In the twilight of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's career, the Pittsburgh Steelers have strayed a bit from the bombs-away style that once made them a constant threat in the AFC. Roethlisberger simply does not have the same arm or mobility that he used to. To compensate, the offense has become more about getting players open underneath and feeding them yards-after-catch opportunities. Roethlisberger still lets it rip a few times a game to keep defenses honest, but it's clear that the Steelers are now an offense of attrition, not explosion.
For much of the year, that has been a viable strategy. The run game has started to dramatically fall off over the past month or so, however. Some of that can be explained by COVID-related absences of guys such as running back James Conner and center Maurkice Pouncey, but not all of it. They've also just been flat-out worse in their execution, which has put more onus on the quick passing game to be the offense's stable source of yardage. Last Monday, Washington gave Pittsburgh neither a run game nor a quick passing attack to work with.
In all honesty, some of the reasons Washington was able to keep the Pittsburgh offense down have little to do with Xs and Os. Scheme matters and Washington certainly did some things to put the Steelers offense in a bind, but heads-up football and great hustle towards the ball also went a long way. Call it cliche, but effort and small details really added up over the course of the game.
For instance, Washington's front constantly got a hand on Roethlisberger's short passes. Having defensive linemen be aware of getting their hands up is less a "scheme" than it is a coaching point against quick-pass offenses. Washington's players took that coaching point and ran with it this week, forcing a number of easy incompletions by anticipating Roethlisberger's quick passing.
Here is second-year defensive end Montez Sweat (90, bottom) recognizing the wide receiver screen and getting a hand in the way to smack the pass down. As soon as Sweat flies off the line, he realizes the tackle does not take a full pass set. The tackle gets wide for a second, barely engages Sweat, then moves behind him to get to the perimeter. Sweat knows right then and there that this is a screen to his side and puts his hand out. It's not a sexy play, but processing that information all at once and then throwing a hand into the throwing lane isn't always easy to do.
Defensive tackle Daron Payne (94, offense's right) got a hand on a couple of passes too. In this clip, Payne does not really engage in a full-blown pass rush. He gets hands on the opposing guard across from him, then sort of throttles himself down to eye Roethlisberger at the end of the quarterback's initial dropback. As soon as Roethlisberger was ready to throw at the top of his drop, Payne was just as ready to get a hand in the way.
This time around, both Payne and Sweat (bottom) try to get a hand in the way. Sweat ends up being the one more in Roethlisberger's throwing lane, so the ball gets tipped off his long arm and pops up into the air. Linebacker Jon Bostic makes a great play to find the ball in the air and get under it. Seeing as Pittsburgh snapped this ball down three points with only two minutes left in the game, snagging the interception here pretty much sealed the deal for Washington.
Along the same lines, Washington showed incredible hustle towards the ball all game. Kendall Fuller's missed tackle on James Washington that resulted in a touchdown sticks out in our minds, but for most of the rest of the game, the Washington defense had the clamps on yards-after-catch opportunities. A portion of that was indeed scheme-related (and we'll get there), but some of it was just good ol' fashioned effort.
Washington's defense had a number of plays like this where they killed these YAC-oriented plays before they could get going. On a couple of occasions, like this one, Washington's defense rallied to make the tackle just before Pittsburgh's receiver could get to the sticks. It's hard to quantify the value of effort, but even having a defense save just one extra conversion out of 10 on plays like this over the course of a season can really go a long way, and it sure has for Washington.
Of course, part of the equation was also Washington's scheme. Aside from clear passing downs, Washington regularly kept the strength of the front and/or coverage rotations towards the tight end (strong) side of the formation with the linebackers bumped over to the running back side. There are a few different reasons Washington could get away with this. For one, they trust their defensive line to take on the burden of run defense on runs to the strong side, particularly their spill players. Washington also seems to trust their linebackers to fire out into space and make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage, as opposed to rotating a safety down weak to have them do it.
Take this first-and-10 screen pass, for example. Pittsburgh starts in a 2x2 set from 12 personnel (two tight ends) with both tight ends attached to the right side of the formation. Washington has their front set to the strength of the formation, meaning the 3-technique is to the run strength. A safety is also rotated down to the run strength (circled in red), which allows the SAM and MIKE linebackers to be aligned weak and the WILL to be flexed out into the apex between the formation and the two-receiver set to the left. Having a linebacker over a two-receiver set seems like risky business, but Washington trusts their linebackers to pass things off properly in zone, if need be, and absolutely blow up those screen passes Pittsburgh likes to run.
That's exactly what happens in this play. Pittsburgh flips one of their tight ends to the other side, which gets Washington's linebackers to slide over in response. Weakside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (54, bottom) does an excellent job triggering down immediately, working through the wide receiver trying to block him, and blowing this play up by giving the receiver nowhere to go outside. The wide receiver tries to cut this back inside, but Pittsburgh's tight end takes a weak angle towards middle linebacker Jon Bostic (53), which gets the receiver boxed in between the two linebackers for a loss of 2 yards.
This play is a bit different since Washington's front has no real strength, but the idea of rotating the safety strong remains the same. Washington is in a 5-1 front, meaning they have five linemen with one linebacker (Cole Holcomb, 55). The three interior players are a 3-technique, a 0-technique, and another 3-technique, which means that any "strength" in this front will be signified by the safety rotation. With the safety rotated down over the tight end to the offense's strength, Holcomb is able to align slightly weak in a "10" alignment between the guard and center. That makes it slightly easier for him to work towards the running back in the flat, giving him just enough of an advantage to get past the center trying to find him in space and make the tackle for a 4-yard loss.
As mentioned earlier, Washington still needs to be able to defend the run playing their linebackers this way. If they couldn't, then all the benefits they get against the quick passing game would be for naught because teams would just run all over them. The strength of Washington's front must be able to defend the run with sound technique to allow the second-level players to fill, while the safety rotated down to the strength has to be as willing as a linebacker to get in there with their run fits.
The Steelers are trying to run one-back power with the puller kicking out the defensive end on this play. This is a pretty solid look for it, too. The guard and tackle should combo the 3-technique and climb to the linebacker (Holcomb, 55), while the tight end works as a lead blocker straight to the safety who has rotated down. The back-side guard will wrap around and kick out the defensive end, which should create a lane somewhere between the tackle and the kick-out block.
That's not what happened.
The result of this play is equal parts good defense and poor blocking. Considering the double team, three-tech defensive tackle James Smith-Williams (96) should be taken out of the play. However, he does a wonderful job resetting after the initial double team, working into the A-gap to "show color" and forcing the back to bounce, then getting hands above his eyes to drive back the guard as the play bounces. At the same time, defensive end Casey Toohill (95) does well to work back inside of the pulling guard on a "spill" technique, allowing him to take the inside gap while cornerback Kendall Fuller (29) flies down outside as the force. Add these efforts from Smith-Williams and Toohill on top of tight end Eric Ebron getting a bit lost trying to find safety Jeremy Reaves (39), who basically becomes a free hitter, and the result is a run that goes nowhere.
Washington's ability to get that quality of run fit from backups speaks both to their depth up front as well as Pittsburgh's issues in the run game. The Steelers have struggled to run the ball as of late, particularly in the past two weeks. Since Week 9, the Steelers have posted a DVOA rating of -85.0% or worse in three games, including this one against Washington. When coupled with how well Washington took away yards after the catch on quick passes, the Steelers were sort of forced into relying on shot plays to keep them in this game and did not end up connecting on enough of them.
Lucky for Pittsburgh, only one of the four defenses left on their schedule --the Indianapolis Colts -- is in the same ballpark as Washington. The Bills, Bengals, and Browns defenses do not quite have the track record this season to suggest they can repeat what Washington did to Pittsburgh, though Sean McDermott's unit in Buffalo is trending the right way. Time will tell if this meltdown against Washington was a one-off event or an omen for what's to come.