A recurring theme of the Steelers' offensive struggles over the past few seasons has been subpar play from the offensive and defensive lines. In the early stages of a 30-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks that would keep playoff hopes alive, both units had their reasons to be proud. In the first quarter, the Steelers would run 22 plays to Seattle’s 7, gain 114 yards to Seattle’s 23, and manage a 7-0 lead. We start with clips showing pass routes that require solid pass protection.
After a pair of Najee Harris runs to start the game, the Steelers have a 3rd-and-5 at the 30. Watching this play live, I initially felt that it was a good demonstration of the experience of Mason Rudolph. I gave him credit for looking to his right but knowing what he had to his left— Diontae Johnson underneath on a whip route with one-on-one coverage. Johnson will run what looks like a shallow crossing route from his left slot position, but slam on the brakes and whip the route back toward the sideline. I froze the clip with Johnson in the middle of the field at the 33. The pass will be a little behind Johnson and he does the thing that drives fans nuts. He circles back to the 31 from where caught the ball at the 34 to avoid a tackle before turning it into a 13-yard play that moves the sticks. The whip route itself doesn’t require much time to run, but the pass protection allows for deeper routes elsewhere which free up space for Johnson to operate in once he catches the ball. At the bottom of the screen, Jaylen Warren will stop his route at the 35. As Rudolph is still in a clean pocket, the Seahawk defender has to stick with Warren as he heads past the 40. As a result, he is 10 yards away and with his back to Johnson when the catch is made.
With the view from the All-22 angle, I have second thoughts on praising Rudolph for his field awareness. He is looking to his right from the snap. Speedster Calvin Austin is at the far sideline with Pat Freiermuth in the right slot. If he is looking to go to Freiermuth at the 40, does he come off of that route because the deep safety attacks it? If so, Austin is sprinting down the sideline past the cornerback at the 43 with nobody left to help out. It’s easy to see from our vantage point, especially when looking at it when the clip freezes. The Steelers love taking deep sideline shots against one-on-one coverage, the pass protection is solid, and Rudolph is known for his deep passes. Perhaps it was a lack of trust in the lightly-used Austin. Perhaps it was a decision to take the shorter, higher percentage throw to the most-veteran receiver. Perhaps it just wasn’t easily seen without our bird’s eye view.
This opening drive would end a few plays later on a 4th-and-5 from the Seattle 41. To the top of the screen in the next clip, Johnson will run a stutter-and-go in the middle of Allen Robinson and Freiermuth each turning toward Rudolph after running to the first down marker. At the bottom of the screen. George Pickens will also run a stutter-and-go. Unless a defensive back bites on one of the stutter moves, there is nothing to cause separation on any of the routes like you might get on a slant route, crossing route, or a rub route as was highlighted in this Film room article after the Colts game in Week 15. Freiermuth offers the slightest of fakes to the inside before turning outside, but the defender seems to know that the route won’t continue inside. I have this clip frozen at the moment Rudolph releases the ball to show that all four receivers are blanketed by the Seahawks.
From the end zone view below, we can see that Rudolph again has good protection and also that an alley for escape up the hash marks has no defenders nearby. The incomplete back shoulder attempt to Pickens turns the ball over to Seattle.
Seattle would go to an empty backfield formation on their first snap and the Steelers would respond by dropping T.J. Watt into coverage. The four-man rush gets the job done as rookie Keannu Benton swats the center away to his left and charges at Seahawk quarterback Geno Smith. Cam Heyward will bat down Smith’s pass. Some say that Heyward is too expensive to keep around for next season, but his influence on Benton’s development needs to be factored in before reaching that conclusion.
On the next play, Seattle will run a zone play to their left. Both the center and the right guard will block Benton. Benton keeps his left hand on the center’s shoulder like a prolonged stiff arm to keep himself free. Even the right guard throwing a forearm to the kidney doesn’t faze Benton as he clogs the only running lane. He maintains his balance through it all and the play is shut down for a one-yard gain. Benton has made two plays that lead to a 3-and-out on Seattle’s opening possession.
The Steelers would get the ball back and go on a 14-play drive that would end with a Jaylen Warren 18-yard touchdown run. This came on a 2nd-and-8 play where the Steelers utilized a three-tight-end look. The first clip highlights the blocking and shows all three tight ends lined up to the offensive line’s left. From the left, Connor Heyward, Darnell Washington, and Pat Freiermuth will each seal their assigned Seahawk to the left. From the right side of the line, Broderick Jones, Mason Cole, and Isaac Seumalo will seal their three to the right. James Daniels will work upfield to get a linebacker at the right edge of the screen while Dan Moore leads Warren through the hole as he looks to lock up the other linebacker.
Warren will cut to his right to avoid the unblocked safety charging the play, and race to the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Warren might not have scored on this play if not for...the blocking of George Pickens. Pickens was previously called out for his failure to block for Warren on a play that ended a yard shy of the goal line against the Colts, just two games ago. Pickens has also been vilified for seeming to care only when he is the one getting the football and the scores. It’s nice to see him not only block for Warren but also head straight for him to celebrate the score. Maybe some lessons have been learned by the young receiver.
It’s not always a masterpiece with the line play, so showcasing when the big guys have a good day was too good to pass up.