The NFL playoffs are about to kick off and after the oddsmakers' "Big Four" - the Seahawks, Patriots, Packers, and Broncos - there is a mishmash of darkhorses and potential Cinderella stories looking to make some noise. Among them, the Steelers look like a team that could be poised to make a surprise run at a Super Bowl appearance after winning their final four games to run away with the AFC North. Pittsburgh has some flaws on defense, but they're carried by an explosive, physical, and punishing offense led by a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
Big Ben has two superstars at his side* -- running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown -- and behind that trio, Pittsburgh's offensive attack is supported by key contributors in TE Heath Miller and newcomers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
*Update: Bell has been declared Out for this weekend.
Pittsburgh plays host to their division rivals the Ravens on Saturday night, and because the Steelers' identity this season is centered on their offense, let's take a quick look at what makes it effective enough to potentially get them back to the big game.
The run game sets the tone
As a preamble to any discussion of the Pittsburgh run game, the injury status of Bell is obviously a pretty big deal. The three-down bellcow back finished the season with 290 rushes for 1,361 yards (4.7 YPC) and eight touchdowns on the ground, was a major factor in the passing game and is a good pass protector. Bottom line? If he can't go, Pittsburgh will have to do some adjusting in their schemes and in the way they use their personnel.
Regardless, whether it's Bell, rookie Josh Harris or rookie Dri Archer lining up in the backfield, you'll see a variety of blocking strategies from Todd Haley's group. As I broke down a couple weeks ago, Pittsburgh likes to go to their power-O package pretty frequently, and this is most easily identified by a pulling guard.
An example: As the rest of the offensive line and tight end block down the line, the right guard David DeCastro (No. 66) pulls to his left, scrapes around the tight end on the end and picks up the now-reacting defensive linebacker. Bell is a master of the power-O game because of his combination of patience and explosiveness -- he waits for his blocks to set up, he waits for defenders to commit to the inside or outside, then he bursts through opposite of where they choose. He's also willing to put a stiff-arm someone to pick up the tough yards.
The Zone Blocking Scheme
The Steelers also use zone blocking schemes in their run game. See below: instead of shooting out of their stance and blocking forward, each Pittsburgh lineman instead strafes to their left. If an offensive lineman has a defender in front of him (is "covered", as in No. 53 and 66 below), he blocks that guy. If he is uncovered (No. 77 below), he helps with the man next to him before moving down the field to take on a second level defender like a linebacker.
This gets the defense flowing laterally, and Bell's or the running back's job at that point is to find a seam where the defense has either been slow to react, or find a cutback lane that takes advantage of an overcommitting defense.
Below, you can see that it's the latter. The Bengals over-commit along the line and Bell bounces it back to his right, cutting off of the backside tight end's hip.
The intermediate pass game moves the chains
With Bell possibly out on Saturday night, this area may be one of the most important for Pittsburgh. While Bell has been a huge factor catching and running with the ball in the screen pass game, his absence as a pass protector means the Steelers may try to incorporate quicker-hitting plays like screens, quick slants, and sprint-outs in order to keep the Ravens' pass rushers at bay. These are all effective in deterring the pass rush.
Screen passes work like a charm against a riled up defensive end or outside linebacker that is hell bent on hitting the QB. As the offensive linemen allow the pass rusher to get upfield past them, the quarterback dumps it off to a running back -- perhaps it will be Harris or Archer on Saturday -- and that back now has blockers in front of him and hopefully a bunch of pass rushing defenders behind him.
Another way the Steelers could mitigate issues in pass pro is to use sprint outs that get Big Ben out of the pocket and on the move, where he's so deadly. Here's an example from last week - the sprint out not only gets Ben out of the pocket, but it creates a shorter throwing distance and better angle for the throw to Heath Miller, who runs a simple out route for the chains.
By now, most everyone probably knows about bubble screens -- they're prevalent in college football and have made their way into NFL playbooks with much greater frequency over the past few years. The goal is to stretch the defense laterally and to make corners and safeties not only get off blocks, but take good pursuit angles and tackle well.
Below, the Bengals do none of these things, and it's six points for Pittsburgh.
That block by Miller above (No. 83) is so damn textbook. Engages the safety, latches on legally, rotates hips, seals with outside leverage. Miller remains an important player in the Steelers' offense in that he's an excellent blocker in line, on the move and can catch the ball in the passing game.
Heath Miller is the constraint
A "constraint play" is meant to take advantage of a cheating defense. Are they creeping up toward the line to take on a bubble screen, hoping to blow it up before the play develops? Fake the bubble and throw the slant to your tight end, like below:
You can see that several Chiefs defenders get caught flat-footed anticipating the screen to Antonio Brown (I can't really blame them), and Roethlisberger takes advantage of this.
Defenders overly amped up to defend the run? Hit them with play action as a constraint to keep them honest.
Below -- I really like this play by the way -- Roethlisberger fakes the pitch before keeping the ball, turning, and finding Miller over the middle. If you're a linebacker playing this snap, your first steps are likely going to be to widen out to defend the running back on the edge (and holeeey crap look at No. 90 take the bait). This leaves a nice soft spot for the offense in the middle of the field.
Get Dri Archer out in space
Archer ran the 40 in the 4.2s this past year, and in the Tavon Austin mold of speedsters, the idea in Bell's absence will likely to scheme ways to get Archer out in space. End arounds, screens, dumpoffs, and swing passes are likely.
The deep pass game takes the top off defenses
Rookie receiver Martavis Bryant hit the ground running when he first emerged in Pittsburgh's offense in Week 7, catching five touchdowns in his first three games. He's a field stretching speed threat that presents an attractive target for Roethlisberger every time an opposing defense plays one-on-one on the outside. The 6'4, 211-pound rookie out of Clemson can run a 4.3 40 and tracks the ball well over his head, and while he's still learning the nuances of the NFL game, he has mastered one narrow but valuable role.
For a 'go-route' type of deep threat receiver, it's obviously very important to have long speed, but the first few steps are the most important. In the NFL, routes are dependent heavily on timing and location -- if you get caught up trying to get around a defender or waste two or three steps trying to get into your route downfield, it could screw up the whole deal. Ben throws the ball downfield and you're a few strides behind where he knows you should be.
Bryant hasn't been perfect but he's shown some good things in terms of getting an effective release down the field. It's about footwork and shoulder positioning - here, he sells the inside cutting slant route with a shoulder juke, the defensive back bites on it, tries to jam him up, and Bryant is downfield in a flash.
Here's the broadcast angle:
Keep your eye on Bryant in this one -- he may only get two or three targets, but he's proven he has a knack for making game-changing plays.
Ben Roethlisberger's improvisation is the wild card
Simply put, you cannot prepare for the improvisational aspect of Roethlisberger's game. You can make plans for ways to keep him in the pocket or whatever, but by definition, when he starts running around and the play has broken down, it's completely random -- no scheming can account for some of the rabbits that Big Ben has pulled out of a hat in his career.
It starts with Roethlisberger's pocket toughness. He sticks in pockets. He climbs pockets. He sets, re-sets, sets, re-sets, and he always keeps his eyes downfield.
Of course, he's also a big human being and the laws of physics dictate that a high level of force has to be applied to move him or throw him down.
Watch his eyes. He gets bum-rushed by a defensive tackle, kicked by said defensive tackle, and he never looks down at the defensive tackle, even as he's getting hit by another defensive tackle.
Roethlisberger is really good. You probably already knew this, but I'm telling you again.
Antonio Brown is good. Really, really good.
Hey, you know who is also really good? This Antonio Brown guy. They should try and throw him the ball.
Watch this route (he's at the bottom of the screen):
I mean, that's just mean.
Here's another good route, catch, and run for a touchdown.
Bottom line? With Bell either out or probably slowed up with a knee injury this weekend, the Steelers will lean on their superstar receiver to make a few big plays for them. And he probably will.