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Steelers Film Room: A look at the route concept that could fix this broken offense

Fix the Steelers offense the same way you eat an elephant — one piece at a time. Here’s a look at the piece they should hone in on to fix their greatest troubles.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

It’s been a heck of a season for the Steeler offense. Lackluster performances from every unit have contributed to the Steelers ranking in the bottom five for points per game, passing yards per game, and total yards per game. It’s the kind of year that got an offensive coordinator fired mid-season. Since then the starting quarterback got hurt and the backup got benched.

How do you tackle the bucket full of problems that comprise this offense? You have to start somewhere, and if it were up to me (which, thankfully it isn’t!), I would start with one concept. Practice this one concept to the point that every player knows his responsibility like the back of his hand, then apply it whenever the appropriate situation arises. That concept is the “rub route,” which includes the type of play the Steelers used to score a second-quarter touchdown that would give them a 13-0 lead against Indianapolis.

After Connor Heyward blocked a punt that set the Steelers up with a first-and-goal at the 1 and a Najee Harris run that lost 3 yards, Mitch Trubisky would connect with Diontae Johnson for an easy 4-yard touchdown. This is the most common rub route, where the outside receiver breaks inside while the inside receiver breaks outside. Defenses can end up confused or too congested when this happens.

You’ll note here that Allen Robinson (at the bottom of the screen) will slant inside while Johnson breaks outside behind him. Robinson’s route takes his defender into Johnson’s, and Trubisky lets it rip before Johnson looks for the ball. Johnson’s defender has to spin backward to get around Robinson and it’s an easy pitch-and-catch score.

The next clip is a zoomed-in view of the two routes. Robinson gets away with a shove that pushes his defender deeper, causing a bigger obstacle for the Colt coverage. When Johnson catches the ball, the closest person to him is the referee signaling touchdown.

Here’s an example of Kenny Pickett trying to take advantage of a rub route against the Titans in Week 9 using the same two receivers. This time, Johnson is the outside receiver breaking inside, while Robinson works to the outside shoulder of his defender who gets caught flat-footed and drags Robinson down earning a pass interference penalty.

Johnson has to alter his route from the 1 back to the 2 to get around the two players lying on the ground. Pickett puts the ball in a good spot, but Johnson’s detour has the play’s timing off and he doesn’t make the catch.

The pass interference penalty would give the Steelers a first-and-goal and they go right back to Robinson and Johnson causing Titans confusion with another rub play. This time, the inside receiver will eventually run an inside route while the outside receiver eventually breaks outside. Robinson will fake an out move at the goal line and cut inside. Johnson will start his route to the inside before breaking it outside. Johnson’s defender slides inside to protect against his initial movement and has no chance to catch up as Johnson crosses the goal line headed toward the sideline.

No. 24 for the Titans is also rubbed out of the play by Robinson’s route and, even with the throw a tad behind Johnson, is in no position to make a play. These plays can create enough separation that even an offense with all the flaws the Steelers have displayed thus can take advantage of to put some points on the board.

Next up is a similar play that we showed in the Steelers Film Room article from Week 13, where you end up with two receivers in tight enough spaces before their breaks that it causes defensive confusion.

On this play against the Arizona Cardinals, Calvin Austin will motion toward the top of the screen where George Pickens is lined up wide. It looks as though the other defender in the area is signaling to the Cardinal covering Pickens. Pickens breaks inside while Austin breaks out. The Cardinals botch their assignments and Austin is left wide open the entire play. Unfortunately, Kenny Pickett gives a glance in that direction before looking over the middle towards the covered tight ends. Even more unfortunate is that Pickett tries to run the ball into the end zone and injures his ankle in the process, knocking him out of that game and so far, two more.

Had the focus of this play been on the confusion caused by Pickens and Austin, the Steelers likely have an easy score for a 10-3 lead just before the half. Instead, Pickett would require surgery from this injury, and the Cardinals would take a 10-3 lead just a few plays later.

I mentioned earlier that I would start with this concept and practice it to perfection. Why? Because these short rub route plays have the high reward of an easy completion, especially against man coverage, and the extremely low risk of a sack, as they develop so quickly that the offensive line isn’t tasked with prolonged blocking assignments.

I also said I would use them whenever appropriate. It’s hard to forget Mitch Trubisky’s down-field heave in the loosely defined direction of Diontae Johnson on a fourth-and-2 at the end of the Patriots game a week ago. I would offer that these rub route concepts may have yielded a wide-open receiver on a much shorter, higher-percentage route while still leaving the possibility of a deeper route by the inside-breaking receiver on the rub or from a receiver from the other side of the formation.

These clips were all from goal-to-go situations. Earlier I listed several categories in which the Steeler offense ranks in the bottom five. Two more to add to the list are red zone opportunities per game (2.1) and red zone touchdown percentage (46.7) which combine to leave the Steelers as the second-worst team in red zone touchdowns per game. Cashing in limited red zone opportunities for touchdowns is a key piece of improving a poor offense. Better and more frequent execution of rub route concepts appears to be an attainable goal, even for an offense as woeful as the 2023 Steelers.