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Steelers Film Room: Matt Canada not the only one to blame for first-half offensive woes

Players need to make plays to solve the early sputtering.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The TV picture only tells part of the story. Sometimes the All-22 camera angle can show things we don’t see during the game broadcast. Here we will take a look at a few plays from Sunday’s 24-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams to see what we couldn’t before.

What held the offense back in the first half?

The Steelers have a habit of displaying almost no offense until the latter parts of games. Many fans wonder if the blame should land on the players or the coaches. Let’s take a look.

This first clip is the third play of the game. The Steelers have a third-and-seven from the 28. Jaylen Warren is faced with two blitzing defenders and correctly blocks the interior blitz as that player has the quickest route to the quarterback. QB Kenny Pickett has an unblocked man in his face and throws it away to his left, well in front of WR George Pickens who is crossing from the bottom of the screen.

Watching on TV, it’s easy to chalk this up to Pickett not having enough time and blame the offensive line. What’s surprising is that Diontae Johnson, the slot receiver on the 26-yard line to Pickett’s left, does not cut his route short when his coverage blitzes and leaves him all alone. Not only does that slot cornerback blitz, but the linebacker at the 33 does as well leaving wide-open space for Johnson to break his route to the middle of the field and give Pickett an easy throw for the first down. Instead, he carries his route 15 yards up the field before breaking and Pickett is already being buried.

Johnson isn’t the only one at fault here. Next, we see the same play with a focus on Pickens. This play design had Johnson and Calvin Austin both running deeper routes on the top half of the screen taking the deep safeties with them. Pickens will run a drag route underneath through the vacated middle as TE Connor Heyward occupies the linebackers. I can’t imagine Pickens is taught to run one step and then veer from the 29 to the 31 as his route. His path makes it easy for the defensive back to avoid the traffic of Heyward and his coverage. Go back and look at the first clip and notice how much green grass Pickens has in front if he had gotten any separation for an easy throw from Pickett. Instead, Ahkello Witherspoon is glued to him the entire route.

Moving along to the second quarter, we see the play where Pickens short-arms a catch over the middle. It’s a second-and-7 from the Steeler 49. Pickens is the receiver at the top of the screen. This play is a pure shame as it has everything Steeler fans have been clamoring for: quarterback under center, play action, a solid pocket, and an open receiver in the middle of the field. While many will fault Pickens, this throw is unnecessarily late as he is open from the snap. When Pickett finishes the fake handoff and sets his feet to throw at the Steeler 42, Pickens is at the Ram 43 starting to break the route inside. The ball doesn’t get to him until eight strides later as the Ram safety has zeroed in on him. There was a huge window to throw it earlier that would have given Pickens run after the catch potential.

Here is the end zone angle of the same play. Notice that Pickett never looks anywhere else on the play. We just saw that Pickens was open the entire route. For some reason, Pickett resets his front foot three times before finally pulling the trigger. Could Pickens have caught the ball and taken a punishing hit? Yes. Could his quarterback have made this an easy first down by throwing with anticipation? A bigger yes.

How do you follow up that play? Well, the very next snap is a third-and-7. It has a couple of things that Steeler fans complain about — deep routes that take too much time and Pickett spinning back and to his left into trouble. With four receivers on this play, three of them take their routes at least 10 yards deep.

By the time any of them turn to look for the ball, Pickett is facing the wrong end zone in panic retreat mode. This is easily one that could make you scream at your TV about the “terrible” offensive coordinator. However, those deep routes have left another easy target underneath with plenty of room to make the seven yards needed. Connor Heyward will break from the bottom of the Rams logo straight up the screen. Darnell Washington’s route has pulled the linebacker coverage back to the 45 and in the opposite direction of Heyward’s route. Another quick, easy, short target with plenty of room for yards after the catch.

If you think Pickett is under too much pressure to get him the ball, check out the end zone angle. Heyward is open before Pickett finishes his dropback. There’s not a Ram between him and the sideline. If he catches the ball in stride, this is likely a 20-yard gain down the sideline as all of the Rams have been led deep and away from the route.

What “held” the rest of the Steelers back?

Watching the All-22 camera angles allows you see so much more. How did T.J. Watt not register a sack in this game? Aren’t those automatic? One thing that stood out in watching this game’s film is that Watt was used differently. His interception was an obvious case of him not purely hunting Rams QB Matthew Stafford with the pass rush; he also lined up very wide and got his hands on slot receivers several times to disrupt their routes before looking for the quarterback. Then we have what may become a weekly feature: the T.J. Watt “Hold of the Week.” This occurred in the third quarter on the pass to WR Puka Nacua that gave the Rams first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Three plays later they would tie the score at 17.

If Watt needs someone to commiserate with, he should seek out Patrick Peterson. This happened in the first quarter on Brett Maher’s 53-yard attempt that hit the upright. Could Peterson have blocked this and sparked his team to an early score? We will never know.

There were certainly plays to be made by the guys on the field that could have altered the first-half offensive woes. Pickens, Johnson, and Pickett all have room for improvement as seen here. Missed calls by the referees are going to happen every game. It sure would be nice if one of those referee mistakes benefited the Steelers someday...