The animosity that has been felt among the Steelers’ fan base towards wide receiver Martavis Bryant has been palpable—from two suspensions to a perceived lack of effort, plus a slight against teammate and beloved rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. But there are few ways to re-endear yourself to a fan base quicker than making a strong contribution towards a victory, and Bryant did that in spades on Sunday against the Colts.
Little that Bryant did would have made it onto ESPN’s SportsCenter even on the most uneventful of sports days. Nor did any of it jump off of the stats sheet. But not only did he make the catches he’s supposed to make, he had some fine runs after the catch and came up big a few times when it really mattered.
He also scored the tying points in the fourth quarter, at a point in the game when it appeared the Steelers would shoot themselves in the foot.
Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier’s interception inside the Colts’ 20-yard line on a pass that bounced off the hands of Indianapolis tight end Jack Doyle gave the Steelers the ball only 10 yards from the end zone. They would score three plays later when Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Vance McDonald on the right side of the end zone, all alone.
As they lined up for the 2-point conversion while trailing 17-15, several players had trouble figuring out where to line up. A timeout had to be used, and Roethlisberger and most of the offense made their way to the sideline.
After the timeout, Pittsburgh went to the same play and had the same outcome. But because it’s against NFL rules for one team to call multiple timeouts without running a play in between, Roethlisberger was forced to take a delay-of-game penalty. This pushed them back to the seven, but might have been a blessing in disguise.
The Steelers lined up in shotgun, with running back Le’Veon Bell joining Roethlisberger in the backfield. Tight end Jesse James was the lone receiver split wide to the left. To the right, from sideline toward the center, were Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bryant.
The Colts are in nickel personnel in a 2-4-5 alignment.
At the start, Brown and Smith-Schuster — Roethlisberger’s two go-tos in the red zone as of late — push towards the back corner of the end zone. This ends up pulling three defenders toward them, as the single-high safety moves to assist with these two.
James takes a single step, then turns towards the middle of the field on a drag-route. Cornerback Mathias Farley stays with him, but it also draws the left inside linebacker in, to prevent James from making a catch and turning upfield.
Bell takes a few slow steps toward the left flat, just enough to draw right inside linebacker Jeremiah George in.
Bryant takes off into a slant at about three-quarters speed, then makes a slight cut to flatten the route and kicks it up to full speed. This creates a small amount of separation.
Bryant’s and James’ routes cross just to the left of the center line of the field. At the moment they cross, Roethlisberger has his opening. He fires the ball just behind Farley, with the ball hitting Bryant in the hands directly in front of his face. Bryant goes to the ground and maintains possession, converting the 2-point try.
There is, however, one more subtle key to this play: Roethlisberger has been duly criticized this year for not manipulating safeties with his eyes nearly as well as he has done in the past. In this instance, though, he tracked towards Smith-Schuster from the start. This is likely the primary reason the safety moved towards the offensive left in the first place.
This play was designed to go to Bryant, with James the only real fallback option. Brown and Smith-Schuster didn’t run routes they were likely to find openings on, given such a compressed field. Bell never ran an actual route and was nothing but a decoy from the beginning.
As I said in my last Film Room, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has taken some well-deserved heat for his situational play-calling. But there may not be a better chess player in the league insofar as designing plays. This play is exhibit B.