The number of critics of the Steelers offense this season has only been limited to the number of people who have witnessed it. Through the first seven games, the offense had totaled only seven points in the first quarter. Even first quarter first downs were a rarity. There has certainly been much to complain about. For last Thursday’s game against the Tennessee Titans, offensive coordinator Matt Canada would call plays from the sidelines instead of the coaches box for the first time. One had to wonder how more of Canada could help a team whose fanbase had been calling for his complete removal. While the results weren’t exactly going to threaten the NFL’s best-ever offenses, there was a touchdown to pay off the opening drive of the game and give the Steelers that rare early lead.
On the opening drive which began at the 22, the Steelers had moved the ball to the Titan 42-yard line and faced a second-and-15. This play has several elements that should be encouraging to those who feel like they have been watching the same shortcomings on an endless loop all season. First thing of note is a different personnel grouping. The Steelers have four wide receivers and one running back for this play. There is no tight end to help the offensive line. Secondly, this play has routes that stress multiple levels and widths of the field including the forbidden land of the intermediate middle. Starting at the top of the screen we see Allen Robinson run a short route up the sideline. George Pickens will run a 20-yard in-cutting route to the middle. Dionte Johnson will sit down between the linebackers, right in front of Kenny Pickett, after about four yards. At the bottom of the screen, Calvin Austin will attack the deep right sideline on a go route. Lastly, Najee Harris will leak out as there is no blitz for him to pickup and be ready for a pass at the 40, and then head deeper as Pickett buys time for a throw. At some point in this play, every route is an open target aside from Allen Robinson at the top.
From the end zone view we see Pickett initially is looking to his left and drifts that way to avoid the pass rush that is coming through Isaac Seumalo, perhaps wanting Pickens on that deeper in-cut. What caught my attention was that Pickett didn’t resort to his tendency to bail out back with a spin move to his left to escape pressure. As his feet hit the yellow of the Steeler logo, he aligns his feet and cocks his arm preparing to throw it to Pickens. There’s a good chance the ball gets deflected by either of the on-coming pass rushers if he follows through with that plan. Deflections over the middle can be a recipe for interceptions, and he extends the play as he ducks and steps up between the two diving Titans and looks for alternatives. With Pickett now the attention of the linebackers, Johnson heads toward the vast open grass in the direction of the sideline and turns his body towards his quarterback to make an easy target. At the same time, Harris takes his route deeper getting the attention of Austin’s coverage. Pickett is on the move and has three viable options in Austin, Harris, and Johnson. He takes the easiest option of the short pass to his best receiver. At the 42 Johnson puts a move on a defender to gain an extra seven yards (YAC) instead of getting run out of bounds.
This play could have been so many things: a sack, a batted ball over the middle, a four-yard toss to Johnson with two tacklers nearby, a sideline shot to Austin, or a dump-off to Harris. Through the first seven games, this type of play usually yielded a negative result. This time, Pickett safely got the offense into a third-and-two which it would convert on its way to an opening drive touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The effect of jet motion
If you’re like most Steeler fans, you have seen more jet-sweep plays than you can tolerate. On this second-and-six play from the third quarter, we can see how that jet motion can affect other plays. Calvin Austin will motion from his right slot receiver position to the left tackle, back to the slot, and then back again to be a decoy with the jet-sweep motion. The three linebackers at the 21-yard line shift with his every move. While none of them actively chase Austin on the fake, all three are moving laterally to their right at the snap on a Najee Harris run coming to their left. That lateral movement that was influenced by the jet motion prevented them from attacking this play as aggressively as they otherwise could, giving the offensive line an advantage. The linebacker with pink shoes will unsuccessfully chase this play from the backside after sliding to his right in reaction to the motion. With Connor Heyward at tight end, the Steelers have six blockers to handle four defensive linemen before moving up to take out the other two linebackers.
Also, note the blocking of the wide receivers and Heyward. At the bottom of the screen, George Pickens will pop his guy in the chest and knock him off balance. A lesser effort may have allowed his man to help clog up Harris’s path. Austin’s motion was a decoy and he ended up with nobody to block. Heyward is the tight end that handles the left defensive end. Anytime a pass-receiving tight end can block a defensive end solo, that’s a win. (Hats off to that defensive end who hustles 25 yards to make the tackle after disengaging from Heyward five yards behind the line of scrimmage.) At the top is Diontae Johnson who shields his guy from getting involved all the way to the whistle at the end of the play. If not for that defensive end at turbo speed grabbing him by the ankle, Johnson has good enough position to get Harris at least another 15 yards. Long runs require blocking from the receiver. Pickens and Johnson did enough to keep their guys from getting involved on this big gainer.
From the end zone view, we can see Heyward and Broderick Jones wall the defensive ends, leaving Dan Moore and Isaac Seumalo to double-team one defensive tackle while Mason Cole and James Daniels double the other. Seumalo and Daniels will release from their double teams and wash those two linebackers right out of the play. Harris will do a little jump to make sure he clears the 600lb speed bump of Cole on top of the defensive tackle, then cut to his left off of Seumalo’s hip to leave the charging safety with only an attempt to dive for his feet. Harris steps through that and heads to his left, away from the gang of Titans in pursuit, before being ankle-tackled from behind after a 25-yard gain.
Where’s the big “W”?
Continuing on the same drive, the Steelers now have a second-and-seven at the Titan 37. Eight games into the season and we get the welcome sight of Darnell Washington catching only his second pass of the year. He’s possibly even the first option on this play, as all other routes are slower developing deep routes. Pickett will fake an outside handoff going left to Harris, and then bootleg back to the right. Washington is lined up next to the right tackle and will pretend to run block to sell the fake Harris run, then shed his defender and turn towards Pickett as he heads to the right flat. He catches the ball and heads up the field where he is quickly met by a linebacker. At his size, Washington is a load, and the linebacker wisely dives low and wraps his pink-gloved hands around the ankles for the tackle after a 7-yard gain. This drive would result in the field goal that would tie the score at 13.
From the end zone view, we can see Washington’s initial blocking look that he presented to the defensive end. We also see that big No.90 is not slowed down on the play and Pickett has to negotiate him as soon as he turns around from the fake handoff. As the play continues, Washington turns his body away from his momentum and towards the nearby defender, secures the catch, and continues on for the first down. For someone his size and with as little receiving experience as he has, the smoothness of the process is very encouraging.
While scoring 20 points against the Tennessee Titans isn’t exactly putting NFL defenses on notice, there were several things in this game that can be a source of optimism. Factoring in that it was a Thursday game (notorious for their sloppy play and low scores) and that Kenny Pickett was knocked out of a game just four days earlier with a rib injury, this 20-point total feels like it could be a part of bigger things in the future.