above with tight ends Zach Gentry and Eric Ebron running the deep and intermediate routes and Smith-Schuster attacking the flat would have produced at least one open receiver as the Raiders had just two defenders (#34 and #27) to cover them. Canada will have to make this adjustment, or stop using these motions on 1st down, to avoid putting the offense behind the chains.

Canada can fix this first problem immediately. The next one may take a while. The offensive line just isn’t very good right now. That’s not something I expect to be true all season long. They are young, and they haven’t played much together, and they will get better with time. But, until they do, we may see a decent amount of plays like this one:

On this 1st down sweep, there are two problems. First, Vegas’s Maxx Crosby (98), aligned as the left defensive end, beats Gentry’s block and sets a hard edge on the play. Gentry has done a nice job as a blocker so far this season and has earned his way onto the field as a result. But his technique here is bad. He lunges at Crosby, fails to keep his weight underneath him and allows Crosby to slip the block.

Next, right tackle Chuks Okorafor whiffs on his down-block on the 4i defensive tackle. The 4i penetrates and takes away Harris’s cutback lane, forcing him to retreat deeper into the backfield, where he is tracked down for a two-yard loss. Okorafor inexplicably fires out on the tackle as though this is a drive block. On a sweep play, preventing penetration is more important than vertically displacing a down lineman. Okorafor needs to step flatter here to seal his gap. Again, technique dooms this play.

Both Gentry and Okorafor get off the ball aggressively, which has been the mandate of new line coach Adrian Klemm. That aggressiveness is nice to see. But aggression without technique is as ineffective as technique without aggression. The line will have to learn to combine both in order to improve.

Here’s one more clip. On Pittsburgh’s first snap of the second half, they took a deep shot to receiver Chase Claypool. Claypool is aligned to the bottom of the screen in the photo below. The Steelers have a good look for this call, with Vegas in single-high man coverage and the corner to Claypool shading him outside. If Claypool holds his vertical position on the route and does not get pushed inside to the numbers, where the safety can provide help, and Roethlisberger puts the ball on Claypool’s inside shoulder, the big receiver has a good chance to use his body to shield the corner and make a play:

Unfortunately, Roethlisberger misses outside. This is the right call, the right read and a good route from Claypool. It’s just bad location on the throw. This was a missed opportunity that put the Steelers in another 2nd and long situation:

The play above underscores one of the biggest problems that plagued the offense against Vegas. Though it was particularly troublesome on 1st downs, it showed up elsewhere as well. That problem is execution. Whether it was the line not using proper technique, Roethlisberger not locating well or a lapse in concentration that lead to a careless penalty (see Dionate Johnson below), the Steelers have to execute better in general and on 1st down in particular.

This type of penalty, particularly from a receiver, is simply a matter of focus.

Canada can help by scripting 1st down calls that eliminate tendencies and neutralize defenses. Take the following, for example. This may not be the prettiest bootleg you’ve ever seen, but look how the run fake gets the defense flowing, which in turn opens up the middle of the field for Claypool on the crossing route. Roethlisberger throws the out-cut to Johnson but he has Claypool open, too. Attacking the middle of the field off of play-action more often could be an effective 1st down strategy.

The drive from which this play came from was vintage Canada, by the way. The Steelers shifted, motioned, used no-huddle, ran play-action, ran an unbalanced set and ended it with a jet sweep for a touchdown. It was Pittsburgh’s best drive of the day and it was one of the only drives where the Raiders’ defense looked uncomfortable. Oddly, they never returned to this type of attack the rest of the afternoon. Canada should mix in more of these schemes going forward.

Schemes are fun to talk about, of course, but without proper execution they fall flat. How much the Steelers can improve in this regard may decide the football game on Sunday.


3 THOUGHTS ON THE BENGALS

  • Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow had a stellar opening week in the Bengals 27-24 overtime win against Minnesota. Burrow hit on 20 of 27 throws for 261 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase was his favorite target, catching 5 balls for 101 yards. Last week, however, the Bears bottled up Burrow and Chase. The young QB was a pedestrian 19-30 for 207 yards and 3 interceptions while Chase was limited to 2 catches for 54 yards.

Burrow was sacked five times in the opener, which may have prompted the Bengals to favor a shorter, quicker passing game last week. Per NextGen stats, here’s Burrow’s pass chart against the Bears:

Even with the shorter passes, the Bears sacked Burrow four times. So, how will Cincinnati attack the Steelers? Deep down the field, where Derek Carr had success last week and where Burrow was more effective in Week 1? Or, with T.J. Watt returning to the lineup, will they opt to dink and dunk again to avoid Burrow being hit?

  • Defensively, the Bengals are doing a good job of getting to the quarterback themselves. They have six sacks through two games and rank 7th in the NFL in pressure percentage (7.1). The sacks have all come from defensive linemen, with five different players responsible. This means Cincinnati is generating pressure from their base 4-3 without having to blitz, a tactic that served the Steelers well against Buffalo. This has helped Cincinnati in coverage, where they are yielding just 209 yards passing per game (9th best in the league). The challenge for the Steelers on offense, then, will be to protect Roethlisberger when Cincinnati rushes four to allow him time to find holes in their coverage.
  • It’s hard to know which Bengals team will show up on Sunday. They looked sharp in their win against Minnesota and then were terrible (on offense) against Chicago. While the final score was 20-17, they trailed the Bears by 17 points with five minutes to play. Only two late touchdowns made the final score respectable.

The same can be said of the Steelers. Pittsburgh looked like a genuine AFC contender against the Bills and like a bottom-dweller against Vegas. Both teams regressed in Week 2. The team that can bounce back, limit its mistakes and take advantage of opportunities will probably come out on top.

PREDICTION: I’m 0-2 so far, so don’t bet the ranch on my prognosticating skills. I don’t see the Steelers losing two in a row at home to open the season, however. I think they’ll pull things together just enough to win a hard-fought, scrappy affair.

Steelers 20, Bengals 16