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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Steelers Offense, probably better than you think

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NFL: OCT 06 Ravens at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Overview

On November 3rd, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the City of Bridges to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. In this Week 9 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

This overview usually focuses on the history between the Colts and their opponent and (thanks to Peyton Manning) most weeks, history has favored the Colts. This week is a little different as our Colts trail the Steelers 24-6 all time. Recent history hasn’t been kind either, the last win coming back in November of 2008 and before that November of 2005. To find the next win on that list you have to travel all the way back to 1984 and the fourth Colts win took place in 1977. To say this series has been one-sided is an understatement. Fortunately, this week (like all weeks) doesn’t care about the past. Both franchises are in a different place than they’ve ever been, and if the Colts are going to start to even the score, now would be the time to start.

Let’s see what we can expect in week 9.


Offensive Scheme

A lot has been written about Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and the differences between he and longtime OC Todd Haley. The vast majority of what has been written isn’t great, which is both good and bad for a guy like me. Often, I’ll research the opponent’s offensive coordinator after I’ve watched enough tape to have a basic idea of what they’re looking to do. It generally helps me understand if I’m on the right path. If I’m seeing what lifelong fans of these teams are seeing (schematically at least), then I’m on the right path. If my notes are way off, I usually go back and pick a different game to watch and see if and where I went wrong. With Fichtner, I haven’t been able to find much in the way of real scheme breakdown and in this instance it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, this offense simply can’t look like the 2018 Steelers offense.

I was able to find a quote from former Steelers backup quarterback Josh Dobbs in an article from Bryan Deardo of 247sports. When asked about the differences between the two OC’s Dobbs replied with the following:

We have the same playbook, per se, play calls, stuff like that. But, with Randy, of course some of the play calls will be different,” Dobbs said. “With him, a lot is dealt to the quarterback position where it’s on us to call the plays, figure out what the defensive is doing pre-snap, get the offense is in the right situation and the right play to attack and make adjustments and audibles from there. It’s a big a quarterback-centered system where a quarterback has a lot of power at the line of scrimmage, whether it’s with cadence, the play calls, the audibles, even if the coach is calling the plays. So it gives us a lot of power to go out and be successful and put the offense in the right situation.

So if it sounds to you like Fichtner let Ben Roethlisberger control the offensive play calling instead of, you know, calling the plays himself, you might be on to something. Based on this knowledge no scheme breakdown from before about a month ago will mean much of anything, as Roethlisberger went down in week two and the Steelers have started both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback since his injury.

It’s tough to draw many conclusions just looking at basic stats but it is interesting enough to point out that in the first two weeks of the season the Steelers averaged 14.5 carries per game. Since Roethlisberger’s injury and Fichtner resuming close to full control over the offense the Steelers have averaged 25.5 carries over that span. Now this shouldn’t be surprising, any team that loses its starting quarterback is likely to see an uptick in the number of running plays called. With that said, it is important to note the Steelers have been a much more balanced team in their past four games throwing the ball slightly less than 29 times per. So what does this offense look like?

Well, what week is it?

Against the Bengals the Steelers came out with a lot of pre-snap motion, jet sweep looks and plays like this one above. The goal of this play is to get the defense moving, pull defenders out wide and then pitch the ball back inside to the trailing running back. It’s an interesting play design and had Jaylen Samuels made a different cut, this may have been a bigger play. Either way, it is a creative way to get the ball into the hands of a playmaker while making space in the middle of the field on a high percentage “pass”. Yes, this is one of those 29 passes per game.

The Bengals game saw more creativity

This play had a similar feel to many of the other shovel passes thrown, and the defense bites up to defend it. Instead, Mason Rudolph hits James Conner, who was able to sneak past the second level of the defense as they bite up, while the receiver in motion and tight end out wide work together on routes that cross to open that space further for the back to get open.

This play should have drawn a flag as there were multiple offensive linemen downfield and Matt Feller’s (#71) block might have actually been offensive pass interference, but the flag wasn’t thrown. Ultimately, this was a creative play that worked to get a single receiving option open, and it it was successful because the Steelers set it up with so many shovel passes before attempting this play.

However, this isn’t all that the Steelers offense is. Based on what I’ve seen from Fichtner’s offense since losing their starting quarterback, this system has been capable of adapting to what their opponent is giving them. The Ravens game is a perfect example.

Deep Shots

The Steelers haven’t been afraid to dial up long concepts for Rudolph, and this play is a simple Y-Cross concept which is a staple of Air-Raid offenses, something Rudolph is very familiar with considering the system he ran while at Oklahoma State.

At the end of the day, this throw is about finding a receiver sitting down in a hole in the zone coverage and Rudolph is able to do just that. This isn’t a difficult read for him to make, but I do wonder what the young passer would have done had no one been open, as he has no option to check down to anyone.

Another deep look

I know what you’re thinking, and no, those guys weren’t supposed to run in to each other. How do I know for sure? Well the Steelers really like this play and they ran it against the Bengals too.

If it keeps working, don’t stop!

Working this concept when the defense is giving you a cover one or cover three creates a really easy read for the young passer to make. The throws are still down field, but he isn’t having to process fifteen different things before making his throw.

More simple reads

This play is from a really spread out formation. The receiver in the slot works the seam to keep the safety occupied while the tight end is free to run his pivot route against a linebacker. The Steelers probably feel pretty good about that match-up in coverage and isolating that defender works well as the play goes for a decent gain on 1st and 15.

More easy throws

This play was timed perfectly. The Ravens have a blitz called and they’re in man coverage. Rudolph does a good job identifying the blitz and moves his receiver in slightly to allow his back more room to work on the swing pass. The Pittsburgh receivers run routes designed to create traffic for the flowing defenders who are unable to get to the flat to cover James Conner, who picks up a few easy yards.

Once again, this isn’t a difficult decision to make post-snap. Rudolph showed his mental ability before the snap, as I believe he recognized where he was going with the ball right away. Ultimately, a well designed play that created an easy throw for the young QB.

Using motion to gain an advantage

Here, JuJu Smith-Schuster goes in motion with a defender following him in man coverage. At the snap, Juju is in an advantageous position to run an out route, which he does, and Rudolph is able to hit him with the pass on a single read throw.

The Steelers have worked to protect their young passers and put them in as many favorable positions as possible, but that’s not all they’ve worked to do. They’ve gone back to some... interesting ideas.

This seems like a mistake

With these results, why try anything else?

Seriously

I don’t have much to say about the Wildcat offense here in 2019, so if you want a deep dive on the last two plays I think Rex Ryan is available to tell you all about the merits of that “system”.

Ultimately it’s apparent that this Steelers staff is working to craft an offense that can succeed without their leader in Big Ben. So, you might be asking yourself: “If they’re working so hard why hasn’t it amounted to much?”

Currently, the Steelers rank 21st in points scored and 29th in yards gained. They’ve yet to throw for more than 276 yards in a game and that came in week one with a healthy Roethlisberger. They’ve only rushed for more than 100 yards in one game, week six against the amazingly bad Los Angeles Chargers. So what gives?

Well, the Patriots look to be really, really good. We can argue about who has played whom and we can argue about things that don’t matter if you like but week one this team lost to a good football team. Week two, same thing. The Seahawks are a good team, and their franchise quarterback went down with a season ending injury. If it wasn’t enough that they lost their quarterback, in week three they had to play a San Francisco 49ers team who currently look like the best team in the NFC. Week four, they beat the brakes off of the Cincinnati Bengals, lost in week five in overtime to a 5-2 Baltimore Ravens squad who look like a sure thing to win the AFC North. They made it to overtime with their third string quarterback! Finally, then they won in LA against the Chargers by a touchdown.

So, while this offense hasn’t been prolific, it has scored 20 or more points in its last five games, and has watched as the team has fallen to four teams that will be in the playoffs this year, three of which they have lost by four or fewer points.

This offense has been conservative, but they’ve been in every game (except the Big Ben-led week one contest against the Patriots) against some really good opponents. If you were thinking that this game was going to be a cakewalk for our defense, I have bad news for you.


Quarterback:

Mason Rudolph was taken in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft out of Oklahoma State. He spent his rookie year backing up Big Ben, and while I wasn’t there and I don’t actually know Ben Roethlisberger, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the young passer wasn’t invited to Ben’s house either, in fact Roethlisberger went so far as to say he wouldn’t mentor Rudolph after his selection. I’m not sure if his attitude has changed since being injured in week two but Mason Rudolph has played well in his time as the starter in Pittsburgh.

As I noted above, the Steelers have worked to protect the young passer, giving him a lot of simple downfield reads to make. He’s responded well completing nearly 64% of his passes for nearly 900 yards, 9 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions. Some of that efficiency is scheme, but at the end of the day Rudolph still has to make those throws and he has done so more often than not.

If you’ve seen nothing else from Rudolph, you’ve probably seen this;

Rudolph was knocked out of their week five game against the Ravens. If you want to see the hit itself, it’s just a Google search away. He takes a helmet to the jaw from Earl Thomas and is out cold before he hits the ground. It looks a lot like every other guy who loses consciousness before hitting the ground. What is unsettling is his teammates’ reactions.

Rudolph sat out the week six game against the Chargers, recovered during their week seven bye, and played again last night against the hapless Dolphins. In his absence, Devlin Hodges stepped in and played as well as anyone could have asked him to play. There was a lot of hype surrounding “Duck” Hodges after his performance in primetime but when healthy, it’s clear that Rudolph is the superior player.

Rudolph’s eyes

A big thing I look for with young quarterbacks is whether or not they take their eyes off of their target. Can they look off a safety or progress through reads? It’s really easy for me to sit here and write about it, but it’s a lot more difficult to actually do it on a football field. Rudolph impressed me with his ability to work his reads. Even though some of them have been made easier via play design, he’s still shown the ability. In the play above, he looks to his left before coming back to his right and delivering a pass.

First throw since the concussion

Things didn’t start well for Rudolph on Monday Night Football. Here, he stands in the pocket far too long waiting for someone to get open. By the time he goes to make the throw the defensive line is there to hit his arm and force this interception.

This isn’t a fluke

If I were a Steelers fan my biggest concern about Mason Rudolph would be his accuracy. At times, he can throw great passes that hit their target. Other times, he puts plays like this one on film. Frankly, he’s pretty lucky to only have three interceptions on the season.

Mason Rudolph’s mechanics can improve over time with work, but that doesn’t really matter for the rest of this season. The Colts defense is going to need to be uncharacteristically opportunistic this Sunday. If they aren’t, Mason Rudolph is good enough to light up the stat sheet.


Running Back:

If you don’t know about Le’Veon Bell’s 2018 holdout, I’m not going to do a deep dive on it here. It opened the door to former Pitt Panther James Conner. Since taking over the starting job, Conner has looked like a legitimate workhorse back. In 2018, he played in 13 games rushing for 973 yards, 4.5 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns. His 2019 started out a little sluggish, coming into week 8 averaging 3.2 yards per attempt. After his day against Miami, he’s now averaging 3.9 yards per attempt, and he looked like a star on Monday Night Football.

Worth monitoring

Schefter did a pretty good job of telling you about the other backs on the Steelers roster and as it turns out, most of them are hurt. As of right now, we don’t know anything about rookie Benny Snell and his injured knee, nor do we know if Conner will need to miss any time with his shoulder. We do know that versatile back Jaylen Samuels practiced last week and will likely be ready to go. Samuels is an interesting back who, like Nyhiem Hines, hails from NC State. Unlike Hines, many were unsure where Samuels would play at the next level, given his prototypical running back size (6’ 225 lbs) and his ability as a receiver and blocker. His skill set didn’t seem like a perfect fit for any one position and the Steelers have used him in a multitude of ways to make the most of his unique abilities.

Too easy

The Steelers will mix zone and gap running schemes. They seem to call more of one or the other based on the team they’re playing, but the one thing that is consistent is their commitment to the run.

At one point, the Steelers got the ball to James Conner on seven straight plays. The entire drive was Conner. The Steelers went 40 yards on seven plays, and Conner capped it off with a touchdown. For much of the season, their run game was very predictable, but they do seem to have turned the corner. After last night’s game, it would be impossible to ignore what this team can do on the ground.

Backs will be involved in the passing game

I won’t make any wild predictions about the number of targets or catches the Steelers backs will have this weekend but I expect it to be several. Mason Rudolph is ready and willing to throw to his backs.

Conner is a load to bring down

James Conner is 6’1” 233 pounds, and like other Pittsburgh backs before him, he is a hard nosed, physical runner. The two plays I showed you of him don’t do a great job showcasing that and there’s really not much I can tell you about the second play. They work to the second level, Conner sees his lane, and JuJu doesn’t block like a good teammate. With that said, if he is healthy, Conner is a guy that can do serious damage to the Colts front seven. If Carl Davis is healthy this seems like a game the Colts could use someone with is girth up front.


Pass Catchers:

In recent history the Steelers seem to evaluate and develop receivers better than everyone else. After watching Antonio Brown free-fall into a mental abyss, the fact that he was mostly kept in check during his time in Pittsburgh makes what this staff is able to with these receivers all the more impressive.

In my opinion, the Steelers (along with many other examples around the league) have shown that you don’t need to spend first round picks on receivers to find guys that will succeed. JuJu Smith-Schuster was taken late in the second round in the 2017 draft, while 2019 third round pick Diontae Johnson has looked like someone capable of being the WR2 in Pittsburgh for years to come. We won’t talk a lot about 2018 second round pick James Washington and his 37% catch rate (yikes) and I definitely don’t want to talk about how much I liked him coming out of Oklahoma State. So, let’s talk about their tight end Vance McDonald! McDonald had a career year last season hauling in 50 balls for 610 yards and four touchdowns. With Roethlisberger out, McDonald’s numbers have taken an expected hit, but he is still a capable receiver if called upon.

This kid might want to stick to his duck calls

The only things stopping this from being a big play are a better pass and that safety over the top. JuJu did a great job with the double move, third string quarterback Duck Hodges had the right idea, and while I’m not sure Mason Rudolph would have been able to throw an accurate ball and fit it underneath the safety, the ball would have gotten close and given JuJu a chance to make a play. But can he?

Watching this game at home, Rock Ya-Sin drew a flag on this play

From what I’ve seen JuJu doesn’t always handle physical play at the line that well. I’m kind of reaching to find something bad to say, I didn’t do a deep dive into JuJu but it was the one thing I noticed besides his lack of effort as a blocker. Otherwise, he is able to win in a multitude of ways like the play above.

How do you defend that

It’s tough to fault the defender for anything other than getting beaten for the ball. He was in position, and most receivers aren’t able to win at the catch point the way Smith-Schuster does here.

I could have posted clips from other Steelers receivers or even James Conner, who is second on the team with 29 receptions on the season, but JuJu is a 6’1” 215 pound, 22 year old WR1 who in his third season is on pace for 69 receptions for 1012 yards and 7 touchdowns with QB 2 and 3 throwing him the ball. With Roethlisberger last season, he caught 111 passes for 1426 yards, at 22 years old! Smith-Schuster is a special player and if Pierre Desir isn’t healthy and completely ready to play, this could be a big day for the Steelers third year receiver.


Offensive Line:

The starters from left to right: Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler. The Indianapolis Colts offensive line has been fantastic protecting Jacoby Brissett this season. They’ve given up just 11 sacks through 7 games, and Brissett has been known to hold on to the ball just a little too long. It’s almost impossible to be better than they’ve been.

Unless you’re the Steelers. Through 7 games they’ve allowed 7 sacks and two of them came in week one against the Patriots.

If this offensive line has a weakness, it’s in the ground game. As I said before, this has as much to do with predictable play calling as it does a lack of on-field execution. With that said, they’ve been able to open holes on the ground of late and we shouldn’t just count on them struggling this Sunday.

This is a rare sight. I would be very surprised if we see much movement at all against Alejandro Villanueva. For any Ben Banogu fans out there (lookin’ at you Jim Campbell) this probably isn’t the week to watch for your guy.

So this is against the Dolphins

But this was just such a well executed play that allowed Conner to pick up big yards, and it all started up front.

Matt Eberflus was taking notes

I expect the Colts to try to generate pressure in a lot of ways with blitzes and stunts like the one above. I’m not that confident we’ll see anyone get home in this one, but some well-timed pressure may be enough to force a young QB into making a game-changing mistake.


Final Thoughts:

Before I sat down and really studied this Steelers team, I believed that this was going to be an easy win for our Colts. After taking the time to evaluate and weigh everything that I’ve seen from them, I believe this team is better than their record, and will be a serious contender for a wildcard spot in the AFC. I won’t say that this game isn’t winnable for our Colts, I believe it is, but this is going to be a hard-fought game between two talented rosters, each starting very talented “backup” quarterbacks. I’m not ready to make my predictions for the game, but I will predict that Colts Twitter will watch the Colts “struggle” against another team with a losing record and will overreact accordingly, so get ready for that!