Steelers Collapsing Down the Stretch

Pittsburg Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburg Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 14 - At halftime of last Thursday's game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked beyond done. They couldn't stop the run, at all, and they weren't getting anything done on offense. It was as bleak of a half of football as I have seen this year. But Pittsburgh came out swinging in the second half. It took an incredible rally and a couple of Kirk Cousins interceptions, but the Steelers ended up with a chance to win the game on the final play. They couldn't quite pull it off, but after the first half it was a welcome sign of life.

Still, the furious comeback didn't make up for the shortcomings Pittsburgh showed during the first two quarters. In particular, there were some big breakdowns in protection that killed drives. The Steelers have been the worst offensive line I have covered this year, but they hadn't shown this amount of completely blown protections like we saw against the Vikings. That's probably because the really big blowups weren't the offensive line's fault.

I don't know if center Kendrick Green (53) or Ben Roethlisberger is responsible for directing the protection. I would imagine a quarterback as experienced as Roethlisberger is the one steering the ship on a team with a rookie center. In the end, it doesn't matter who sends the protection which way, though, because once the protection is set, it's the quarterback's job to know which (if any) defenders are hot. In this case, when the Vikings bring four to the left, the Steelers only have three to block them, and Roethlisberger has to be ready to get rid of it.

It does look bad when you have three offensive linemen blocking one rusher. It's easy as a fan to ask what the hell they're doing, but with the look the Vikings give, there is a certain amount of guesswork that the Steelers have to do. They have three blockers to each side, but Minnesota brings an overload to one side and gets an unblocked rusher. With the protection called, there's not anything the offensive line can do—they were beat in the huddle. It happens; defensive coordinators get paid too. Only thing that can happen for Pittsburgh is Roethlisberger has to throw it hot.

Once again the Vikings are sending more guys than the Steelers can block. Running back Najee Harris (22) doesn't help by missing his blitz pickup, but there was always going to be an unblocked rusher here. The Steelers are running a half slide protection. The slide side is the right side of the offensive line, which means they are all taking the gap to their right. The man side is the left side. Since the defensive tackle to that side is inside the guard (Rashaad Coward, 79), it looks like the left guard is part of the slide, but if that defensive tackle had looped to the guard's left, Coward would have followed him across because he has him man-to-man.

If the Vikings bring two blitzers to the man side, the quarterback has to know he's hot. This is probably the most common protection scheme in the NFL, and I have to assume Roethlisberger knows he's hot here. With Harris completely failing to pick up his man coming through the B-gap, I'm guessing the veteran quarterback didn't feel like it was safe to even try a hot throw.

Harris has had his ups and down in pass protection this year. It was shaky at the beginning of the season, but I thought he was coming into his own. This week was a step back.

Two weeks ago, I highlighted a play where a guard signaled the running back to let him know he was going to block the walked-up linebacker. This play right here is why you do that. With a walked-up A-gap linebacker (Anthony Barr, 55), it's just really tough for a running back to get there and make that block before the blitzer affects the quarterback. Left guard John Leglue has to jump inside and take the blitzer and hope that Harris adjusts off him and picks up the defensive tackle (Dalvin Tomlinson, 94). It's not ideal but it's better than this.

One more thing I want to point out here is that Harris needs to see this coming and abandon the play-action fake. The protection always comes before the play fake. Never sacrifice the integrity of the pass pro to carry out a fake. Pseudo-analysts love to make fun of plays where there's a fake to no one, but 98% of the time it's because the back is rightly abandoning the fake to make sure the quarterback doesn't get killed.

Even when the Steelers did have everyone going in the right direction, they struggled in pass protection. Particularly on the interior.

This isn't the immediate pressure like we have seen in the previous three plays, but it might be just as bad. You cannot let a nose tackle, whom you are double teaming at one point, sack your quarterback. Right guard Trai Turner (51) might be the Steelers' best offensive lineman, but he and Green at center are equally guilty of giving up this sack.

Turner is sliding right, but settles in to help the center when his gap isn't being threatened (right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, 76, is dominating the only other pass-rusher to this side here). Turner continues to drift outside though. He could be firmer inside and keep his eyes to that defensive end without drifting away from his center.

As for Green, he gets good initial help from Turner, but you can't expect help forever. Green is in great position here, but he loses the block late. I'm not sure if it was an effort deal, he let up because he thought the ball would be out, or if he was looking to help out somewhere else because he thought Turner was taking over the block. Regardless, this kind of stuff cannot happen.


7 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2021, 8:19pm

1 Nice write-up

I have to admit, I never put two & two together and realized *why* playfakes to noone happen. It makes sense that the runningback is prioritizing getting to the block rather than executing a fake handoff -- there's no point in trying to sell a run on a pass play if that pass is going to get destroyed by a blitzer. 

Good article though -- offensive line protection schemes make my head spin, I can't imagine trying to decipher some of the pressures these defensive coordinators are sending (and not sending).

4 Same

In reply to by Bazz

You and me both - I'll be looking for that (RB moves from play-fake position to pass protection) in the future.

6 I didn't put 2 and 2…

In reply to by Tundrapaddy

I didn't put 2 and 2 together either, but I only started paying attention to play-fakes to nowhere around 2006-2008 when the Jets had a 3rd string QB who'd look amazing in preseason.  I looked him up: Brett Ratliff.  He would do play-fakes out of an empty backfield, and then throw bombs to David Clowney.

2 A lot of blame to be shared

You rightfully point out Ben, Harris, various members of the O-line. The first half was legit ugly. And I guess props have to go to Zimmer and the Vikings defensive front. 

My thought watching the game is that the playcalling was better in the second half, as well as occasionally going to up-tempo, but the blocking schemes must have improved somewhat. Maybe they fixed some of this at half-time. But they were thoroughly outschemed and outplayed in the first half (on both sides of the ball of course, but my focus here is on the offense). Curious as to the Steelers coaching and how much blame they should share? I mean, it went beyond one lapse, it seemed like pressure killed every drive in the first half, and quite quickly. If they had stopped the bleeding a bit earlier, the steelers come back would have probably been enough.

3 Last GIF

Ben, this is the first time I have ever disagreed with your analysis. In the last GIF, the snap happens at ~1.10, Ben is contacted about ~5.50, and goes down at ~6.00. That's at least 4 seconds of blocking, and almost 5 from snap to whistle. Ben's been in the league for 18 years, not 18 games. He's got to get rid of that ball. 

On the first two clips, I wonder if the Vikings noticed on film study that on blitzes where there are the same number of rushers on either side of the ball, that the (edit) Steelers slide right and go man on the left as you describe. On both plays highlighted, the Vikings drop potential rushers from the offense's right and bring them from the left.

5 Ben’s noodle

In reply to by Joseph

Yeah. It looks like the throw should be going to Claypool 11 coming left to right (I think it’s 11 Claypool) that Freiermuth 88 partly opened up with the vertical route but I also don’t think Roethlisberger has the arm to hit that window. The defenders sink pretty deep into their zones and one follows Claypool a bit.