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The Steelers passing attack must evolve in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era

Continuing the deep dive into the Steelers offense, and what needs to happen to see it succeed.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the first two installments of this series examining the state of the offense in Pittsburgh, we looked at what the Steelers can learn from Matt LaFleur’s system in Green Bay and how the outside zone concept could add complexity to the scheme. Here, we look at the passing game. Specifically, why was Pittsburgh’s passing attack so limited in 2021, and how can it evolve moving forward?

To prepare this article, I broke down three games from the 2021 season. I chose one early game (Week 3 at home against Cincinnati); one at mid-season (Week 11 in Los Angeles); and one late (the Wild Card playoff loss at Kansas City). By looking at games at various stages of the season, I hoped to see what had changed in the passing game, or how it had evolved.

My conclusion: very little. Conceptually, the Steelers were basically the same passing team in January as they were in September. We’ll analyze what that passing attack consisted of, and the reasons it remained static, in the paragraphs below. One thing is certain, though: moving forward, it will have to evolve for the Steelers to improve on offense.

Let’s start with some data. I looked at the route-concepts the Steelers employed, the formations from which they ran them, and the area of the field Ben Roethlisberger targeted with his throws. The numbers do not match the game totals exactly because I excluded a few things. Possessions inside the 10 yard-line, for example, because of the specificity of those packages. I excluded formations the Steelers rarely used, like Jumbo sets with an extra lineman. I also excluded Pittsburgh’s final possession of the playoff game against Kansas City, which was a 13-play drive that included 11 passes, because the game was out of reach at that point and the Chiefs had retreated into a soft prevent defense. I tried to confine the data to what the Steelers did in their base offense under competitive conditions. Here’s what I found:

Route Concepts

The passing game was predominantly limited to three concepts: the quick game, the mesh concept and verticals.

The quick game consisted of an array of throws Ben Roethlisberger could release almost immediately after a pre-snap read of the defense. Receiver screens, “Stick” routes and coverage-beaters like slant-flat were some of the most common. Against press-coverage, the fade concept became increasingly popular. These were essentially jump balls that required receivers to win one-on-ones with defensive backs. The success rate on these throws was low, but their simplicity, and the speed at which Roethlisberger could execute them, made them appealing.

Some of the most common “quicks” used by the Steelers

Mesh was Pittsburgh’s favorite full-field concept. Mesh involves two receivers crossing over the football at 4-6 yards depth, with a “high-hole” or divide route up the middle and an outside stretch from the remaining receivers. The Steelers ran multiple variations of Mesh, adjusting the formations and roles of their receivers to disguise the route.

Mesh made sense for the Steelers because, while the ball is not necessarily out of the quarterback’s hand immediately, it does contain multiple outlets he can target should he need to throw quickly. The Steelers generally ran some version of Mesh between 8-12 times a game, and it was often their go-to play in 3rd-down passing situations.

Some of the most common versions of Pittsburgh’s Mesh route

The other concept they favored was Verticals. These routes targeted the deep thirds or deep quarters of the field. They often contained a shorter outlet receiver and an adjustment where one of the deep receivers could break off his route if he could not win vertically. As with Mesh, the Steelers ran their verticals concepts in a variety of ways:

Pittsburgh’s favorite 3 and 4-verticals concepts:

In the games I studied, these three concepts made up around 90% of the total passing game. The Steelers threw more quicks than anything else and employed the others as a reaction to what they were getting from each defense. They overwhelmingly targeted the outer thirds of the field, electing not to attack the middle very often. At no point did they stray too far from this approach.

In the Cincinnati game, the Steelers went heavy on quicks. Their passing attack was dominated by plays like this:

And this:

And this:

You can see how short the routes were, and how little air-yardage on the throws. Clearly, the Steelers wanted the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hand fast, even when Cincinnati was rushing four. Counting sacks, the Steelers attempted 62 passes for 297 yards, an average of just 4.79 yards per attempt. With no vertical passing game to speak of, they could not dink-and-dunk their way down the field with consistency. Their execution was not sound enough, and when they did execute, Cincinnati was too fast to the ball and tackled too well in space. The Steelers scored just 10 points as a result.

In Week 11 in Los Angeles, the Steelers leaned heavily on their Mesh scheme, especially in the first half. This was because the Chargers initially played more zone than Cincinnati, where the shallow middle was often open.

Here’s a Mesh route using Chase Claypool, coming from the top left of the formation, and Najee Harris, coming out of the backfield, as crossers. The Steelers got jammed up at the top of the route, as Eric Ebron and James Washington both wound up in the high hole (one of the two, likely Washington, should have continued to the post). They drew the attention of L.A.’s linebackers, though, allowing Roethlisberger to drop the ball underneath to an open Claypool:

Later in the game, out of a 3x1 bunch, the Steelers ran Mesh with Claypool and Diontae Johnson as the crossers. By this point, they’d run the concept several times and, as you can see, the Chargers had begun to defend the crossers more aggressively. Inevitably, with Pittsburgh running Mesh so frequently, defenses found ways to adjust.

This was evident in the playoff game at Kansas City, where the Chiefs played with inside leverage on Pittsburgh’s receivers, jammed them at the line of scrimmage and forced outside releases. They also played with a “rat” in the middle of the field whose job it was to disrupt crossers. The strategy proved effective. With Mesh unavailable, and no easy throws inside, Roethlisberger struggled to connect to the boundary. The results often looked like this one, where he could not fit his throw into the small window between the underneath coverage and the safeties:

On this one, Roethlisberger appears to have seen the safety to his right come down as the rat, prompting him to target Pat Freiermuth up the seam. When Freiermuth couldn’t win vertically, Roethlisberger anticipated he’d break off his route to the boundary. Freiermuth never did. The throw went to the sideline while Freiermuth continued up the field:

Kansas City’s plan to force the Steelers to execute these low-percentage vertical throws was effective, and essentially stymied their passing game. The Steelers were unable to adjust.

Why not? Why was Pittsburgh’s package so limited? As you may have guessed, the poor play of the line made longer-developing routes nearly impossible. The Steelers did try to run some of the Over concept, which is a great design, especially off of play-action. Over utilizes a take-off route to clear out a corner or safety on one side of the field, then targets the void it creates by bringing a receiver from the opposite side on a deep cross.

Unfortunately, both times the Steelers ran Over in the games I studied, the protection broke down. Against Cincinnati, Roethlisberger was sacked. Against Los Angeles, pressure forced him to dump the ball off early to his check-down.

Here’s Over against the Bengals. Claypool (top of the screen) ran the clear-out to free up Ebron, who crossed the field from the right wing. I don’t love the fact it was Ebron running the Over — why have a slower tight end do it when a player like Johnson could get better separation — but at least the concept showed an attempt to attack the deep middle. The pocket collapsed quickly on Roethlisberger, though, and he had to eat the ball for a sack:

The other limitation in the passing game was a product of Roethlisberger’s lack of mobility. We didn’t see many play-action passes, RPOs or attempts to move the pocket because Roethlisberger could not perform them. When the Steelers did try, the results were poor. You can see so in the following clip. It’s an RPO against the Bengals in which Roethlisberger had two options. He could throw the quick out to Harris, who was aligned on the inside of the bunch to his right, or he could flip the shovel pass to Juju Smith-Schuster, who was wrapping around from the wing to Roethlisberger’s left.

With the flat route covered, and the timing of the shovel-option poor, Roethlisberger had to improvise. He pumped-faked a defender before lunging awkwardly to avoid taking a hit. He gained five yards on the play but looked far from comfortable doing so.

To summarize, the limitations of the passing game were largely the product of two things: poor play up front, and Roethlisberger’s increasingly narrow skill set.

3 thoughts on how the passing game can evolve

Bolstering the line and finding a reliable replacement for Roethlisberger are pre-requisites for everything that follows. Provided the Steelers can do these things, here are three thoughts on how the passing game can evolve:

1. Develop route concepts that target the middle of the field

As we can see from the table posted above, only 19% of the 128 throws I charted attacked the middle-third. Everything else was outside. Mesh was the only concept the Steelers had that reliably targeted the middle. As defenses keyed in on Mesh and used strategies like “rat” coverage to defend it, the passing game was pushed increasingly to the boundary.

To remedy this, they must use more play-action. Nothing destroys the structure of a defense like the play-action pass. It’s especially effective at opening up the middle of the field due to the tendency of linebackers and box-safeties to play aggressively against the run. Post, dig and seam routes are all easier to throw once play-action has displaced coverage. Pittsburgh’s next quarterback should be someone who can execute these schemes.

2. Move the pocket

Roethlisberger has been a statue in the pocket the past few seasons, making it easy on defenses to target him with their rush. To remedy this, the Steelers need to use more sprint-outs, bootlegs and nakeds to get their quarterback on the perimeter. Doing so would give him clear lines of sight on his passes while forcing defenses to make sound rotations in the secondary. It would also give the quarterback a run option if necessary. Head coach Mike Tomlin has talked repeatedly this off-season about the Steelers getting more athletic at the QB position. Increased pocket movement would be one benefit of doing so.

3. Eliminate their passing tendency out of 3x1 formations

Overwhelmingly, when the Steelers lined up in 3x1 sets, they threw the football. This was true on 84.3% of the plays I charted. On plays from bunch sets, it was almost 90%. Better balance from these sets would likely yield better passing efficiency by keeping defenses honest.

One way to do so would be to add more gap schemes to their rushing attack. This would allow a tight end or fullback to be used in a 3x1 set as a blocker. Counter-gap, for example, where the tight end leads on the weak-side linebacker, or pin-and-pull sweep, which attacks the perimeter to the trips, were staples of the Pittsburgh run-game for a long time. Both disappeared from their playbook last season. Their return would make the Steelers less predictable out of 3x1 sets by reducing their pass-heavy tendency.

Fixing the offense won’t be easy, but it can be done. Evolving the passing game by breaking tendencies, moving the pocket and attacking the middle of the field more often is a great place to start.