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» 2017 Play-Action Defense

Our look at play-action pass in 2017 flips to the defensive side of the ball. Carolina was historically good, Houston was historically bad, and a long-standing question about year-to-year correlation gets cleared up.

12 Oct 2017

Film Room: Big Ben's Bevy of Blunders

by Charles McDonald

Over the past few seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have boasted an explosive offense capable of scoring on any defense in the league. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant have all erupted for astronomical statlines in recent seasons. However, this year has been a bit different. Roethlisberger is having worst season since 2008, when he ranked 27th in DVOA. His start this season hasn't been that bad by DVOA standards (currently 17th), but it's a far fall from where he has been over the past decade.

Last Sunday, all of Roethlisberger's current struggles were put on display against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He threw five interceptions and zero touchdowns, with a woeful 1.3 adjusted net yards per pass attempt.

The Jaguars' pass defense has decimated every quarterback they have faced this year, leading the league in pass defense DVOA by a considerable margin through the first five games of the season. Still, Roethlisberger didn't exactly put his best foot forward on Sunday, becoming just the third quarterback since 1999 to throw fifty or more passes with zero touchdowns and at least five interceptions.

Jacksonville didn't try to confuse Ben Roethlisberger with complex coverages and exotic blitzes. They lined up in man coverage or simple zone schemes and bet on their talent over Pittsburgh's. This is a smart way to conduct business for any secondary featuring Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, A.J. Bouye, and the extraterrestrial Jalen Ramsey.

That amount of defensive talent combined with lousy quarterback play and rickety protection from the running backs is the perfect recipe for a disastrous day through the air. All three were on display on Jacksonville's first interception of the day.

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Jacksonville is running a three-deep zone blitz that essentially turns into man coverage due to the amount of receivers Pittsburgh has on the play. Pittsburgh is in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) in a 3x1 formation (three receiving options on one side, one on the other).

At the bottom of the screen, tight end Vance McDonald is the only receiver on his side of the formation. The Jaguars will have Ramsey adjust to straight-up man coverage since he's the only receiving threat on that side of the field.

The defensive line will slant left, with Abry Jones dropping into the flat, and Paul Posluszny blitzing in the now vacant "B" gap. Running back James Conner has Posluszny in pass protection, but Conner makes a "business decision." He sidesteps the blitzing 'backer and barely makes contact on the block, allowing Posluszny to hit Ben Roethlisberger as he throws the ball.

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Posluszny vs. Conner wasn't the only big advantage Jacksonville had on the play. Jalen Ramsey in coverage on a tight end is an extraordinary advantage for the Jaguars' defense. Ramsey has no problem trailing the tight end until it's time to accelerate on the ball and intercept Roethlisberger's distorted pass attempt.

Roethlisberger's second interception on the day looked like a throw an inexperienced rookie quarterback would make.

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Jacksonville was running man coverage across the board except for Church playing deep and Myles Jack as a "robber" sitting in the hole in the middle of the defense.

The first part of this play that put Pittsburgh in a bind was Le'Veon Bell's assignment to chip the defensive end before releasing for a swing route. With Bell not immediately running out for a route, Telvin Smith was able to squat in his original position until he saw which way Bell was going to run.

With the free safety playing so deep and the defense clearly in man coverage, Roethlisberger signals for Antonio Brown to run a slant route.

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The process here is fantastic. Brown should be able to immediately establish inside leverage on the cornerback and catch the ball on the slant for an easy gain. Roethlisberger is assuming Bell will be out on his swing route by the time he catches the snap, looks off the free safety and the middle linebacker, and comes back to Brown on the slant.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Bell had just completed his chip on Dante Fowler by the time Roethlisberger came back to the slant route. The rest was history.

Roethlisberger's third interception was straight man coverage again, and a terrific play by Ramsey.

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This one is pretty straightforward. Brown is running a post route from the bottom of the screen with Ramsey in man coverage. Roethlisberger lets the ball rip as Brown breaks towards the middle of the field, but the throw is a bit high. When the ball reaches the catch point, Ramsey spikes the ball out of Brown's hands in to the awaiting arms of Church, who ends up taking it back to the house.

The fourth interception wasn't Roethlisberger's fault.

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Jacksonville broke their trend of single-high coverages and rolled with a Man-2 look -- two deep safeties with man coverage across the board.

Justin Hunter was on his way to run a skinny post, a route typically called against two-high looks to split the safeties and find an open space in the middle of the field. It was a logical call and throw based on the coverage, but the execution was laughably bad.

As Hunter is about to break into the middle of the field, he slips.

With Roethlisberger's intended target on the ground, the only person left to catch the pass is Tashaun Gipson. This is perhaps the easiest interception Gipson will ever have, and it wasn't his only interception on the day.

On the fifth and final interception, the Jaguars mixed up their coverage a bit by running Quarters-Quarters-Half (QQH) coverage, or Cover-6. It's kind of a blend between Cover-2, Cover-3, and Cover-4.

Jacksonville's coverage is aligned to the offense's passing strength. On the strong side they have a hook defender, a flat defender, and two defensive backs playing quarters over the top of them. On the other side, they're playing with a safety patrolling the deep half of the field.

With Pittsburgh in a 3x1 set, the backside coverage defenders check to "solo" assignments. That just means that they're going to play man coverage against the backside receiving options. Here's a diagram of it all drawn out.

Pittsburgh is going for the gold on this play. At this point in the game (down 23-9 in the fourth quarter), they needed a touchdown. They're running three vertical routes trying to get deep for a big play.

As Roethlisberger gets ready to launch the ball down the field to Brown, Fowler hits his right arm, causing the ball to lose velocity and fall into Gipson's hands in his quarter coverage.

The Steelers had everything go wrong with them this week. Shoddy protection, poor quarterback play, and awful luck tanked their passing offense. From a schematic point of view, everything looks great, but their execution has been pitiful. Ben Roethlisberger and company are going to need to get their act together quickly with a road game against the Kansas City Chiefs coming up next week. Falling to 3-3 with the Ravens and Bengals finding their roll would add an unneeded roadblock to their season. In order for the Steelers to get back on track, the passing game is going to have to correct itself. The defense is playing extremely well right now (fifth in DVOA) -- it's time for the offense to hold up their end of the bargain.

Posted by: Charles McDonald on 12 Oct 2017

6 comments, Last at 13 Oct 2017, 3:14pm by ChrisLong


by jtr :: Thu, 10/12/2017 - 10:28am

It's not fair to Roethlisberger to never mention that the second pick was batted by a defensive lineman. We can't really say whether Smith would have been able to make any kind of play on the ball on the trajectory that Ben released it. IMO, most of the blame is on LG Ramon Foster, who slow-played his pass set to the point that he barely touched the defensive lineman, giving him a free opportunity to jump up and bat the ball.

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 10/12/2017 - 11:08am

I was wondering about that, but looking at the all-22, there is nowhere else to go with the ball and the defender is in the passing lane. I don't think he saw him.

by jtr :: Thu, 10/12/2017 - 12:18pm

Sure, but if the ball isn't tipped, it's higher in the air and travelling much faster. Smith maybe could have gotten a hand on it but it would have taken an exceptional play to intercept the ball.

by Badfinger :: Thu, 10/12/2017 - 12:28pm

The third interception sure looks like 3-deep zone, not man. The corners are both playing off coverage and bail at the snap. Church runs to a spot and picks up the crossing WR, everyone is playing face to the QB except the bailing corners, and rather than rushing when the H and TE stay in to block, the linebackers sit just off the line of scrimmage.

by ChrisS :: Fri, 10/13/2017 - 11:03am

This seems a bit harsh "but Conner makes a "business decision." He sidesteps the blitzing 'backer and barely makes contact on the block,". My take is that the momentum from the play-action fake took him to the outside of the LB and he was just able to get a shoulder on the LB as Poszluzney raced past him.

by ChrisLong :: Fri, 10/13/2017 - 3:14pm