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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 10, Steelers Offense, They’re Probably Not Going To Punt

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Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Overview

On November 12, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Pittsburgh Steelers. In this Week 10 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we were up against.

The Steelers finished 2016 with 11 wins and 5 losses. One of those wins came against our Colts while we were without Andrew Luck as he recovered from a concussion. This year we will be without Luck once again but we've traded in Scott Tolzien for Jacoby Brissett. Hopefully, Mr. Brisket can lead us to a different result this time around.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 7.


Offensive Scheme

Last week saw the Houston Texans use their Erhardt-Perkins system to move the ball up and down the field. This week we will watch the Pittsburgh Steelers and offensive coordinator Todd Haley use the same system, though they utilize it in very different ways. If you haven’t done it yet, you need and I do mean need to read this article from Grantland which talks about the Erhardt-Perkins.

In my hunt for information on the Steelers scheme I came across a great effort to recreate Pittsburgh’s playbook. From Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot:

Todd Haley’s Run Game

You’re well aware Haley and Mike Munchak run a mix of power and zone schemes. The Steelers leaned on a lot of Counter OF, the famous Georgia Counter that ripped off so many chunk yards in 2014. Steelers often run this out of a heavy personnel. Can have one or two tight ends to the playside with the backside guard (BSG), usually right guard David DeCastro, pull in conjunction with the backside tight end.

Blocking scheme works like this.
PST: Down block three tech
PSG: Work to second level to WILL linebacker
C: Down block one tech
BSG: Pull, kick out first color
BST: Down block five tech
Y: Pull, lead block through
U: Down block five tech
F: Work to MIKE linebacker

Here is a look at it against the Cincinnati Bengals, who were killed repeatedly on this play last year.

Alex Kozora, goes on to look at the same play and how it is drawn up against different defensive fronts. The long and short of it is, look for a heavy dose of counter runs with pulling guards and tight ends. Kozora continues:

I don’t want to draw from the Cowboys’ playbook too much because he wasn’t the offensive coordinator – just the passing game coordinator – but this is essentially Dallas’ 36/37 counter series, shown here from their playbook.

They have their basic inside/outside zone concepts, inside zone being ran the majority of the time. We’ve covered it before but zone blocking is based off of which lineman are covered and which aren’t. Covered lineman base block while uncovered lineman help double-team, usually with the covered lineman working off when help arrives and working to the second level.

Off of that, the Steelers often runs a split zone. It’s an inside zone scheme paired with a base block on the backside lineman by a pulling fullback or tight end. Keeps that cutback option available for the running back while letting the backside lineman work down the line instead of having to worry about blocking the backside EMOL.

The back can run off tackle, off guard, or cut it back, as designated by the arrows drawn up below.

How to block it out of 11 vs a 4-2-5 defense.
PST: Down block five technique
PSG: Down block three technique
C: Work to second level, block SAM linebacker
BSG: Zone block, reach block one technique
BST: Zone block, work to MIKE
Y: Pull, base block backside five technique

And here it is ran against the Tennessee Titans. Went for a 19 yard gain.

Throw in some ISO runs with a fullback and that is essentially the Steelers run game. Now, I am still oversimplifying things, each blocking scheme is different based on defensive alignment, but those are the core principles. Inside/outside zone, split zone, the power game, and some isolation runs mixed in. It’s not about going so crazy with the concepts as it is executing what you already have.

So that’s really it. They only show a couple of concepts the majority of the time, obviously things are different based on what defensive looks we show, but all in all understanding what the Steelers want to do on the ground is simple, stopping it, well that’s a little more difficult. Let’s get into the passing game:

Todd Haley’s Passing Game

As is the gradual trend in the NFL, the Steelers use plenty of run-pass options (RPOs). They’ve incorporated it into their play book a ton last year. There are a lot of variations but we’ll focus on just a couple.

One RPO is a power run packaged with a bubble screen. Simple box count determines run or pass. Six or less in the box is a run while seven or more is a pass alert. Haley ran it on back-to-back plays in Week Sixteen against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Here is the run with a six man box.

And a pass with a seven man box.

Kozora, talks about another RPO which packages an inside zone with a swing and seam routes. The Steelers use these plays really effectively because their QB usually makes good decisions and knows how to read a defense.

With that said they do run more than packaged plays:

The next concept we’ll look at is one we broke down in our New England Patriots offensive scouting report. A sail concept is in the majority, if not every team’s playbook. It’s a three main combination that works the defense at three levels: a flat route, a corner, and a nine route.

Here, we can look back on the Cowboys’ 2006 playbook. This is 218 Z Sail, a very Don Coryell nomenclature, showing the concept. The Y in the flat, the Z on the corner, and the F running vertically.

And here it is in 2014. The Y in the flat, Z on the corner, and the F running vertically.

The article goes on to break down a few more basic passing concepts often seen from the Steelers, we’ll pick back up looking at play action passes:

One of Haley’s favorite wrinkles is playaction with a pulling guard to create a false run key, sucking up the linebackers, and allowing the tight end open down the seam. Consistently used this play to rip off 10-15 yards at a time.

The Steelers run a versatile scheme that draws from many different systems and concepts. They mix up their run blocking combining man and zone blocking concepts in many of the same ways that the Dallas Cowboys do and using modern and classic passing concepts and packaged plays.

This, from a schematic standpoint is a great modern NFL offense.


Quarterback

We all know who Ben Roethlisberger is and now that I’ve typed his name once, I will refer to him as “Ben” or “Big Ben” because the last thing I want to do is type Roethlisberger 30 more times. I digress, love Ben or hate him, there’s almost no questioning the fact that he’s the best Steelers quarterback since Terry Bradshaw. Ben is a two time Super Bowl winner and at this point will undoubtedly have a bust in Canton, Ohio at some point in the decade that follows his playing career.

Ben has had his struggles this year, throwing five interceptions against a very good Jaguars defense in week 5 which lead him to state that maybe he “didn’t have it anymore”. He seems to have proven that narrative wrong in the weeks that have followed and as of this writing Ben has led his team to three straight wins.

Ben may be leading the charge but he isn’t who he used to be, he is leaning on his ground game and for good reason, we’ll get to all those Bell’s and whistles soon.

  • Arm Strength:

On this play Brown runs a good route against man coverage and Ben sees a very small window to fit this ball in. He looks like he still has plenty of juice left in his arm and the placement here couldn’t have been much better.

  • Good Read:

This play starts as trips right and Antonio Brown goes in motion. One thing I noticed is how often the Steelers try to work Brown into a favorable match up. I mean that seems like a smart thing to do but how often do we work T.Y. Hilton into favorable match-ups?

Either way, Ben recognizes man coverage and is able to fit the ball in a fairly tight window. A lesser QB with worse timing is throwing this ball to the ILB and it’s going the other way. Ben had a bad game against Jacksonville, but these aren’t balls from a guy who doesn’t have it.

  • Forced to AB:

One piece of info I found was that Ben has thrown more INT’s while targeting AB than any other QB/WR duo this year.

In short, he’s forcing the ball to possibly the best WR in the league. I can think of a few times Peyton Manning forced the ball to Marvin Harrison for the same reason and while you’ll have a play like the one above (which was a nice pick for that safety) it results in good things far more often than not.

If we can bracket Brown for the majority of the game it’s possible we see a turnover in this one for our defense.

  • Doesn’t see the blitzing DB:

The Steelers like the Texans and Patriots run an Erhardt-Perkins offensive scheme and like both of those systems the QB needs to be able to see the field and get their team in a play that will succeed. Big Ben didn’t see the safety coming at all and it results in a 4 yard loss.

If he would have changed the play entirely or just made sure someone was responsible for blocking him, I’m not sure but the play needed to be changed.

  • Miscommunication:

I believe this was an option route, Ben read slant and Brown runs a quick hitch. The throw went to the slant and Marcus Peters (I believe) makes a nice play on the ball. I don’t expect to see these kind of mistakes on Sunday.

  • Amazing Pass:

This throw was absolutely on the money. Just a perfect pass. But look at the way Ben uses his eyes to move the underneath linebacker out of his throwing lane and as soon as it opened he put that ball exactly where it needed to be.

This is the kind of veteran move you expect to see from Big Ben.

The old guy did have some struggles early in the season, the whole offense did. They struggled to click as a unit but have since recovered nicely and they’ve done so, in part, due to rediscovering their run game. Le’Veon Bell is completely capable of carrying the load.


Running Back

If you have lived in a nation that doesn’t televise NFL football and you haven’t heard about Le’Veon Bell and his unique running style I’ll go ahead and assume you’ve been in a coma for the last 4 to 5 years.

The reason every single announcer mentions his running style is because it’s visibly different and easily noticeable to even the most casual of fan. You hear about “patient” running backs but Bell is ridiculous. Behind a worse offensive line, I’m not sure how it would work, but Bell has found a lot of success and I don’t think he’s going to stop it anytime soon.

  • Draw:

This is what you can expect consistently against a light box. Here the Lions have 6 men in the box and a gaping hole directly in front of Bell. There’s not much here other than a good play call given the called defense.

  • I remember when this was called “dancing behind the line of scrimmage”:

Okay, it’s still called that but in Bell’s case he makes it work. Bell uses this hesitation to watch his blocks develop and his acceleration to burst through the hole once it’s there. There aren’t a lot of running backs in the league that can use this kind of start-stop style and have any kind of success.

Bell has elite anticipation to go along with his physical ability. With a line that couldn’t open these kind of holes, I’m not sure he’s as productive, however.

  • 3 down back:

Bell is one of the best options out of the backfield in the league. He has soft hands and runs nice routes. in 2016 he caught 75 passes for more than 600 yards. He’s officially more productive catching the ball than any Colts receiver not named Hilton.

In hindsight I didn’t pull enough Le’Veon Bell tape, I was able to find some from Steelers Depot:

  • If you read about the scheme, here it is:

Here the Steelers pull a guard and he kicks out the play side linebacker, everyone else gets great leverage on their blocks and Bell has no need to let the blocks develop, he just runs down filed reading the black jerseys in front of him.

  • That start/stop:

This is another example of Bell’s running style paying off. Something that I find amazing about what he does is that he usually explores every option between the tackles while staying behind his wall of blockers.

While he’s exploring those options, the defense is sucking into the play. They’re all coming down to the line and are ultimately giving up contain.

We see Marlon Mack bounce a lot of runs outside and he’s had some success with it, if he had this kind of patience (and line) coupled with what he can do in the open field he would be insanely dangerous given the fact that there are 8 defenders in an extremely small area of the field right before Bell finds room to the right and if Bell (or Mack) is able to get either edge he has one man to beat and it’s 6 points.

  • Vision, patience, agility, acceleration:

You may not like his running style as much as other backs but if you were going to create the perfect NFL running back in a lab, this is probably the guy you end up with.

The Steelers are 6-2 as of this writing. In their 6 wins Bell has averaged more than 27 carries per game. In their 2 losses he has averaged just 15 carries. I fully expect Bell to get the bulk of the carries in this one until the game is well out of reach.


Receivers

Antonio Brown is widely considered to be one of, if not, the best wide receivers in the NFL. Brown is a small, fast receiver and is known for running great routes. ESPN Sports Science actually had him run them blindfolded and he still ran pristine routes. He’s worked very hard after being a 6th round pick out of Central Michigan in 2010 and he’s combined his physical gifts with that hard work to become a great NFL receiver.

The past couple years it felt as if Brown was the only real receiving threat the Steelers had, unless you’re counting Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Steelers worked to change that by selecting JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. JuJu was a solid prospect from USC but few people believed he would have the impact he’s had so far. He broke out in week 8 to the tune of 7 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown.

You can expect to see some Eli Rogers and I have no idea if you’re going to see Martavis Bryant in this one. Either way Brown and Smith-Shuster are going to be major players in this one along with tight end Jesse James. James hasn’t played extremely well but he is drawing a few targets a game and against our linebackers I expect to see #81 get involved in a big way.

  • Fake the screen, go deep:

Everyone bites on the bubble screen on this play and as a result JuJu is wide open for a nice gain. The rookie has shown good hands and a knack for picking up yards in chunks.

  • This is crazy:

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

  • Blown Coverage:

I’m not sure who that linebacker thought he was releasing Smith-Schuster to, but there was nobody home. Again, the kid shows a knack for being very open.

  • Again, off the tip:

This is a big gain off of another tipped ball to AB. He’s forcing the ball to 84 and it’s been working, but opportunities to force turnovers will be there as long as we capitalize on them.

  • Again, the kid makes a big play:

JuJu is fast, in week 8 he finally saw more than 6 targets and he delivered in a big way.

Our defensive backs will have their hands full some Sunday and frankly I don’t think we have a prayer of keeping them under 350 passing yards on the day unless we can generate a pass rush.


Offensive Line: We Aren’t Going To Generate A Pass Rush

Depending on what ranking service/media member you ask the Steelers either have a top 5 or top 10 offensive line. They consistently open holes for Bell and they hold up very well for Big Ben in the passing game. They’ve invested heavily, and in non traditional ways to find these guys using first round picks on interior linemen (odd but not completely unheard of) guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey while finding solid undrafted starters in left tackle (and former US Army Captain) Alejandro Villanueva, undrafted guard Chris Hubbard and undrafted tackle Ramon Foster.

This odd assortment of first rounders and UDFA’s makes up a solid group. One thing I found interesting is that neither Hubbard or Villanueva top 290 lbs and Villanueva weighs only 277 lbs. In a league obsessed with being bigger and stronger in its trenches the Steelers have two guys playing well below what many to consider a threshold of 300 lbs.

  • Great execution:

This is a heavy formation to the right. I saw several plays where the Steelers brought in an extra tackle, and ran to that side.

On this play everyone, including their tight ends do a good job putting a hat on a hat while the playside guard runs over the cornerback and the fullback is able to take out both ILB’s. Le’Veon Bell escaped an arm tackle but this run was made possible by great execution up front.

  • Poor Technique:

Alejandro Villanueva isn’t in good position. When you hear someone say that an offensive linemen should keep his hips square or that he didn’t have “square hips” this is a good example.

This happens a lot when an offensive linemen is facing a speed rusher who often tries to gain the edge. If Dee Ford continues to the outside, Villanueva has an easy block. But because his hips were turned so far he was completely exposed to counter moves back to the inside.

Did the chip block help Ford get to the QB? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The tackle was in a bad spot and Ford’s feet start to set up the spin before Bell makes contact. Either way if the LT is in good position it doesn’t matter what Bell does.

I don’t see this being an issue, we don’t have anyone that’s going to set him up for this inside spin over the course of the game, with that said it is something interesting to watch for.

  • Great Combo block on the DE:

Here the TE and LT team up to demolish the defensive end. Once that job is taken care of, tight end Ladarius Green works to the next level to kick out the safety running downhill. This results in Le’Veon Bell running 10 yards untouched.

This offensive line is really good. I highlighted a failure when we looked at Alejandro Villanueva’s battle with Dee Ford, but usually Big Ben has a ton of time to throw. Bell has a ton of space to run and this is a game where we will really get to see if Henry Anderson is for real or if he’s just had weak competition.


Final Thoughts

The Steelers took a few weeks to get rolling at the start of the season. They seem to have ironed out the offensive issues they encountered early on and are firing on all cylinders.

This is going to be a big test for our defense. For large chunks of the season our D has played better than in years past, there’s reason to feel good about the unit’s future and we shouldn’t let this game (no matter what happens) dampen those feelings.

We’re going to face an elite running back and if we, somehow, manage to keep Bell bottled up, we’re not going to stop Antonio and JuJu. This isn’t going to be low scoring and I expect this may be a game that gets a coordinator fired. We all expect it’s going to happen eventually and this one might be ugly enough to force Chris Ballard’s hand.