Secrets to Steelers' Win Over Browns
NFL Week 8 - No offense in the league has to play "matchup" football more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite all their wide receiver talent, the offense is hamstrung in other ways that make things tricky for offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Ben Roethlisberger's diminished physical abilities have stripped the offense of shot plays and the ability to move the pocket consistently, and he clearly prefers to be in shotgun. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is out for the season with a shoulder injury, which is a tough hurdle to overcome considering all the work he did for the offense over the middle and as a blocker. The Steelers' young offensive line is still trying to fully find its footing, making it tougher to rely on a select few runs and just bet on the blocking winning out on every snap. It is hard for the Steelers to find a bread-and-butter formula.
Last week's contest against the Browns was as extreme as Canada has leaned into any matchup this season. Per Sports Info Solutions, Pittsburgh's 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) usage shot up from 18% through the first seven weeks to 36% in Week 8. Likewise, their under-center snaps went from 17% through the first seven weeks all the way up to 37%. Shifts, motion, and some short play-action passes were all incorporated into the offense in a way that felt fresh and cohesive. Weak zone became the offense's run-of-the-week. Everything about the offense—at least the parts that worked—felt unique to this opponent.
So why did the Steelers get heavier, go under center, and change up their primary run concepts against the Browns?
Cleveland's defense shines because of its star pass-rushers and young, talented secondary. The secondary has battled health issues and some youthful mistakes at times, but they are really coming on strong as of late. Trying to stay true to the shotgun and beat the Browns through pure dropback passes was not going to be a reliable approach.
The middle of the Browns defense is far more volatile, though. Cleveland regularly deploys Malik McDowell and Malik Jackson together at defensive tackle, both of whom work better when penetrating upfield rather than maintaining the line of scrimmage. Also, the Browns were missing their best linebacker, rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, due to injury. Canada saw this as the perfect opportunity to get into heavier personnel to force the Browns into base defense with three linebackers, allowing him to take advantage of bad eyes from a middling linebacker unit as well as the lack of gap integrity and anchor along the Browns' interior defensive line.
The Steelers got to it on their first drive of the game. This was the first of a handful of weak zone runs the Steelers ran away from their two-tight end surface. On its own, this 3-yard gain is nothing special, but it starts the process of peeling back the Browns defense. Not only do the Steelers clearly get the push on McDowell (58) they were hoping for, but they show the Browns the threat of the jet handoff, both with the motion itself and their blocking patterns.
The inside tight end would typically climb to a linebacker (Mack Wilson, 51) on zone, but the Steelers instead have the two tight ends block away from the flow of the play like they would if the jet player was actually getting the ball. This is because the quarterback is reading whether to hand the ball to the back or the jet player based on how the defense handles the jet player. In this case, the defense rolls down a safety to that side, so Roethlisberger hands the ball to the back. While blocking this way lets the linebacker free to make a tackle, the Steelers were OK with that in order to set up future jet plays, in part because they knew they could get this push play-side to still get something out of the play.
On the very next play, the Steelers go back to weak zone again. The receiver's motion is flipped this time, now going into the play side rather than away from it. Motion to the side of the run can force linebackers to overcommit to that side, giving way for the runner to cut the play back. That is especially true against a Browns defensive interior that can get moved off the ball, as they do here.
Pittsburgh dipped back into the weak zone well a few more times throughout the course of the game. While the Browns did have success getting into some different personnel groupings up front and trying different things to slow down the Steelers offense as a whole, Najee Harris' carries on weak zone continued to succeed.
This is the same play we saw in the first clip. The Browns defense has Andrew Billings (99) as the weak-side defensive tackle instead of McDowell this time, though. As far as clogging up rushing lanes and maintaining the line of scrimmage, that should be better for Cleveland. Rookie center Kendrick Green (53) makes an insane reach across Billings' body to box him inside, however, and Harris flashes his nimble feet to squeeze through the rushing lane for a nice gain.
Cleveland started to get creative later in the game. On this first-and-10 to open the drive, the Browns defense gets into an exotic look with the hope of getting someone into the backfield before the play gets going. Linebacker Sione Takitaki (44) walks down to the edge to replace Jadeveon Clowney, while Clowney (90) shuffles over into a stand-up position over the center in order to fire off the ball and get penetration. Against a different run concept, perhaps this works, but Harris takes the carry away from Clowney and into McDowell's side. Though McDowell (58) does not get plowed by a double team this time around, he takes himself too far wide and up the field to be able to help squeeze this run. That forces linebacker Mack Wilson (51) to make a hero play by undercutting the lineman, just barely shutting down this run from going for even more than it did.
Of course, Canada did more with heavier personnel sets than just line up both tight ends to one side and run the other way. The Steelers also got into some split zone concepts, both from their heavier personnel and standard 11 personnel (three receivers). They went as far as pairing that split action with motion before the snap, giving those second- and third-level defenders even more eye candy to consider.
The Steelers come out in a trips nub look with Zach Gentry (81) alone as the nub tight end to the right and Derek Watt (44) as the Y-off player to the left. Slot receiver Chase Claypool (11) shifts across the formation, which Cleveland responds to by bumping their linebackers over and rolling down their field safety (top) over the outside linebacker and letting the linebacker blitz. It is possible the Browns had this adjustment in knowing the Steelers like to run split zone and play-action off of split zone when the tight end is off the ball, theoretically giving that blitzing outside linebacker a free run backside or a one-on-one against the running back in pass pro.
Pittsburgh takes things to the next level by showing play-action pass, only for Harris to slip out of pass pro past the blitzer to catch a screen pass and get a one-on-one in space with a safety. With all the commotion and play-action, the safety (John Johnson, 43) gets caught out in space in a worse position than he would like, letting Harris turn upfield for some yards.
Here the Steelers are going back to a split zone look on a later drive. The Steelers return to their two-tight end surface, this time with the outside tight end in an "off" alignment to let him work back across the formation. The motion from the slot receiver into the strength of the formation again gets the linebackers to bump over and play aggressively to that side, while the left tackle (Dan Moore, 65) and left guard (Kevin Dotson, 69) work a devastating combination block on McDowell (poor guy, this game). Once again, Harris gets pretty free access to bend this run back inside for a good pickup.
Canada was able to get his receivers going in the run game thanks to all of what they tied their motion to. Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud combined for three carries, two of which went for 10 yards or more. By consistently making these guys a threat on their core run concepts, it was tough for the Browns' second- and third-level defenders to properly keep track of when the Steelers were giving the ball to a receiver and when they were running the other way.
The Steelers also pieced together this beautiful series out of a pistol Y-off formation.
90% sure this is all of PIT's pistol Y-off plays, in order. two reps of insert, then they score with counter as a wrinkle to the insert action, then eventually they throw off the counter action. just pretty watching stuff like this unfold over the course of a game pic.twitter.com/VNTOwPdCUQ
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) November 1, 2021
I could write an entirely separate Film Room about this series of plays alone, but instead, I just want to tie this into one last play. In this series of pistol plays, take notice of how the Steelers leaned into using the tight end as a puller, whether that was to bring him in as the insert up the middle or as part of a counter concept. The Steelers played off of this later in the game from an under-center 12 personnel look to get some easy yards in the flat.
Pittsburgh shifts their No. 3 (innermost) player from the trips side into a Y-off position outside the tight end to the right. Right at the snap, the Y-off player (Pat Freiermuth, 88) steps inside and the right guard comes across the formation. This looks like it could be counter, especially after the offense had shown them that a number of times previously. As such, Wilson (51) runs himself into what would be the run side, while the Steelers' other tight end (Gentry, 81) comes off the line of scrimmage late into the flat and gets a huge runway to work with because Wilson vacated himself from the area. This play jumpstarted a 13-play touchdown drive that ultimately sealed the victory for Pittsburgh.
Putting up only 15 points is hardly a thrilling performance, but this is the world the Steelers have to live in. It is just the reality of the roster (read: quarterback situation). They can not generate many explosives and, in this matchup, they were not going to just brute-force their way into a decent passing performance the way they have done in some previous games versus weaker defenses.
The goal is to beat the team in front of you in a given week. Canada put together as sound of a game plan as was possible with the pieces he had versus the pieces he was up against, even despite the boatload of offensive penalties the Steelers accrued. Maybe this exact blueprint is not something that can work week-in, week-out for the Steelers, but it is encouraging that they continue to find unique ways to make their clearly limited offense do enough to stick around. Legit contenders or not, there is something pleasing about watching an offense crack the code in a matchup they should have been outclassed in.