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Why offensive balance for the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card game is paramount

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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is lethal when clicking, and in this Film Room, we show you how staying balanced will be a key against the Dolphins on Sunday.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If you follow this website regularly on various platforms (podcasts, videos and the written word), you know I’m constantly preaching balance when talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. But they have so much talent at the skill positions, combined with a tremendous offensive line, that they’d be foolish to shoot for perfect balance every time they step onto the field.

But in a must-win situation, such as the Steelers now face for the second time in the past three weeks, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t try to hit as close to a 50/50 rush-pass split as possible. Before we get to the breakdowns, I’m well aware that, if the Steelers are gashing the opponent on the ground, leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell and company is the obvious choice. But I also subscribe to the belief that you should never completely ignore an entire facet of your team’s offense.

In my opinion, in Week 16 against the stout Baltimore Ravens defense, the Steelers had their best drive of the season, and it just happened to be the offense’s opening drive of the game.

If you recall, the Steelers won the opening coin toss, and elected to defer to receive the kickoff to start the second half. After the defense forced the Ravens to punt, the Steelers offense went to work, and that’s what we’re going to break down here.

The drive comprised nine plays, burned 5:17 on the clock and went for 87 total yards, ending in the game’s first score. During this drive, the Pittsburgh offense ran the ball six times, while throwing it three times. To be sure, this doesn’t seem very balanced, but the team kept Baltimore honest by formations, personnel and play-design.

Let’s take a look at four key plays during this very dominant, opening drive in Week 16.

RUN PLAY: Opening play of offense. L Bell right tackle for 10 yards. 1st quarter 12:29, 1st and 10.

The Steelers love to run to the right side of the field, and this time it is Alejandro Villanueva pulling to help create a seam for Bell. As much as I love seeing Bell steamroll Zachary Orr to gain 10 yards, the design of this run was perfect. The Steelers come out in a 4-wide, shotgun formation and the defense is thinking pass. Watch the linebackers take a step backwards off of the snap, and it’s all downhill from there for the Pittsburgh offensive line.

Great design, great execution and a great play to start the offense in a huge game.

PASS PLAY: No huddle. Shotgun. Roethlisberger pass short left to A. Brown for 7 yards. 1st quarter 11:51 left. 1st and 10.

Staying in the shotgun, the Steelers use their short passing game as an extension of the running game. When the Steelers have the defense backing off, this type of play is almost a gimme 5-7 yard gain, if not more. Look at the cushion given to Brown off the line of scrimmage. When Ben Roethlisberger sees this, he knows exactly what he’s going to do with the ball. Before you know it, the Steelers have nearly 20 yards in two plays against one of the NFL’s best defenses.

The Steelers use of the shotgun formation has been extremely creative and critical to the success of the offense because it keeps the defense honest.

RUN PLAY: L Bell right tackle for 10 yards. 1st quarter 8:03 left. 1st and 10. 8th play of drive

After the Steelers methodically moved the ball deep into Baltimore territory, it became obvious the team could easily settle for three points, but the next play was a throwback design which resulted in a 10-yard gain by Le’Veon Bell.

Again, the use of formation is key. Chris Hubbard reports as an eligible receiver, Roosevelt Nix enters the game as the fullback and the Steelers deploy the classic “I” Formation.

Nix’s lead blocking is perfect, and creates a beautiful lane for Bell to run through. This is what happens when a team simply imposes its will on a defense. When Pittsburgh comes out in the “jumbo” package, everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming, including the defense, but they still couldn’t stop it. Watch this play a couple times, and you’ll see that if Maurkice Pouncey could have executed his cut block on LB C.J. Mosley, this play could have gone for even more yards, and possibly even a huge rushing touchdown.

PASS PLAY: TD to Xavier Grimble. Shoutgun formation, Ben Roethlisberger deep middle to Grimble for 20 yard TD. 1st quarter 7:20 left. 1st and 10

The Steelers might have missed an opportunity on the previous play, but they punched the ball into the end zone on the very next play. When you hear people talk about working the middle of the field and the seam, this is what they’re talking about.

Look at the route tree from the five wide receivers. Antonio Brown’s drag route attracts two defenders, leaving one safety to cover two players who have beaten their men to the post. Either Xavier Grimble or Eli Rogers could have been the recipient of this Roethlisberger pass, but thankfully Grimble, the bigger receiver, takes the big shot from safety Eric Weddle and holds onto the ball, leading to a 7-0 lead after the extra point.

The pass from Roethlisberger was on point, but the design of this play was even more impressive.

Conclusion:

I realize balance isn’t always attainable. Even in this drive, the play calling was lopsided towards the run, but you have to be able to complete passes to keep a defense from packing eight defenders in the box to stop the run. Ben Roethlisberger has had his share of struggles in 2016, and some of those came in the third quarter of the win over Baltimore.

Nonetheless, the Steelers need a great performance from Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown but, more importantly, from the offensive line. If the hogs up front can root out the Miami Dolphins front 7 in the AFC Wild Card game, they’ll be well on their way to their second appearance in the AFC Divisional round game against the Kansas City Chiefs.