Game-planning in the NFL is based on studying film to get an idea of your opponents’ play-calling and execution tendencies. But there’s a nugget of truth that often gets overlooked when we think of game plans: Your opponent has been doing the same thing, and they’re probably not going to behave the same way as they did last week. This means game plans mostly go out the window as soon as the ball is kicked off.
The teams that win most consistently are often the ones that adjust well on the fly. The New England Patriots have long fallen into this category. Despite not always being loaded with talent, they are always competitive — even dominant.
The Steelers have been criticized at times during the last several years for what appears to be poor game-planning and in-game adjustments. More often than not, though, the problems are actually in-game recognition and execution by players, and the margin for error in the NFL is painfully thin.
Today, we’re going to look at four plays, in pairs. The first play shows situations where the Ravens successfully executed, and the second shows how schematic adjustments and pre-snap recognition by the Steelers totally changed the outcome the next time around.
1st Quarter, 15:00 Remaining, 1st & 10, BAL 25
This just happened to be the game’s first play from scrimmage. The play call is an off-tackle run to the left out of 12 personnel (two tight ends). Initially, the Ravens line up in a balanced “Ace” formation, but then send tight end Nick Boyle in motion from right to left, creating an unbalanced line. This pushed outside linebacker T.J. Watt further outside, giving a wider “edge” to run against.
Below is a diagram of the play as it was executed:
What wins this play for Baltimore comes down to two things. First, the Steelers appear to be anticipating either a pass (defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Stephon Tuitt execute a sloppy-looking stunt on the backside of the play) or an inside run (defensive end Cam Heyward crashes straight down on the offensive line in what appears to be either a pass rush or an attempt to disrupt anything happening in the interior of the offensive line). The more I watch, the more I feel like they expected a pass, as cornerback Artie Burns is in close man-coverage fighting for inside leverage, which requires that he immediately turn his back to the play.
The second thing that gives the Ravens the win on this play is a very subtle decision by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. As he flows down the line, he picks an opening and crashes downward. This happens to the inside shoulder of left tackle Ronnie Stanley, which might not have been an issue had Watt not slid further outside when Boyle motioned across the formation. Had Shazier gone to the outside shoulder instead, running back Alex Collins likely would have turned inside where fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams would have been able to make a play.
Instead, Collins has a huge gap between Watt and Shazier, and he’s into the secondary in a flash.
2nd Quarter, 6:01 Remaining, 1st & 10, BAL 32
In the second quarter, the Ravens ran the exact same play, all the way down to Boyle coming in motion. This time, though, the Steelers have rotated their base 3-4 alignment to the defensive right in a very interesting way. After the defense was set, Tuitt hustled all the way over to the other side of the line, leaving Hargrave as the de facto left defensive end and Heyward as the nose tackle. What this did was to change who was responsible for setting the edge from Watt to Tuitt. This freed Watt up to flow and crash in on Boyle, while Tuitt went head-to-head with Benjamin Watson, the other tight end, preventing the same gaping hole from forming.
This kept Collins slightly further inside and also caused the tiniest bit of hesitation in hitting the hole. That allowed Shazier, who was the weak inside linebacker this time around, to knife through the backside blocking and ultimately force Collins to fumble, which would be recovered by Heyward.
The biggest key here was shifting Tuitt, which put the power on the play side, and the speed on the back side, causing a traffic jam that allowed Shazier time to make a play.
1st Quarter, 13:31 Remaining, 2nd & 11, BAL 47
This is a play-action concept the Ravens have run fairly often this season, with quarterback Joe Flacco bootlegging right after the play fake and hitting the crossing tight end on a drag route. The idea is to use the play-fake and line blocking to draw the defense to the offensive left, allowing two receivers to cross from left to right at two different levels. When they ran it in the first quarter, it worked to perfection.
The play diagram is as follows:
The concept here is two receivers crossing the middle at different levels, with two vertical routes on the outside. Receiver Jeremy Maclin motions towards the center of the field before the snap, then comes across the middle as the post receiver while Boyle runs up the seam.
What busts this play for the Steelers is the traffic jam they created in the middle of the field. Inside linebacker Williams recognizes the fake faster than Shazier, but because of their positioning, they collide, preventing either from covering Watson. Pre-snap, both were shifted to the defensive right to defend what they appear to have read as a strong-side run. Also in that pile is safety Sean Davis, who was playing inside the box, another key that they were expecting a run to the left.
Despite a perfect sell by the line, Tuitt still almost gets there in time, a testament to his athleticism despite his size. However, Flacco is able to get the pass off, and Watson is wide open.
4th Quarter, 11:19 Remaining, 1st & 10, BAL 45
The second time around, both teams do something a little different. For Baltimore, they swap routes for Maclin and Boyle, this time sending Maclin on a “go” route while Boyle runs the post. There’s also no motion by Maclin this time. This may have been the result of a pre-snap read: the first time around, with Davis in the box for the Steelers, the deep seam made more sense. With Davis playing deep zone in the second play, running the wideout on a “go” was likely to keep the safety deep, too. It’s a well-designed nuance by the Ravens. The play concept can be seen below:
For the Steelers, the difference is the positioning of Davis and Shazier who’s now the weak-side inside linebacker and appears to have recognized the play call and rotated all the way down to the line of scrimmage, alongside outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Shazier patiently flows with the play until he sees the fake, then loops back and blindly picks up Watson as he crosses the center-line of the field. This puts him in perfect position to make the interception.
The Steelers had a rough go in Chicago two weeks ago and never seemed to figure out the adjustments to make. Against the Ravens, though, they showed just how well they could adjust, and it led directly to two game-defining turnovers and, ultimately, to their first road win in Baltimore since 2012.