Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs once said a football game can be decided by three or four plays. Winning those plays could be the deciding factor in the outcome of the contest. Although some might shrug off such a thought, watching the film of the Pittsburgh Steelers most recent win over the San Francisco 49ers provides a shining example of such a philosophy.
The Steelers dominated in every facet, but in the early portions of the game the outcome was far from certain. We will take a look at three plays which turned the tide in the Steelers' favor in the home opener at Heinz Field.
Before even looking at this play, the scene should be set to fully appreciate the impact this had on the game. The 49ers, down 8-0, were driving down the field in methodical fashion and were in a 1st-and-goal situation. While it looked as if three points was a given, a touchdown would have completely turned the tide of the game. The 49ers would end up getting a field goal on this possession, but it was far from a chip-shot.
This play has everything to do with attitude and momentum, more so than tangible X's and O's. The Steelers' defense had been playing their usual brand of football before this play, that being a style of defense without negative plays. It was this play which set the tone for the rest of the game and typified the dominance which ensued as the Steelers controlled the line of scrimmage for four quarters.
The interesting facet of this play is that it doesn't even go into the official record, as a holding penalty was assessed and it moved the 49ers back 10 yards and they repeated the down. Don't let such a fact deter you from seeing that what occurred on the field was something which changed the game. On this play, the 49ers are looking to run the ball with a very basic sweep-toss. At the snap, it looks like the 49ers have the perfect play called, until three Steelers defenders absolutely blow up the play. Notice how active Stephon Tuitt is in knifing through the offensive line, as well as Bud Dupree's penetration, Gay's discipline and the backside pursuit of James Harrison.
This play triggered a series of events which eventually lead to a Phil Dawson 47-yard field goal. Yes, a 47-yard field goal when it was originally 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Rewatch the game and you will see that, from this point forward, the Steelers' defense was completely different, thus making this a game-changing play.
Again, let's paint the picture before going into the significance of the play. The Steelers are leading 16-3 and, on the ensuing kickoff, the 49ers were faced with a 3rd-and-7. Notice in this play Cameron Heyward and his upright stance. This exact play and strategy was often utilized with Brett Keisel in the past, and it proves to make an impact on this play. Off of the snap, the guard and center immediately shift to double-team Jarvis Jones, as Ryan Shazier is lined up as an outside linebacker.
It was this mistake which left Heyward with a perfect alley to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Heyward doesn't get the sack, but it's his pressure on the quarterback which leads to Shazier's sack and forces the 49ers to punt the football back to the surging Steelers' offense. How does this play impact the game, all you need to do is look at the next play we've chosen.
The score is still 16-3, and the Steelers defense is starting to rise up. After Shazier's sack on the previous play, Antonio Brown returned a punt into 49ers' territory, setting up the Steelers' offense to go to work. It's the first play from scrimmage and the Steelers certainly take advantage of a 49ers' defense which is reeling.
As stated in the GIF above, it's Roethlisberger's pre-snap read of the 49ers' defense which turns this play into a touchdown. The entire play starts with play-action to DeAngelo Williams, and by the time Roethlisberger turns his head he knows exactly where he's throwing the football. Darrius Heyward-Bey proves he can still run as he takes the top off of the secondary and gets both feet in bounds.
A beautiful play with perfect timing. The 49ers would then see themselves trailing 22-3, and the game would seemingly be out of reach.
The plays highlighted here aren't so much chosen to focus on the X's and O's, but on the intangible aspect of the game of football. They demonstrate how a big play at a key juncture of the game can completely thwart an opponent's attempt to come back, as well as stealing momentum as the game progresses.
The first play gave the defense a boost and an edge, the swagger that so many fans say has been missing from the Steelers' defense during the past few seasons. The next two show how a couple of plays can absolutely change the complexion of a game within the blink of an eye. A sack for a big loss and the next play is a 35-yard touchdown pass for the final nail in the coffin.
The Steelers have a tremendous amount of potential on both sides of the football, as was displayed Sunday. For the team to have aspirations of bringing a seventh Lombardi trophy back to the Steel City, though, these types of plays have to become commonplace on Sundays, not merely as frequent as an occasional lightning strike. The Steelers have potential, but will they live up to it? If they continue to hit on these big plays, there's no reason why they cannot.