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Steelers Film Room: Pass protection leads to AFC North Championship

The Steelers' offense wasn't firing on all cylinders on Sunday Night against the Cincinnati Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger missed a few deep balls and a few passes were dropped. But they were able to overcome this largely thanks to the continued development of the offensive line.

One of the very first articles I wrote for BTSC was all about defeating the tackle-end stunt. The Steelers have, historically, had a difficult time with this stunt. As a result, teams have been able to only rush 4 and still get good pressure on Ben. One of the biggest improvements we've seen from the offensive line is their ability to consistently handle this stunt. This was on full display on Sunday evening.

You'll notice in both of these examples, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert keep their shoulders square as they wait for the defender to be passed off to them. When the defender that initially lined up over them loops, they don't turn their shoulders and chase. If they did, they would never be able to redirect.

Notice also how Kelvin Beachum and David DeCastro are able to flatten the pinching defensive linemen while also maintaining square shoulders. This also allows them to redirect. Pass protection is all about balance. This is a great example of a very well-coached offensive line.

As has been discussed, the Bengals were able to run the ball with some success against the Steelers. Specifically, they were able to run to their right side against Jason Worilds and Stephon Tuitt. The Bengals had some success early, as you can see here:

This is one of the hardest reads for a young defensive lineman. His visual key (the lineman across from him) is blocking down. He is taught not to penetrate (herein lies the difference between Steeler defensive linemen and most others), but instead is taught to squeeze that block and not allow that lineman to climb to one of our linebackers.

As he's squeezing, he feels the down-blocks from his pressure key. That's what he has to react to more quickly. He has to work across the face of that down-block, much as you see Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward do. Once again, this is a very tough read, as opposed to defeating a reach-block or a drive-block. Tuitt has to squeeze and redirect to fight across the face of the down-block.

Being able to defeat this type of block comes down to film study. Recognizing the backfield set and then identifying the blocking scheme is how you are able to react quicker to the down-block. Of course, Tuitt is still learning the defense, so this stuff will come with time.

Jason Worilds does a good job squeezing the down-block (just like James Harrison did last week on the 4th-down stop against the Chiefs). The Bengals respond by hooking him, instead of trying to kick him out. In this case, it's up to Sean Spence to make Worilds right; meaning, if Worilds gets kicked, Spence has to fit inside of him. If he gets hooked, Spence has to fit outside of him. But Spence gets hooked also, and the Bengals are able to get the edge as a result.

The Steelers were not going to sit by and watch the Bengals run to their right the entire game. Jeremy Hill ran for 43 yards (almost half of his game output) during the Bengals' second drive. Afterwards, the Steelers made the necessary adjustments. For example, look at where Will Allen is aligned in the previous GIF, and look where he is in this one:

The Bengals overload the right side (placing left tackle Andrew Whitworth there additionally) and try to run the off-tackle power play to their right. Notice that Whitworth executes a combo block with the guard and climbs to Sean Spence. The reason he doesn't block Lawrence Timmons is because he's supposed to be blocked by the pulling guard. However, the guard has to block Allen, who executes his run fit perfectly. Moreover, Tuitt stones the combo block, thus allowing a clean window for Timmons to fill.

And boy does he fill. Timmons hits Hill so hard that when he goes to wrap his arms, he is grasping at air because there is no one there. Notice also that Timmons doesn't get a great head start; instead, he is able to generate power instantly.

When the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in November, the defensive line dominated the game. The Steelers will need the continued excellence of their offensive line and the steady improvement of their run-defense in order to move to the divisional playoff round.