The Steelers had their bye last week, meaning there was no game for us to consider. But, with eight contests in the books, they’ve given us plenty to reflect upon in route to a disappointing 2-6 start to the 2022 season.
Pittsburgh has been bad in every aspect so far. Heading into Sunday’s games, they ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories on both sides of the ball. On offense, they were 28th in total yards, 26th in rushing yards, 24th in passing yards and 32nd in points per game. On defense, they were 29th in total yards, 15th in rushing yards, 31st in passing yards and 24th in points allowed. They were -4 in turnovers, which ranked 26th, and had recorded just 15 sacks while allowing 21.
While the overall performance has been subpar, Matt Canada’s offense has been particularly bad. Put simply, the offense can’t score. Their 15.0 points per game are five points lower than last season’s average, 11 points lower than the Steelers averaged in 2020, and a field goal per game lower than the 2019 offense, which averaged 18.1 per contest while being quarterbacked by Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. The offense has been limited by its youth and inexperience, but also by Canada’s failure to solve some of the scenarios presented to him by opposing defenses.
In order for things to improve, one of the most pressing dilemmas Canada must solve is that of the “dead” play, particularly in the run game. By a dead play, I mean one that has little chance of succeeding based on the pre-snap look of the defense versus the play the offense has called. Usually, these come in the form of runs the Steelers execute against unfavorable boxes, where the defense has one more player close to the line of scrimmage than the Steelers can block. This is a simple math problem — if the Steelers have six in the box, and the defense has seven, and the Steelers have called for a run play without an option attached, there’s a good chance the play will fail.
This is a problem that has dogged the Steelers since 2019, when Rudolph and Hodges quarterbacked the team, and opponents knew they would try to run the ball and dink and dunk in the passing game. Defenses responded by dropping a safety to get a +1 in the box, crowding Pittsburgh’s receivers and daring them to throw deep. The Steelers couldn’t do it.
Pittsburgh’s opponents abandoned this formula in 2020 when Ben Roethlisberger returned to the lineup, assuming two high safeties were still required to defend him. The Steelers bolted to an 11-0 start. Then, in Week 12, Washington rediscovered it. Roethlisberger showed he could no longer hit those deep passes, opponents again adopted the +1 strategy, and the Steelers have gone 12-18-1 since.
So, while the stacked box is not a new dilemma for the Pittsburgh offense, the solution to solving it remains elusive. Pittsburgh still can’t push the ball down the field very well. Their receivers often fail to get separation from press coverage. Their scheme is fairly vanilla and thin on advanced route concepts. Even when the scheme calls for it, their quarterbacks have been incapable of, or sometimes unwilling to, attack deep. Add in a shaky offensive line that hasn’t been very good in pass protection, and it’s easy to understand why the Steelers have struggled.
Throwing deep isn’t the only way to get out of a dead run play, however. There are plenty of tweaks Canada could add to avoid these types of plays. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done much tweaking, leaving Pittsburgh to often waste plays that are doomed before the snap.
The Steelers had several of these in their game at Philadelphia. On their first offensive play, for example, Pittsburgh came out in an 11-personnel set with receiver Chase Claypool aligned as a tight slot to the left of the formation. Claypool gave the Steelers seven blockers in the box. But Philly dropped their safety, shown in the photo below on the right hash at the 32-yard line, to give them eight defenders:
The Steelers couldn’t block all eight. So, the safety came unblocked to the point of attack where, along with Jordan Davis (90), who nimbly slanted across center Mason Cole’s face, he tackled Najee Harris for no gain:
One way to avoid a dead play like this is to tag the back side with an RPO. Slot receiver George Pickens and wideout Diontae Johnson both had good looks to run slants here. The Steelers may not have wanted to give Pickett a complex read on the first play of the game. But a built-in concept that allowed Pickett to fake the handoff to Harris and throw skinny to Pickens if he recognized the extra box defender is fairly simple to execute. And it would have gotten Pittsburgh out of a bad run look.
Here’s another dead play from the 2nd quarter. The Steelers were in a spread 11-personnel set, with six in the box, while Philly dropped a safety again, giving them seven. The Steelers had an outside zone run called to the right, but they couldn’t block it properly because Philly had five-against-four to that side:
The Steelers ran it anyway, and the result was predictable. The safety came unblocked, disrupted Harris’s path and the play went nowhere:
This didn’t have to be a dead play, though. If you look at the other side of the formation, the far safety was playing eleven yards off of Claypool, who was aligned in the slot. Rather than ask Claypool and Diontae Johnson to block the defensive backs, who weren’t likely to provide run support, why not build in a bubble screen Pickett could throw as a “hot” if he got a look against which the Steelers couldn’t run? The cushion provided by the corner would have given Johnson ample time to block him, and Claypool would have had plenty of space to catch the ball and square up before the safety or defensive end could track him. This would have been an easy five yards, as opposed to running into a look that couldn’t be blocked and gaining nothing.
A simpler solution would have been for Pickett to flip the run to the other side. Checking this from outside zone right to inside zone left would have given the Steelers enough blockers to cover up all the defenders except the backside end, who would not have been a factor on a run away from him. It would have given them two double teams at the line of scrimmage as well, before one blocker on each double would chip off to a linebacker. This would help get an initial push up front, which the Steelers failed to achieve on the wide zone run above. Unfortunately, Pickett, at present, is either incapable of, or does not have the authority to, make these types of changes at the line.
Here’s one more. This play looks favorable for the Steelers, as they have six blockers against a 4-2 box from Philly:
They run a trap play, with right guard James Daniels (78) pulling to kick defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (97) while left guard Kevin Dotson and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. climb to block the linebackers. This is sound from a schematic standpoint. The problem is that defensive end Josh Sweat (94) is left unblocked, as Connor Heyward, the tight end, is assigned to bypass Sweat and block the safety. Watch what happens:
The Steelers are banking on Sweat running up the field. Instead, he comes inside and tackles Harris. If Canada is going to have Heyward climb to the safety, he has to be sure the end won’t collapse. Otherwise, he’s created another run play with an unblocked defender at the point of attack. So, this is either a bad call by Canada for not reading Sweat properly, or a bad design.
A better design would have been to assign Heyward to Sweat. The trap is blocked well, and if Sweat is accounted for Harris will pop this into the secondary, where he’d be one-on-one against the safety. Covering up the safety with Heyward is a luxury the Steelers can’t afford if they allow an unblocked end to come down and tackle the ball-carrier.
Another idea would be to align Harris to the left of Pickett, then have Pickett read Sweat. The trap could be run as a read-option, where Pickett pulled the ball and ran outside if Sweat collapsed. It could also be run as an RPO, with Heyward running a flat route and Pickens, the wideout to that side, carrying the corner on a vertical. Pickett would have a simple throw to Heyward if Sweat pursued the inside run.
Philly’s offense featured several of the concepts proposed above. Here’s an example. Faced with a 3rd and 1, the Eagles lined up with an extra tackle on the field in a condensed bunch set with the running back offset to the right of quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Steelers, anticipating a sneak, packed their defense between the tackles, making it almost impossible for Hurts to run inside:
This was no problem for Philly. Watch their line blocking in the clip below. The interior linemen wedged-blocked to prevent penetration in case Hurts chose the sneak. But the two tackles to the right, as well as the blockers in the bunch, all reach blocked for an outside run. Hurts had a two-way go, then. If the middle was open, he could sneak the ball behind the wedge blocks of his interior linemen. If the outside was open, he’d flip the ball to the back on the sweep. The Eagles had an answer, then, for whichever concept the Steelers chose to defend:
This design showcases one of the reasons the Eagles have an elite offense. They have talent across the board, which certainly helps, but their scheme is a huge factor in their success as well. Philly runs a quintessential modern NFL offense. It is at once physical, athletic and diverse. And, because of their array of RPOs, read-options, packaged plays and quarterback checks, they are rarely in a position where the defense hems them in with their pre-snap look. Philly can adjust in real time to the problems defenses present. The Steelers, at the moment, cannot.
It’s easy to sit at a keyboard and say what Matt Canada should or shouldn’t do. Pickett may not be far enough in his development for Canada to feel comfortable giving him the freedom to make some of the decisions I’ve discussed. But, until the downfield passing game evolves, the Steelers need a way to back defenses off. The offense isn’t good enough to continually recover from the long-yardage situations these dead plays create. They must stay ahead of the chains to move the ball consistently. So, with the bye week presenting a great opportunity to reassess the offense, here’s to hoping Canada has given Pickett the freedom he needs to solve Pittsburgh’s “dead play” dilemma.