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Big bodies, fresh faces and young legs propel Steelers to win over the Saints

The Pittsburgh Steelers left Week 10 with a win, but it was the way they won which was truly decisive.

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Steelers beat the Saints 20-10 on Sunday, dominating the stat sheet, if not the scoreboard. Pittsburgh won in total yards 379-186, in 1st downs 28-10, and possessed the ball for nearly 39 of the game’s 60 minutes. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how big personnel on offense, fresh faces on defense and Kenny Pickett’s young legs contributed to their third victory of the season.

Go Big or Go Home

One of the crucial questions coming out of the bye week involved how the offense would fill the void created by the trade that sent receiver Chase Claypool to Chicago. With Pittsburgh basing out of 11-personnel — one running back, one tight end and three receivers — would they simply plug in another receiver and carry on as usual? Or would they find another solution, like swapping one of the receivers for a second tight end?

On our “Here We Go: The Steelers Pre-Game Show” podcast, Bryan Anthony Davis and I discussed this very question. I lobbied for a heavier dose of 12-personnel, arguing the Steelers could help their ailing run game by adding a second tight end and creating an extra run gap. 12-personnel would force New Orleans to declare early with their safeties, meaning they would either have to drop one into the box to defend the extra gap or stay two-high, giving the Steelers a favorable run look. This would have the added benefit of helping quarterback Kenny Pickett by simplifying his pre-snap read of the defense.

Perhaps Matt Canada was listening. The Steelers used plenty of 12-personnel early to get the run game going. Najee Harris was particularly effective, with 5 carries for 55 yards in the 1st quarter, including this 35-yard burst from a 12-personnel wing formation.

The jet motion from Steven Sims (82) drew the attention of the Saints’ linebackers, who stepped in his direction. This gave Connor Heyward time to pull from the wing and insert himself at the second level, where he teamed with Dan Moore Jr. to seal the backside. When safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) ran too far up the field, Harris found a seam and was into the secondary, where he trucked a defensive back before being run out of bounds.

The fact Mathieu was playing at linebacker level was a product of the big grouping Canada used. 12-personnel forces safeties into uncomfortable roles as primary run-fitters. Pittsburgh was able to take advantage.

At times, the Steelers used George Pickens as a de facto second tight end, reducing him down and having him seal the backside edge on run plays. Below, we see the 6’3” Pickens aligned on the left end of the line, stepping down to block 6’5”-270-pound defensive end Carl Granderson (96). It was by no means a devastating block by Pickens, but his alignment widened Granderson and kept him from coming inside. As the game wore on, Harris authored several runs like this one, where he squared his shoulders, hit the center of the line and made good yardage. Pickens served as an adequate substitute when Canada wanted to stay with his three-receiver package while creating the effect of a bigger grouping:

Canada also got creative with his big personnel. On one snap late in the 2nd quarter, he aligned in a 12-personnel empty set, one of my favorite formations in football. The matchups this creates are irresistible. It’s nearly impossible for a defense to account for the combination of size and speed in the routes, or should they empty the box to load up against the pass, to defend a quarterback who can run.

The Saints went with zero-coverage, then blitzed the edges while dropping a couple of linemen in an attempt to fool Pickett. Pickett saw there was no safety in the middle of the field, so he wisely targeted Diontae Johnson, who was running a slant to his right. Johnson won inside and would have been off to the races had he not been interfered with:

Canada never came back to this exact look despite the fact it created a big-play opportunity for the Steelers. He did, however, continue to spread the field from 12-personnel, which allowed him to dictate matchups.

In the 3rd quarter, pinned deep in Pittsburgh territory, he detached both Heyward and Pat Freiermuth, using his tight ends like big receivers, to get the Steelers out of trouble. The formation forced New Orleans to play with soft corners to protect against deep out-breaking routes, and Pickett found Heyward in the flat. This play kick-started a long drive that culminated in a Matthew Wright field goal that put the Steelers up, 13-10.

Then, on their 4th quarter touchdown drive, Canada went to 12-personnel on 3rd and 6 inside the red zone, splitting both Heyward and Freiermuth out wide. This created space for Jaylen Warren in the flat where, as he often does, he ran through contact to earn a 1st down:

Three plays later, Canada got Freiermuth isolated on a cornerback, where he drew a pass interference call to set up the touchdown:

Best of all, when the Steelers got the ball at their own 26-yard line with 4:23 remaining, protecting their 20-10 lead, they lined up almost exclusively in 12-personnel and pounded the football, running nine straight times for 43 yards before Pickett took a couple of knees to run out the clock. They were able to run from this grouping even when New Orleans expected it. That represents huge progress for this offense.

I don’t have exact numbers on how the Steelers fared using two tight ends, but the package certainly passed the eye test. Canada was able to run well out of condensed sets and throw well when he spread things out. With a budding star in Freiermuth, a versatile player in Heyward and a physical run-blocker in Zach Gentry, Canada can mix his big personnel creatively. Hopefully, he’ll do more of this as the season progresses.

Welcome Back

Pittsburgh’s defense received a huge boost with the return of three prominent players. Damontae Kazee made his Steelers debut after missing the first eight games with an arm injury. T.J. Watt had been sidelined with a pec injury since Week 1, when he helped the defense to a dominating seven-sack, five-interception performance at Cincinnati. Larry Ogunjobi’s time away was much shorter — he missed only the Week 8 game at Philadelphia — but the Eagles averaged 5.6 yards per rush in his absence. All three made significant contributions in the victory over the Saints.

Watt’s presence seemed to energize everyone in the stadium. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year wasted little time making an impact. On New Orleans’ first play from scrimmage, Watt (90), swam inside the block of tight end Adam Trautman (82) to stuff Alvin Kamara for no gain:

Watt’s stamina wasn’t all there, and he tired as the game progressed. He finished with four tackles and recorded no sacks. But his impact was felt in the way New Orleans was forced to account for him. They rotated their protection towards him, often double-teaming him or using a tight end or running back to chip him before releasing on their route. The attention paid to Watt freed up his partner on the other side of the ball, Alex Highsmith. Highsmith had five tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a tackle-for-loss in his best game since — not coincidentally — Week 1, when he sacked Joe Burrow three times.

On this play, you can see how New Orleans assigned both their right guard and right tackle to Watt, while Highsmith operated one-on-one against left tackle James Hurst (74). Highsmith beat Hurst easily with a wicked spin move:

Highsmith has now recorded five sacks in the two games Watt has played, and 3.5 sacks in the seven he did not. It’s a safe bet Highsmith’s production will accelerate now that Watt has returned.

Kazee impacted the contest as well. Other than a disappointing stretch at the end of the first half when the Steelers fell back into a soft cover-2 and Kazee couldn’t get over top of a couple of sideline vertical routes, he provided the ball-hawking presence for which he was known in his previous stops in Atlanta and Dallas.

Kazee’s interception of this Andy Dalton pass early in the 4th quarter set the Steelers up in great field position for their final touchdown drive. Aligned just outside the far hash at the 44-yard line, Kazee did a nice job reading Dalton’s eyes as he came off the post from his inside receiver and tried to hit the dig underneath it. Kazee drove on Dalton’s throw, then executed a textbook tip drill where he followed the ball off of the receiver’s hands into his own. Corner Levi Wallace provided a nice assist here by forcing the receiver to go outside on his stem, thus compressing the route towards Kazee:

Kazee showed he’s more than just a ball-hawk by playing physically as well. He flattened receiver Chris Olave with a big hit just before halftime that was flagged as a hit-on-a-defenseless-receiver. From this angle, and from a better one shown on the television broadcast, it appears Kazee went shoulder-to-shoulder on Olave. The hit looks bad because Kazee strikes high, but this was good, physical football. While the league is emphasizing safety, I have no problem with how Kazee played this. Nor, I suspect, does Mike Tomlin.

Ogunjobi wasn’t as noticeable as Watt or Kazee. But he gave Cam Heyward, who was his typical relentless self, a reliable playing partner on the line. Ogunjobi’s fingerprints were all over the fact the Saints rushed for just 29 yards and averaged 1.9 yards per carry. He was at the center of two big stops in the 4th quarter, when New Orleans, on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1, couldn’t make a foot on consecutive runs by Kamara and Dalton. Watt makes Highsmith better, and Ogunjobi does the same for Heyward. That’s a scary proposition for Steelers’ opponents.

Leg Man

The Steelers rushed for 217 yards — the first time since 2016 they’ve eclipsed 200 in a game — and did so by spreading the carries around. The backs had 141 yards and the receivers added 25. Pickett was a factor, too, contributing 51 yards on an assortment of runs. This was his best, where he stepped up through the pocket into a vacated middle and scrambled for 23 yards:

Pickett is sneaky-fast in the open field, and he knows when to push for extra yards and when to get down. He’s not a Lamar Jackson-type runner by any stretch, but he’s big and mobile enough that Canada can use him on designed runs if he wants. That’s precisely what he did in the 2nd quarter, calling for a power-read play where Pickett rode Warren while reading an unblocked defensive end. Pickett could hand the ball to Warren on an outside run or pull it and follow guard James Daniels inside based on the end’s movement. The execution was clunky — Pickett stumbled as he pulled the ball and lurched forward for a modest gain — but the concept was excellent. Canada should absolutely work towards these types of runs with Pickett. Buffalo uses them to great effect with Josh Allen, as does Dallas with Dak Prescott. Because defenses cannot account for quarterbacks in the run game, these types of read-options can wreak havoc on their run fits. A few of these per game, in the right situations, could really back defenses off and make them wary of Pickett as a runner.

Pickett remains antsy in the pocket, and he still misses open receivers by looking to bail out too soon. But his young legs are an asset. If the Steelers can get him trained properly on when to use them, they could provide a dimension this offense has lacked for years.

And Out…

Pittsburgh has now won six straight games coming out of the bye, and Mike Tomlin is 12-4 overall after byes since becoming head coach in 2007. Tomlin is also 10-5-1 in season-openers, and 3-2 in post-season games (including the Super Bowl) where a bye or extra week is involved. That’s 25-11-1 overall. It seems pretty clear that if you give Tomlin extra time to prepare for an opponent, the results are favorable.

Too bad these opportunities only come a few times each year...