The Steelers had success against the Atlanta Falcons by beating them at their own game, dominating in the run game and limiting possessions. It worked, the Steelers won the game as the Falcons ran out of time to make a comeback by running the ball.
Facing another run-heavy team in the Baltimore Ravens, the same strategy seemed like a good idea, so what did the Steelers do, and why didn’t it work?
I talk every week about the offensive line and quarterback playing the whole game, and how much that matters.
Well, the offensive line stayed intact but the quarterback didn’t this week, as Kenny Pickett left the game after 8 plays. Those eight plays involved four Najee Harris runs, two Kenny Pickett scrambles, a sack and an incomplete pass to Jaylen Warren. The Steelers were playing it safe, looking to establish the run like they did in Week 13, and looking to eat clock and avoid turnovers.
The snaps tell how quickly they went away from that.
One of the best things to take away from this game is that the Steelers No. 3 receiver this week, Steven Sims, played 4 fewer snaps than Najee Harris, and their No. 4 receiver, Gunner Olszewski, played 2 fewer snaps than Jaylen Warren. With Miles Boykin receiving ten snaps to Benny Snell’s 2 snaps, the Steelers depth receivers played a total of two more snaps than the Steelers running backs did.
Another example? In Week 13 Zach Gentry and Derek Watt played 55 snaps combined while Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward combined for 50 as the Steelers prioritized run blocking. Against the Ravens Gentry and Watt played 27 snaps to Freiermuth and Heyward’s 42. You can also tell from the total snaps that the Steelers played their tight ends less, averaging 1.25 a snap compared to 1.62 per snap in Week 13.
If you remember the previous four games against the Ravens, this strategy has worked before. The Steelers were 4-0 against the Ravens with aging Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball. The biggest difference this time was who was throwing the football.
Mitch Trubisky entered the game with the Steelers having tried 4 passes and 4 runs, with the 4 pass plays leading to a sack, and incompletion and two runs. Trubisky’s first drive saw 4 passes and 2 runs, with the runs gaining 2 yards and a touchdown, while Trubisky moved the Steelers down the field with two big throws to George Pickens, one a 42-yard bomb and the other a pass interference penalty in the end zone.
The next drive the Steelers ran the ball six times for 22 yards with three passes, the last of which was intercepted. At the point Mitch Trubisky threw his first interception the Steelers had ran the ball 14 times for 52 yards and a touchdown, and thrown it 8 times for 71 yards to go with a pass interference penalty and a sack.
The next 36 minutes of the game the Steelers would throw the ball 22 times and run it 6 times.
The Steelers started the game against the Ravens with the same game plan they used to beat the Falcons, but as they struggled to establish the run they leaned on Trubisky throwing the ball, and while most of his throws were actually quite good, three really bad throws, and I mean Super Bowl XXX level bad throws, cost them the game.
When it was Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback, it worked. With Trubisky, it didn’t.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Cameron Sutton all played 100% of snaps in Week 14, which isn’t very surprising, Sutton has been the Steelers best corner (that’s not high praise), Fitzpatrick is who he is and Edmunds has a lot of value against the Ravens where his run-fast-and-tackle-people style is more valuable. Fitzpatrick led the Steelers in tackles with 11, and Edmunds came second with 9.
Alex Highsmith played all but 5 snaps in this game, and played better than he did against the Falcons, while T.J. Watt also looked like a better version of himself than he has been since coming off Injured Reserve (IR). Neither looked at full strength, but they weren’t a weakness. behind them the Steelers only played Jamir Jones 10 snaps.
Cameron Heyward, on the other hand, followed an uncharacteristically poor game in run defense against the Falcons with what looked like an even worse one against the Ravens. It’s a rare game where I can praise Chris Wormley’s run defense while criticizing Heyward, but that’s the case this week. The Steelers went seven deep on the defensive line this week, playing both DeMarvin Leal and Isaiahh Loudermilk while rotating in Tyson Alualu and Montravius Adams, as the Steelers averaged 2.8 defensive lineman per snap.
At inside linebacker Myles Jack fell to third in snaps behind both Devin Bush Jr. and Robert Spillane. Jack’s snaps have been falling as the Steelers look to protect one of their most frequently targeted defenders in coverage.
Things get very interesting when we look at the cornerback position and see that behind Cameron Sutton, cornerbacks only played 39 snaps, meaning you had a bunch of plays where the Steelers only had one cornerback on the field. I can’t remember that happening before.
With the Steelers playing extra defensive lineman and fewer cornerbacks, it makes it even more damning that the Ravens ran all over the Steelers in this game.
The Steelers now prepare for another run-first team in the Carolina Panthers in Week 15. Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the game.