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Steelers Film Room: The use of play action in the wild card before it all fell apart

The good, the bad, and the ugly from an 88-yard drive

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers went down in defeat to the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round by a score of 31-17. Most of the game seemed hopeless for the Steelers, but they did have their chances. Let’s take a look at the 10-play drive that began at the Steelers 8 in the first quarter with the Steelers already trailing 14-0.

First-and-10 at the 8

The Steelers begin the drive with a personnel grouping telegraphing a run play. With Najee Harris, three tight ends, and no Diontae Johnson or George Pickens on the field they may as well have invited Buffalo into the huddle and told them a run up the middle was coming. But no, instead Steeler fans may have fallen out of their chairs when they saw a play-action pass. In the clip below, Mason Rudolph will take the snap and fake the handoff to Harris. Three Buffalo defenders are lined up at the 12 and a deep safety at the 19. All four will charge forward at the snap. Look where they are as the clip freezes and they all realize it is not actually a handoff at all.

The Steelers only send two out in pass patterns. Calvin Austin will run a deep route to pull that deep safety with him and Pat Freiermuth will be wide open, so open that even doing a 360 while catching the pass he will still get about 15 more yards before being tackled. This play will be remembered for the fumble at the end (not in the clip) and the lengthy review that would allow the Steelers to maintain possession after a 33-yard gain. Forgotten will be the much-desired use of play action.

First-and-10 at the 41.

The Steelers love, love, love to run on first down. Here, Rudolph will take the shotgun snap and Harris will cross in front of him. It’s not much of a fake, but watch how it affects those Bills linebackers at the 45. Again they all drive a step toward the run fake, then retreat deep when they realize it’s a pass.

The Bills will drop seven into coverage while the Steelers only initially send two out in routes. Pickens and Johnson will suck all seven defenders at least 10 yards deep while delayed routes develop underneath. Darnell Washington will set up shop five yards over the middle. At the snap, Allen Robinson was in motion to the left while Harris carried out his fake and headed to the right for a swing pass. With the clip frozen, we can see that Rudolph has his pick of three wide-open underneath routes. He chooses Robinson who is alone outside the numbers with all of the Bills defenders in the middle of the field. Robinson takes it up the sidelines for a nice gain to move the sticks.

1st-and-10 at the Buffalo 46

After two successful first-down play-action passes, the Steelers utilize a three-wide receiver look that does not dictate a power run. Those Bills linebackers are not nearly as aggressive charging at the snap after falling for the fakes. Harris takes the handoff and runs through a massive hole created by Dan Moore blocking to the outside with Washington crashing inside. Harris gets six yards before contact at the 40 and bulls his way for three more. End of the first quarter.

Second-and-1 at the 37

Headed in the other direction after the change of quarters, the Steelers will indicate a run again with their formation and personnel. Freiermuth, Pickens, and Johnson are by far the most-targeted Steeler pass catchers. They will be on the sideline for this play. According to Pro Football Reference, wide receiver Myles Boykin played 121 offensive snaps this year and was only targeted with a pass four times. Boykin is split wide to the bottom of the formation. Calvin Austin will be part of a three-man bunch formation along with Connor Heyward and Allen Robinson, lined up tight to the left of the offensive line. Austin rarely works over the middle, so lining him up this tight with two guys known more for their blocking than their pass-catching seems odd.

At the snap, Austin will run a ghost motion back to the 45 for the fake of a deep handoff. After handing off to Harris, Rudolph fakes a deep handoff to Austin. The fake does its job. With the clip frozen, we can see the edge rusher for the Bills at the 40 has attacked the ghost and leaves a big opening for Harris to cut outside and rattle off 11 yards.

First-and-10 at the 26

The Steelers offense is absolutely rolling. There’s a sentence that hasn’t been typed in a while. 46 yards on two pass plays to go along with 20 yards on two runs. Bills defenders keep getting caught in No Man’s Land as they don’t know what’s coming next. The runs and fake runs have been the keys, so what do the Steelers do next? They clear all the run blockers except Robinson off the field and take out the highly effective Harris. Oh, yeah, they also line up in the shotgun and send Jaylen Warren into a pattern at the snap so the defense doesn’t even have a handoff to consider. As a result, that same edge defender position that was receiving mail in No Man’s Land can now attack without fear. He puts a move on Broderick Jones and is basically untouched on a quick sack.

Second-and-21 at the 39

The Steelers are in an obvious pass situation now. Instead they run a shotgun draw play with Jaylen Warren. This may have been a run-pass-option as none of the offensive lineman cross the line of scrimmage and the two receivers at the top of the screen quickly turn back to the quarterback. But to the bottom of the screen, Freiermuth immediately engages in a block four yards past the line of scrimmage. At any rate, the hole up the middle is occupied by a linebacker and Warren busts it outside where he clears another charging Bill. At the top of the screen, George Pickens has a good view of the play coming his way and throws his body into a defender to give Warren the sideline for a 13-yard run.

3rd-and-8 at the 26

The Steelers need to make another play to keep the drive alive. How many times have we seen them throw short of the sticks on 3rd-and-long? No plan for that here as Freiermuth and Warren will be kept in to block while three routes go 10 yards or more. The Bills will have seven guys at the line of scrimmage but will send only four as they drop theee into a seven-man coverage against those three routes. Freiermuth releases from his block and leaks out to the top of the screen and Rudolph hits him for a 13-yard catch-and-run. Easy stuff, right?

Next, we have a close-up of the same play and see Rudolph making what may be his best play of the game. He initially looks to his left, then right, then evades a pass rusher with his eyes upfield, re-sets his feet before he turns left and throws it to the wide-open Freiermuth. The play didn’t go according to script, but Rudolph was cool under pressure as he moved around in the pocket until he found a solution. This likely stems from his experience in knowing that when he saw seven in coverage that means only four were rushing and there was no need for Freiermuth to stay in and block. He didn’t really look that way until he started to throw that way—as if he had accounted for all defenders and knew none would be over there.

First-and-10 at the 13

The drive continues! Here the Steelers line up in that tight bunch again, this time featuring 5’9 162-pound Calvin Austin as the front man of the bunch. At his size, you wouldn’t expect him to be blocking on a run up the middle, but he does his job. Diontae Johnson will run the ghost motion from the bunch. Nobody bit on the ghost this time. In fact, Rudolph doesn’t even fake it to Johnson as he watches to see Jaylen Warren get stuffed for a short gain as Freiermuth can’t get enough of the Bills linebacker after first dealing with their edge rusher.

Second-and-9 at the 12

Diontae Johnson will be isolated to the left of the formation. The Bills are playing one-on-one coverage with a middle safety. Rudolph likes his best receiver getting man-to-man with no traffic around. Johnson’s defender takes outside positioning and with the safety not heading over to help this should be an easy toss for a TD. The Bills defender knows he is beaten and grabs ahold of Johnson’s shoulder, drawing a pass interference penalty. This is one of those “good penalties” to take, actually a great one. Without the grab, Johnson’s would’ve had half of the end zone to himself.

The design of the play gives the quarterback plenty of options. The four patterns are attacking different areas of the field and different depths. Each tight end will break off at 5 yards and head to opposite sidelines. Pickens is headed to the corner of the end zone at the bottom right of the screen, but not until he has gotten the attention of that lone safety early in the route, freeing up space for Johnson. Najee Harris will leak out of the backfield at the end also.

Fire-and-goal at the 3

You know what this drive needs? More ghost motion. Here we have Myles Boykin, who basically never catches passes, split out to the right again. We have the three-man bunch tight to the offensive line again. We have no Johnson, Pickens, or Freiermuth on the field. If this seems like deja vu, it’s because it’s the same personnel and formation from the 11-yard Harris run that happened six snaps ago. Surely the Bills won’t recognize it. By the way, If you wanted to assemble the “least likely Steelers to catch a pass,” you might have to use punter Pressley Harvin to beat this grouping of Heyward, Robinson, Austin, Harris, and Boykin. Everybody on both sides of the ball knows it’s a run. Calvin Austin will again break out of the bunch to run the ghost. It worked for 11 just a minute ago, here it loses a yard.

Two important differences between that play and the 11-yard version. First, on the successful play Buffalo had seven players in the box with four lined up 10 yards deep. There was plenty of space for Buffalo to worry about. This unsuccessful one took place at the goal line and had nine defenders in the box with nobody more than 5 yards deep. The second difference is that on the successful version, center Mason Cole fired out and blocked a linebacker 4 yards across the line of scrimmage. In the unsuccessful version, he gets dumped on his rear by a defensive tackle who swallows up Harris.

Second-and-goal at the 4

A chance for redemption. Running the ball gets harder down at the goal line so now the Steelers will try to pass it into the end zone. Fine, the run blocking didn’t work but aside from one play, Mason Rudolph has had time to make throws. I’m going to just let you watch the clip before I comment on the play.

I know there’s more to it than my upcoming description (maybe?) but this play is what I would call in the huddle at recess in 5th grade by the name “Everybody, go run five yards and turn around!” It should be no surprise that nobody gets open. There are no angled routes, no rub routes to create defensive conflict, no variation of route depth, and no good result for the Steelers. It looks like Diontae Johnson is wearing a Buffalo Bill defensive back to keep warm. Rudolph throws it that way for a soul-crushing interception. Just throw it in the dirt, Rudy! I know Buffalo plays on turf, but throwing it to the dirt out in the parking lot would have made Steelers fans happier than what happened here.

Here’s to hoping that the Steelers’ next offensive coordinator will give this team a little more to build upon...

I hope you enjoyed the Film Room articles this year as much as I enjoyed doing them and thanks for reading!