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Breaking down the drive that helped secure an improbable playoff berth for the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are playoff bound, and it was all due to some late game heroics.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers emerged victorious in a typically gritty grudge match with the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, earning a 16-13 overtime win to end the regular season. Coupled with Jacksonville’s unlikely upset of Indianapolis, and the completely bonkers L.A. Chargers-Las Vegas game that, somehow, avoided ending in a tie that would have eliminated Pittsburgh, the win secured one of the more improbable playoffs berths in franchise history.

Now, this flawed but resilient team heads to Kansas City for a rematch with the Chiefs, where they were blown out just three weeks ago. While the task before them is daunting, most fans remember 2005, when Pittsburgh rebounded from a prime-time shellacking in Indianapolis late in the regular season to upset Peyton Manning and the Colts in the playoffs. No one should hold their breath waiting for the Steelers to knock off Kansas City, but stranger things have happened.

Pittsburgh would not be in this position without a vintage overtime drive from Ben Roethlisberger and the much-maligned offense. Roethlisberger, likely playing in his final regular season game, took the team 65 yards in 15 plays, converting 3rd and 7, 3rd and 9, and 4th and 8 situations along the way. He got huge assists from his teammates, which included excellent protection from the offensive line, a ridiculous catch and run from Najee Harris and a clutch moment from Ray-Ray McCloud. It was nerve-wracking. It was exhilarating. It was quintessential Roethlisberger.

Here’s a breakdown of the big drive that propelled the Steelers to the playoffs, and kept Roethlisberger’s career alive for at least another week.

1st and 10, ball on Pittsburgh 17 yard line, 6:24 remaining in OT

The Steelers started their overtime possession in 12 personnel, aligning with tight ends Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth in a wing to the right of the formation and Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool in a slot to the left. Najee Harris was set to the left of Roethlisberger. Baltimore played a base 3-4 with their safeties two-high:

The Steelers ran Mesh, a staple of their passing game, with Harris releasing through the line before breaking to his left, where he crossed under Johnson just shy of the 20 yard line. Baltimore’s linebackers gave the Steelers the underneath throw, and Roethlisberger had both Harris and Johnson open. He chose Harris, but missed high and behind him. Harris, though, reached back with his left hand, snared the ball, then faked Baltimore’s best tackler, Patrick Queen (6), out of his shoes before taking the ball up the left sideline for a first down:

From this angle, you can see the degree of difficulty on the catch. Had Harris been just a hair off with his reach, he could have deflected the ball into the arms of a closing Baltimore defender. Instead, he corralled it, then froze Queen with a shifty head fake. It was a huge play from the rookie that snatched success from the jaws of disaster to kick-start the drive.

3rd and 7, ball on Pittsburgh 31, 5:18 remaining

Following a short run and an incompletion, the Steelers faced 3rd and 7 from the 31. They aligned in a 2x2 set, with Freiermuth and Claypool to the boundary and Johnson and McCloud to the field. Baltimore stacked seven defenders at the line of scrimmage, but rushed only four, locking the others in press-man coverage. The Steelers ran another mesh concept with Harris and Johnson, with Harris breaking right this time. To the boundary, they ran a fade-flat combination, giving Roethlisberger options against both man and cover-two:

At the snap, Roethlisberger’s eyes went right to the boundary combo, where Freiermuth, in the slot, was covered by safety Tony Jefferson (31). Jefferson, at 5’11-210, was a mismatch against the 6’5-250 pound Freiermuth. He got into good position, though, locking on to Freiermuth’s hip. As Freiermuth made his break, it was evident only a perfect throw would yield a completion.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger complied:

From the end zone angle, we can see the precision with which this ball was placed. With Jefferson draped on Freiermuth, the only place Roethlisberger could successfully locate it was just off of Freiermuth’s body towards the boundary. That’s exactly where Roethlisberger put it:

I’d be lying if I said I could recall all the big throws Roethlisberger has made over the years. Still, this one has to rank among the best. An incompletion here may have ended the Steelers’ season. With just over 5:00 remaining, they would have punted from their own 31. In sloppy conditions, with Pressley Harvin averaging just 37 yards per kick, Baltimore was primed to take over in good field position. They would have needed just a couple of first downs to give the world’s deadliest kicker, Justin Tucker, a chance for the win.

None of that happened, though, because Roethlisberger uncorked a beauty. It more than made up for his shaky throw to Harris to start the drive. It was the throw of a man who didn’t want to lose, much less call it a career.

3rd and 9, ball on Pittsburgh 47, 3:27 to play

Two plays later, the Steelers were again in 3rd and long. This time, they aligned in a 3x1 set to the field, with Johnson alone on the backside. Baltimore showed two-high coverage, but played press-man, with the boundary safety dropping to the “rat” position in the middle of the field at the snap.

The Steelers ran a pick concept to the trips side, with Freiermuth and Gentry, the two inside receivers, clearing out for Claypool, who came underneath them in a catch-and-run scenario. Johnson, on the back side, ran a whip route:

Roethlisberger had Claypool open, but never looked at him. That’s because Johnson was singled up against Jimmy Smith (22), the veteran corner, on the other side. Smith had once been a fine player, but was now 33 years old and slowed by injuries. He was no match for Johnson, whose quickness off the ball and change-of-direction are among the best in the league. Johnson burst inside at the snap, nullifying Smith’s ability to get his hands on him. Then, once Smith committed, Johnson put on the breaks and whipped back to the boundary, where he was wide open. Roethlisberger put the ball on Johnson’s upfield shoulder, which allowed him to run with it immediately, and he bested safety Geno Stone (26) in a race to the sticks:

Johnson’s route on this play was tremendous, and Roethlisberger’s pre-snap read and throw were both spot-on. But the execution of the line should not be overlooked. While the ball was out in typically quick fashion, the line picked up Baltimore’s blitz seamlessly, giving Roethlisberger a comfortable pocket from which to throw. Harris’ block was especially impressive. He recognized where the blitz was coming from, and then, rather than waiting on it and giving the linebacker a chance to get into Roethlisberger’s face, stepped up aggressively and met him at the line of scrimmage. It was the type of play that doesn’t show up in the box score but makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. Or, said differently, the type of play Steelers’ fans have come to expect from Harris.

4th and 8, ball on Baltimore 42, 2:28 to play

The play of the game, though, came with 2:28 remaining. Following back-to-back drops, the first on a tough catch by McCloud and the second on a not-so-tough one by Johnson, Mike Tomlin elected to go for it on 4th and 8 from Baltimore’s 42-yard line. While many lauded it as a gutsy call, in reality Tomlin had no choice. A 59-yard field goal attempt by Chris Boswell, in the rain, on a soggy field, was a long-shot. And a punt would likely have resulted in the Steelers never seeing the ball again. So, under the circumstances, Tomlin made the best available decision to give the Steelers a chance to win.

They aligned in a 3x1 formation with the trips into the boundary. McCloud was in the slot, aligned between Freiermuth and Claypool. Johnson was singled up to the field. Baltimore played cover-2 with their corners and safeties while working a bracket coverage to the trips with the slot-corner and inside backer, both of whom are circled in the photo below. The backer, who bluffed a blitz before falling into coverage, was responsible for any in-cut from Freiermuth or McCloud. The slot-corner would take any out-cut:

McCloud broke inside at the 35. The slot-corner released him. The backer, however, carried Freiermuth further up the seam than he should have. This let McCloud slip underneath, where Roethlisberger spotted him. McCloud made a nice catch on a low ball that Roethlisberger barely squeezed past the outstretched arm of 6’8 defensive tackle Calais Campbell. The throw did not allow McCloud to run after the catch. Still, with the backer out of position, he backpedaled across the first down marker, giving the Steelers their biggest conversion of the season:

From there, Harris ripped off a 15-yard run to penetrate the red zone. The Steelers then sent out their own star kicker, Chris Boswell, who did this:

Cue the celebration. Boswell was mobbed by his teammates, and the camera cut to Roethlisberger on the sideline, who thanked his guardian angels:

Boswell’s kick ended things in Baltimore, but the drama wasn’t over. Eight hours later, at just past midnight on the east coast, Las Vegas’s Daniel Carlson hit a 47-yard field goal as the clock expired in overtime to end the madness between the Chargers and Raiders. The contest saw Los Angeles convert seven straight opportunities on plays where a failure would have ended the game, with an average of more than 11 yards to go on each. Had the game finished in a tie, the Steelers would have been eliminated. Miraculously, it did not.

For Roethlisberger, that seems fitting. It’s rarely been easy for him. He’s not flashy, and his style has always been more grit than polish. In the end, though, he’s usually managed to get the job done. He did so again on Sunday, and the Steelers, improbably, are going to the playoffs.