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Breaking Down the Pittsburgh Steelers' Offense

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Stampede Blue's Andrew Aziz breaks down the Pittsburgh Steelers offense and gives his blueprint on how to stop them.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some of you remember last year during the playoffs, I broke down the Broncos and Patriots offense. Well, since this is a big game for the Colts, I figured I'd break down the Steelers too!

When looking at the Steelers' offense, the first thing you realize is that even with all the injuries, they are an extremely talented offense. Ben Roethlisberger is great at the helm, and with his experience, he can win games in any type of conditions. The Steelers receiving corps is loaded with talent, starting with Antonio Brown, whose speed and great route running ability makes him arguably the top receiver in the league. Martavis Bryant is a hot and cold type of player, but when he's on, he's as dominant as anyone in the league. He can make any type of play and he's got blistering speed and quickness. The problem with him is he takes too many plays off and makes a lot of mental errors. The Steelers then have Markus Wheaton, a player who you won't see on the stat-sheet often, but will make his presence known in games with his good blocking ability and will occasionally make some big catches. He had over 200 yards receiving last week against Seattle, so he is still a threat. Heath Miller continues to be one of the best all-around tight ends in the league as he is a terrific blocker and an underrated receiver. His health is up in question this week, so keep an eye on Jesse James. The Steelers offensive line is banged up, but they are led by one of the best guards in football, David Decastro. Decastro is a stellar guard who can "pull" very well (as we'll see later) and can take on big time players in the trenches. Cody Wallace is an improving rookie center, who is a better run blocker than he is a pass blocker. Despite his improvement over the course of the season, Wallace is still a liability, posting a -34.7 rating according to Pro Football Focus (which is the worst out of any center). Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster are two steady offensive linemen who are forces in the run game. Foster has allowed 5 sacks and 15 pressures on the season, so he is a bit of a liability in the pass game.

This Steelers offense averages about 24.2 points a game and that includes the weeks where they didn't have some of their stars (whether it was Roethlisberger, Bryant or Bell). This is a dangerous offense who can run the ball effectively and beat you with the deep ball.

Passing Game + Passing Concepts

About one third of the passing plays go to Antonio Brown. How did I figure that one out? Brown has 126 targets on the year (with 85 catches) and the three Steelers quarterbacks have combined for 387 attempts, which is approximately one third. So, in theory one-third of the passing plays go to Brown! The next thing we have to look at are the other options. Bryant is a deep threat and will get targeted a few times down the field. As I've gone through the film, the Steelers like to isolate Antonio Brown (usually on the right side of the field but not always) and give him room to work with on that side.

Here is an example of a Steelers pass play. This plays shows you just how great Ben Roethlisberger is and why he is undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Play 1: Go Concept

The Steelers must love these type of plays. They take a lot of shots down the field so they'll utilize a lot of plays like this. To give you some context, it was towards the end of the 1st half, so the Steelers needed to pick up some yards. On this play, they have 4 players attacking the intermediate to deep part of the field with the running back (Williams) being the check-down option. It's tough to say what his progressions are, because in situations like this, a lot of the time the quarterback will make his decision based on the coverage and defensive formation, and not based on his playbook reads. There's a clear double team at the top of the screen on Antonio Brown. Sherman has him in press coverage at the line of scrimmage and there's a safety hovering over the top of him. That's why Roethlisberger doesn't even look Brown's way during the play.

As the play starts, the Seahawks have put out the perfect defense. They've double teamed Antonio Brown and have good coverage across the board. #35 on the Seahawks is playing off vs Bryant which is how you have to play him when a deep pass is imminent. The Seahawks play man vs Wheaton and man vs Jesse James. James has a hard time getting off the line and Wheaton is shadowed perfectly. His check-down option isn't there yet, so Ben literally has no options to throw to.

As the play continues to develop, the protection is waning and Ben is forced to move out of the pocket. He looks for his check-down option but that's covered. Wheaton is separating a bit but that's a throw you can't make. Roethlisberger still has no options.

Roethlisberger has moved his way outside the pocket and bought himself some time. All of his options are still covered and taken away, except for one. Martavis Bryant, for some reason, has cut off his route and has turned back to the quarterback, kind of like a very long comeback route. On some plays, receivers are taught to help out their quarterback by finding the open space of field and sitting there to receive the pass. I'm not sure if this was one of those plays, but Bryant made a smart play to come back to the ball. Ben shows why his timing is phenomenal on this screenshot. Just as Bryant is turning his body, Roethlisberger has already cocked his wrist and is in the middle of the throwing motion. He's anticipating Bryant's reaction. He's timed it perfectly.

Bryant has a 4-5 yard buffer zone between him and the Seahawks DBs and that's due to a great pass from Roethlisberger and a smart play from Bryant.

But he dropped it! The Steelers lose out on at least 28 yards. This is the Martavis Bryant that Steelers fans hate.

Before we go into a breakdown of this specific play, it's worth noting one important thing: this is how the Steelers' line up on a lot of their passing plays. In the 3 receiver sets, they'll line up Brown on one side alone, Bryant on the other side as a wide receiver, Wheaton as a slot receiver, with a tight end on the line (Miller if he's healthy, otherwise it's James). Finally they'll have Williams in the backfield and it's most likely going to come from the shotgun formation.

That play sums up a few things about the Steelers. They like to isolate Brown on one side of the field and hope to get a good matchup (one on one versus a cornerback with little safety help is ideal). It also tells us that despite the fact that Roethlisberger was swallowed up in the pocket, he bought time outside the pocket and made a great throw down the field.

I also think this was a good example of how to play the Steelers. Play press coverage on Antonio Brown and have safety help over the top. Roethlisberger didn't even look his way on this play. As for Bryant, don't play press but rather give him a little space to work with. This will limit his production as the DB will have a chance to play with him down the field. As for Markus Wheaton, he isn't great against press coverage and even when he is able to separate a bit, there is a safety hovering over the top of him. Playing the tight end all depends on who is playing. If it is Jesse James (which is what many expect with Miller injured), then you jam him hard! He has trouble breaking away from man off the line and this play is a good example of that. Finally, you get an athletic linebacker against Williams to take away or at least limit the check-down option. The Seahawks played this perfectly, yet Ben the Magician made a great play.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers are strongest when targeting the middle of the field and when targeting the deep right part of the field. Those are their strongest areas and it makes sense as their two most consistent receivers (Brown and Miller) target those areas on a lot of their routes. If Miller is out, that'll be a big blow for the Steelers.

On passes 10 yards of longer in the middle of the field, the Steelers are 28 for 44 for 598 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions (110.9 passer rating). When targeting the deep right portion of the field (passes 20 yards of longer), they are 10 of 21 for 418 yards with 1 touchdown (109.7 passer rating). Those 65 passes account for about 25% of their throws (they have 252 aimed passes on the season, so 65/252 = 25.8%).

Running Game + Running Concepts

There are a few things that you need to know about the Steelers running game. Their workhorse running back is Deangelo Williams and the Steelers use him exactly the same way they used Le'Veon Bell. On some of the Steelers' running plays, they'll use fullback Will Johnson out of the backfield. Johnson is a receiving threat, but he's used mainly as a fullback and not as an H-Back. Johnson plays about 10% of the snaps, but when he's in the game, it's because they're running the ball. It's a tell.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers run the ball best to the right side of the line. Had he been healthy, Henry Anderson would have been in that area, making it a tough area for the Steelers to run to. However, he's hurt and Billy Winn is there now. The Steelers struggle to run outside to the left and up the middle behind Wallace.

Based on some trends, we see that the Steelers are the type of team that will shy away from the run if it isn't working for them. Some teams will stick with it to encourage a balanced offense and to keep defenses on their toes, and other teams just don't care and go with what works best. For example, in the 1st half of the Seahawks game, the Steelers ran the ball 6 times for a total of 28 yards. Those aren't terrible numbers, but their longest run was 7 yards and they couldn't get much going. In the 2nd half, they ran the ball only twice for a total of 1 yard. It's worth noting that the Steelers had the halftime lead and had the lead going into the third quarter.

What can you take away from that? If you take away the run early on, you'll make them a pure passing team.

The Steelers will use pulling guards to open up the lanes they want Williams to run through. On a lot of plays, Williams shows good patience and sticks behind Decastro. Here is an example of that:

Run Play #1: Power Strong Lead

This play that the Steelers utilize is a classic Power Strong Lead. Some teams would also call this a "Search" run, with the search term meaning the running back needs to search for the hole that opens up. Nevertheless, he follows a fullback (hence the term lead) and it is to the strong side of the line. Decastro is the pulling guard here and him getting out of his stance quickly and getting to the strong-side of the play is crucial here. The Steelers also use two tight ends on the strong-side of the field to ensure that they have the numbers.


As the play starts, Decastro does a good job of getting across the line of scrimmage. Every offensive linemen is down blocking and Heath Miller (#83 on the end) is responsible for sealing off the edge of the line.


As the play continues to develop, we see that Will Johnson is out in front with Decastro just trailing. Heath Miller is continuing to trying and seal off the edge here. It's important to the note how much room that Williams has, even though he is on the shorter side of the field.


This is why I think Williams is dangerous and why I feel it's important to show a play like this. Williams is a patient runner who sticks behind his blockers before making a move. That's what you call a wise veteran. The Raiders have done a good job of getting numbers to the side of the field and have the advantage in this screenshot.


Thanks to some good blocking from David Decastro and Will Johnson as well as Heath Miller, a hole has opened up. An inpatient runner would have tried to make his move too early and he would have been tackled or slow down in the backfield. Williams stays patient and finds the big hole.


WIlliams is able to burst through the hole and is now able to find running room. Look at Decastro, who is 6-7 yards past the line of scrimmage, continuing to finish his block. Again, this is a great example of his blocking ability and a reason why he's amongst the best guards in the game.


Williams scampers for 56 yards and it's all because of his patience.

So why point out this specific play from a game from a month ago? Because it highlights a lot of different things that the Steelers do. The Steelers love running where the numbers are. They aren't a team who will utilize a lot of "weak-side" runs. So, when you see numbers on one side (like two tight ends on one side) with a fullback in the backfield, there's a very good chance it's a run to the strong side. The Steelers also look for ways to get Decastro involved in most of the running plays as he is their best offensive linemen and as you could see by this play, there's no arguing against that.

Here's another example of a running play the Steelers like to use in games. The Steelers like to utilize a lot of their runs from the shotgun formation.

Run Play #2: Gun -- Power 34

As we see here, the Steelers are in a shotgun formation. When it's the 4th quarter and you're up by double digits and you go to this play, it's a good indication that the Steelers feel good and comfortable about this play. Teams won't use a play they feel is risky when they're up by double digits in the 4th quarter. In this play, two players are key, #73 Ramon Foster and #66 David Decastro. Both players have blocks on the 2nd level and will need to seal off linebackers.

As the play starts, we see an initial double team on the two interior defensive linemen. The left tackle and left guard take on the right defensive tackle, and the center and right guard take on the left defensive end. The tight end (Heath Miller) is responsible for the weak-side edge defender. The right tackle is responsible for the play-side edge defender.

As the play develops, Decastro and Foster have both made their way to the second level (taking on the linebackers) and have initiated their blocks perfectly. The center, Cody Wallace, has maintained his block on the left defensive tackle and the right tackle is continuing to seal off the play-side edge defender. Williams now has a hole and lane to run through.

Nothing much more to add here... Williams' running lane is becoming more apparent.

Williams has done a good job of squeezing himself through the lane and has found some space. He's already picked up 4 yards and he's not even touched yet. Decastro has done his job against the linebacker and as we see, #73 Foster is continuing to seal off the linebacker, which is key for Williams getting more yards.

Williams doesn't make the right read (he didn't read #73 Foster properly) and is initially contacted 8 yards past the line of scrimmage. He could have gotten more yards but he finishes the play with a 9 yard gain.

This is another play where the Steelers choose to run behind Decastro. Decastro and Foster show on this play that they can get to the 2nd level (linebackers) and seal them off.

How to Stop Them

If you intend on getting pressure on Big Ben, you'd be smart to target the left side of the Steelers' offensive line, which is filled with inconsistency and inexperience. Villanueva and Wallace are below average in pass protection and Foster, as mentioned earlier, has given up 5 sacks and 15 pressures. They should be the side to target. Having overload blitzes on that side of the line with the goal of getting pressure on Roethlisberger is the smart way to go. They also aren't great at reading stunts either, so the Colts should throw a few of those in there as well.

This is how I would play the Steelers' receivers, based on what I've seen on tape from teams that have been able to stop them:

  • Play press coverage versus Antonio Brown and have a safety play over the top to take away any deep passes towards his side. I'd like to see Vontae Davis shadow him for the entire game and have Dwight Lowery be the guy to play over the top.
  • Play a bit off against Martavis Bryant and not allow him to beat you deep. A safety over the top is only needed on obvious passing downs.
  • Darius Butler should go up against Markus Wheaton in the slot. From there, Butler should play a variety of zone and man coverages to defend Wheaton. Wheaton only plays about 64% of the plays. Even with his stellar performance last week, he only played in 75% of the plays. He is only on the field when they're in three receiver sets. The Steelers trust Brown and Bryant for anything else.
  • Jesse James, assuming he's the starter, should be played tight on the line by a linebacker (Jackson preferably).

What Did We Learn, Kids?

We learnt a lot of things:

  • The Steelers like to get their best players in the best possible matchups. They'll isolate their best receiver on certain sides to try and get them one-on-one matchups.
  • The Steelers like to run a lot out of shotgun and will do so often.
  • If you take away the run early on in the game, the Steelers will be discouraged from using it later in the game.
  • The Steelers have an arsenal of deep passing plays and take at least a few shots each game. Their deep guy is Martavis Bryant, who receiver a few targets each game (and got 11 targets against the Seahawks). The Colts should respect Bryant and play a bit off. They cannot allow Bryant to beat them deep.
  • There is a massive drop off between Heath Miller and Jesse James.
  • The Colts should attack the left side of the offensive line, which is the weaker part of the Steelers' line. Villanueva and Wallace are their two weakest offensive linemen in both pass protection and run blocking.
  • Deangelo Williams was the best signing of the offseason.