In Week 11 against the Detroit Lions, the Steelers primarily utilized the no huddle offense for the first time all year. The results speak loudly; it was the highest scoring game of the year, while their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, tied his season high in passing touchdowns (four) and set a new season high in passer rating (119.4). Not by coincidence Pittsburgh's offense also allowed only one sack the entire game, which was a season low.
The biggest cause of this improvement seemed to be the use of the no huddle.
The offense added other adjustments than just the no huddle. Against Detroit, the Steelers passing offense used a lot clear-out routes, timing and crossing routes. These routes were designed to have Roethlisberger get the ball out of his hand on his third step and while confusing the defense. Below is an example of how Pittsburgh used these clear-outs in the quick passing game.
In this play the Steelers have Brown running a quick slant and Roethlisberger throwing to him on a single step drop. Unlike a traditional quick slant play this play has some routes design to help its success. The goal of the slot receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, is to get in the way of the defender responsible for Brown. Brown will cut underneath Cotchery leaving the quick slant uncontested.
Once the ball is in Brown's hands, he looks to his blockers - in this case, Cotchery and Heath Miller. While Miller misses his guy, the angle he forces the defender to take allows Brown to make him miss. After an incredibly nasty cut by Brown and the quick slant play goes for nine yards.
The Steelers utilized a lot of these clear-out route combs and crossing routes in the no huddle. Using the no huddle the defenders weren't allowed enough time to communicate how to play these crosses, leading to confusion among Detroit's secondary. Roethlisberger also has an emphasis placed on getting the football out quickly on these plays. Ben anticipated if his primary read would get open and moved to his secondary reads or check down if appropriate. By the time he planted his back foot on the end of his drops the ball was leaving his hand. This prevented the pass rush from getting there.
Another factor slowing the pass rush was the fact the Steelers ran their no huddle with the same personnel grouping, not substituting. That prevented the defense from substituting. Pittsburgh chose to run their no huddle with three WRs, one TE and one RB.In this personnel group it is important to have receivers (and a TE) that can block and be legitimate receiving threats. The Steelers receivers seem proficient in blocking and can effectively run routes. More importantly to not limit the formations and plays an offense can run, the offense needs to have a RB that can be a viable receiving option. Luckily for the Steelers they have Le'Veon Bell.
In this play Bell's initial route looks like he is going to go out to the flat and the OLB responsible for covering him begins to flow in that direction. Bell gives a great head fake like he is going to make his move outside but instead cuts it inside. The OLB bites on the outside move and is clearly out of position. Roethlisberger correctly choose to hit Bell on his numbers with the football instead of leading him. This prevents the MLB from being able to make the play. Bell picks up 43 yards on the play.
This wasn't the only way Bell was used as a receiver. He lined up as one both inside and outside when the Steelers wanted to give an empty look. He was also motioned out of the backfield to the slot receiver spot. While Bell is still trying to find his legs as a runner he has already clearly established himself as one of the best receiving RBs Pittsburgh has had in a long time. His ability allows the Steelers to dictate their match ups. In this game Pittsburgh liked the match up of the Lions' LB or their safeties covering him.
Tiring the defense by preventing substitution, creating favorable match ups with the running back, using crossing routes and clear out to set up the WRs to get open and using quick timing passes are all ways to help the prevent sacks and maximize the passing offense. They mean little if the QB isn't going through his progressions correctly and making accurate throws, though. Unfortunately for the Lions, Ben was on his game.
In this play Pittsburgh is running the same clear-out combination on each side of the field. The inside receivers are running a go route to clear the defender as the outside receiver runs an in route underneath them.
Ben quickly determines that the left combination won't get open (they have a three on two look). Looking to the left holds the safety on the left hash. When he looks right, he sees that Miller is open. This is because the Lions' defensive backs failed to execute the switch properly.
The CB on Markus Wheaton was late to switch to Miller, and as a result, Miller runs by him. Wheaton is also open on the play. Roethlisberger chooses to go to Miller. He throws the ball to Miller's back shoulder a place where the safety can't make the play.
This is the Steelers QB's best throw of the game.
Miller goes up to get the football, high pointing the ball nicely. He takes the hit but doesn't maintain possession upon hitting the ground. The great throw by Roethlisberger instead goes as an incompletion on the box score, and became the fifth time this year a receiver has dropped a touchdown pass.
Overall, the Steelers passing offense looked efficient and strong against the Lions. While the use of the no huddle acted as a catalyst for the success there were other factors that played a role as well. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh continues to use these as they appear to be the best of both worlds of thought for Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
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