The Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 24-17 on Monday night in a game that was closer than it should have been. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how smart run designs from Matt Canada and the Kenny Pickett-to-George Pickens connection helped overcome some self-inflicted wounds to earn the victory.
The Steelers were incredibly balanced on offense against the Colts. They threw the ball 28 times for 174 yards and ran it 36 times for 172 yards. The run game was especially impressive, as Pittsburgh averaged 4.8 yards per rush against a stingy Indianapolis defensive front. They did so by incorporating all three of their running backs into the rotation effectively. Najee Harris had 35 yards on 10 rushes before exiting before halftime with an abdominal strain. Benny Snell Jr. got his first carries of the season and looked good, running for 62 yards on 12 attempts. Anthony McFarland, who was elevated from the practice squad to replace the injured Jaylen Warren, added 30 yards on 6 runs. Pickett chipped in, too, contributing 32 yards on a series of scrambles and designed runs, giving the Steelers four rushers with 30+ yards in the same game for the first time since...well, I don’t know. It feels like forever.
The run concept Matt Canada dialed up again and again was the wham play. Wham runs involve offensive linemen blocking away from a designated interior defender, who is then trapped or accounted for by a blocker coming from outside the box. This can be a tight end, an off-set fullback or a wide receiver.
Canada wasted no time incorporating the wham play into his game plan. On the first snap from scrimmage, he called one for Harris. Pittsburgh zone-blocked to the left with their five interior linemen, while tight end Zach Gentry, who aligned next to right tackle Chuks Okorafor, turned out the edge player. This created a bubble in the B-gap, which was filled by receiver Cody White (15), who wrapped around from the left wing:
Canada used jet motion by slot receiver Gunner Olszewski to move the linebackers and White picked up the safety, who came down late with the motion. Harris slammed the ball into the backside A-gap for a seven-yard gain.
Later, the Steelers ran a different version of Wham, using Gentry to trap a defensive tackle. They executed fold concepts along the front, with linemen who were uncovered to the play side climbing to the second level while the blockers to their left pinned Indy’s down linemen:
Snell made five yards, but it could have been more had Gentry gotten his head up-field on the trap and prevented the tackle from falling back to make the play. Still, the design was effective.
The Steelers finished their lone touchdown drive of the first half with a split-zone run that closely resembled wham. Pat Freiermuth came from the right wing to kick the backside edge, while Moore and Kevin Dotson washed down the right side of Indy’s front. You can see why Canada kept dipping into this well, as Moore and Dotson had great angles on their defenders and Freiermuth an easy kick on the edge. Harris took care of the rest by running through the tackles of Indy’s unblocked defensive backs:
Canada wisely stayed with the wham scheme after the break. On Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage in the 3rd quarter, he ran it again, this time to McFarland. White again wrapped through the backside B-gap, and McFarland took the run up the gut for a nine-yard gain:
In the 4th quarter, on the touchdown drive that provided Pittsburgh’s winning margin, Snell broke loose on the same concept, keeping the run on the front side of the play rather than winding it back:
Last week, against Cincinnati, the Bengals commented after the game that they were able to stop Pittsburgh’s offense in the 2nd half because they knew what was coming. The Steelers ran the same plays over and over, linebacker Germaine Pratt said. This was true against Indy as well, as Canada dialed up wham runs repeatedly. Only the Colts never stopped them.
Pittsburgh has now rushed for 140+ yards in three of their last four contests. The improved run game is the product of several things: better cohesion along the offensive line, Harris rounding into form, and strong contributions by secondary backs like Warren, Snell and McFarland. Pickett has provided a valuable element with his legs as well. But Canada has struck the right notes with his run designs, too. The criticisms of Canada are well-deserved, but you have to give credit where credit is due. Revitalizing the rushing attack has been a boon to the offense, and Canada’s schemes have played a big part in that success.
Speaking of success, the Kenny Pickett-to-George Pickens connection that struggled to get going Pickett’s first few weeks has begun to blossom. It played a pivotal role in the win on Monday night, especially on the second half drive that helped the Steelers reclaim the lead after Indianapolis had gone in front.
Before those late heroics, Pickett found Pickens on a shot play in the 2nd quarter that broke from several of Canada’s tendencies. First, it was a successful deep ball, which has been rare this season. Also, it came off of play-action. And not just any play-action. It came from play-action while Pickett was under center. The Steelers almost exclusively run the football when Pickett goes under center, so for them to throw it here, and deep down the field no less, was a pleasant surprise. It made sense, too, given how Indy was in single-high coverage because they’d dropped a safety into the box to defend the run. With Pickens singled up outside, the look was too tempting for Canada to ignore:
Pickett did a nice job looking left after his ball fake to move the safety with his eyes. From this angle, you can see how that effected the safety just enough to prevent him from flying over to help on Pickens:
Pickens did a great job of catching the ball at a high point with his hands and then shielding it from the defender so he couldn’t knock it out. The awareness Pickens has in situations like these belies his youth and inexperience.
It was that second half scoring drive, however, where the duo really flourished. First, on what may have been the most crucial snap of the night for the offense, Pickett found Pickens on a Dagger route (a deep in) on a 3rd and 12 play just after Indy had rallied from a 16-3 deficit to take a 17-16 lead. The offense had gone 3-and-out on its first two possessions of the second half, and with all of the momentum on Indy’s side, a failure to convert would have been demoralizing. But Pickett was cool in the pocket, moving calmly to his left when he got pressure in his face so he could keep his eyes downfield and focus on his routes rather than on the rush. There, he found Pickens crossing the field from left to right and delivered a beautifully thrown ball that was low and away from the tight coverage of the defender. Pickens went down and got it, extending his hands to pluck the ball out of the air just before it hit the turf. It was a well-executed play by both rookies, and it provided a much-needed first down.
Then, following a touchdown by Snell that put the Steelers back on top, the duo connected again for a two-point conversion. Pickett looked initially to his left, where he hoped to find Snell one-on-one against a linebacker. But Indy was in a matchup zone, and with the corner squatting in the flat, Snell wasn’t an option. A scramble ensued, with Pickett escaping the pocket to his right. Pickens, who is circled in the clip below, had run a fade/wheel, and was pinned against the back pylon. As Pickett moved right, Pickens feigned like he was working towards the middle of the field. Then, abruptly, he cut back towards the pylon, creating just enough space for Pickett to wedge in another well-placed ball:
This play demonstrated good communication between the two, and an understanding on the part of Pickens of how to free himself from coverage in a scramble situation — something Pittsburgh receivers have struggled with at times. Pickens finished with just 3 catches for 57 yards on 6 targets. But the impact he made went well beyond the stat line. It’s clear Pickett looks for him in big situations now. I anticipate he may become to Pickett what Antonio Brown was to Ben Roethlisberger — the go-to guy Pickett seeks out when the offense needs a play.
To say the Steelers dominated the first half would be an understatement. Pittsburgh outgained Indy 232-71, had 16 first downs to 4 for the Colts, possessed the ball for nearly 22 of the first 30 minutes and moved inside Indy’s 40-yard line on all five of their possessions. They led 16-3, but it felt like it should have been more.
That’s because the Steelers, as they have done so often this season, left points on the board by committing SIW’s — self-inflicted wounds. They came in an array of shapes and sizes — communication errors, penalties, poor execution. This play derailed a 1st quarter drive that began in plus territory after James Pierre intercepted Matt Ryan on Indy’s second play from scrimmage. It was a sack of Pickett on 3rd down from the +26 yard line that lost 12 yards and pushed the Steelers out of field goal range. You can see from the photo below that the protection scheme the Steelers used on the play — a full slide to the right — did not account for edge rusher Yanick Ngakoue (circled).
To block Ngakoue, Pittsburgh needed to keep in either tight end Connor Heyward (83) or McFarland, the back to Pickett’s left. Both, however, released down the field, with Heyward running a wheel route and McFarland a pivot. Pickett looked at McFarland as Ngakoue closed in, but McFarland had not yet made his break. Pickett had no choice but to duck and take a sack.
It’s hard to know why this play failed. The onus may have been on Pickett to tell McFarland to block Ngakoue. Or it may have been on McFarland to recognize that Ngakoue was unaccounted for and to look for the ball quicker. Either way, it was a self-inflicted wound that likely cost the Steelers points.
Here’s another, from later in the first half. Leading 13-3 with just over a minute to play, the Steelers had 3rd and goal from the +7-yard line. Pickens aligned as the inside receiver in a trips set to the field, where he ran a corner route. He was wide open towards the back of the end zone, but Pickett made one of his few poor throws of the night and missed him. The Steelers left more meat on the bone by settling for a field goal.
In the second half, Cam Sutton made what could have been a devastating error by extending an Indianapolis drive by jumping off-sides on a field goal attempt on 4th-and-4. The Steelers led 16-10 at the time, and the Colts eventually moved to the 1-yard line before making a huge mistake of their own and fumbling the ball back to Pittsburgh. Sutton’s SIW could have turned out far worse.
There were others. A holding penalty on Moore derailed a promising opening drive that ended in a field goal when it looked like the Steelers would march down and score six. And on the 89-yard kickoff return that opened the second half and started Indy’s comeback, Pittsburgh’s coverage team ran down the field at the same level, failing to squeeze to the ball. Return man Dallis Flowers had to pop just one seam before he was off to the races.
No one expects the Steelers to play perfectly, but when they leave points on the board on offense and create scoring opportunities for their opponent on special teams with SIW’s and sloppy play, they make winning a lot harder. It would be nice to see these errors reduced over the final weeks of the season.
Pittsburgh is now 22-3 in their last 25 games against the Colts, dating back to 1978 when Bert Jones was their quarterback and the team resided in Baltimore. That sort of one-sidedness is not often seen in the NFL. It feels more like something Alabama does to Vanderbilt or Oklahoma to Kansas. In a season like this one, when victories are scare and the team sometimes looks like a shell of its former self, it’s nice to know the Steelers can still dominate an opponent.