Steelers' Best Shot Against Chiefs
NFL Week 18 - At this time last week, Aaron Schatz and I were emailing about what team I should write about for Week 18. We wanted to focus on a team that would make the playoffs, and we figured with the Steelers needing to beat Baltimore along with the Colts needing to lose to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, there wasn't a good chance that Pittsburgh would be playing postseason football. Well, here we are today writing about the playoff-bound Steelers after one big win (Pittsburgh), one huge loss (Indianapolis), and one not-tie (Las Vegas and the Chargers).
Like just about every win this season from Pittsburgh, it wasn't very pretty. They trailed the Ravens in the fourth quarter and needed overtime, but they got the job done. Survive and advance, as they say.
Up front for Pittsburgh, it was a tale of two games. In the running game, the Steelers couldn't get anything going against Baltimore outside of a few reverses. In the passing game however, Pittsburgh's offensive line did a great job of handling the Ravens' pass rush and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.
This was on a third down. Roethlisberger is getting pressured, but this is actually picked up perfectly up front by Pittsburgh. The Steelers are running a half-slide protection, with the slide side going to the right. That means the left tackle (Joe Haeg, 71) is manned up on the defensive end and the running back (Benny Snell Jr., 24) is reading the inside linebacker to the defensive back. If both of those defenders come, the quarterback has to throw hot, exactly like he does here. Snell seems a little confused and checks outside briefly, but he eventually picks up the right man and Roethlisberger gets the ball out just in time to pick up a third down.
On top of just blocking the right guys, Pittsburgh's offensive line really stonewalled the rush here. It may not seem like a huge deal, but there's a big difference between the quarterback feeling pressure from someone that he knows isn't accounted for and feeling like the whole defensive line is collapsing around him. Everyone up front for Pittsburgh keeps their man just about on the line of scrimmage.
This is a tougher pickup because the Steelers are in an empty formation and the Ravens are rushing five. The Steelers had one guy for each rusher, so they had to be perfect. The right side of the offensive line is actually double reading this. Look at right guard Trai Turner (51)—he sets outside, but once he sees the outside linebacker (Tyus Bowser, 54) drop and the end rush outside, he comes back inside to knock the center (J.C. Hassenauer, 60) off the nose tackle onto the blitzing middle linebacker (Patrick Queen, 6).
When Hassenauer feels the guard, he does a great job of coming off to the linebacker. A lot of times guys will see that linebacker creeping up and want to leave the nose tackle before their guard can take the block over. Hassenauer is patient until he feels his teammate, and then is sudden to get where he needs to be. This is some high-level pass protection to help pick up a third down … although it was certainly aided by Queen's baffling track on his blitz here.
Even the lone sack of the game wasn't on the Steelers offensive line. Once again, Pittsburgh is in a half-slide protection, and the Ravens are bringing two blitzers to the man side (the offense's right). One of them was always going to get a free run. Obviously you would like Snell to pick up someone, but one of those guys was going unblocked. The Steelers offensive line was virtually flawless in pass protection, and any pressure Baltimore did get was sporadic at best.
The run game was something different though. To me the biggest issue was Pittsburgh's linemen just weren't generating any kind of consistent movement. They weren't getting their butts kicked and getting beat clean, but they weren't displacing anyone so Baltimore was able to maintain great gap integrity. There just weren't any holes for Snell and Najee Harris to hit.
That's just a big mush of humanity. The only man on either side that separates is the safety, who beats Chase Claypool (11) to make the tackle for a short gain. But even ignoring the wide receiver who they brought in to block the dropped safety (look at Roethlisberger direct traffic before the snap), no one on Pittsburgh's front is moving anyone. The tight end (Zach Gentry, 81) and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (76) get the slightest amount of movement on the defensive end at the snap, but once Gentry climbs to the second level, the movement stops dead. It's hard to run the ball when you get seven stalemates up front. If the Steelers are going to make any kind of run, getting outrushed by almost 200 yards won't get it done.
Pittsburgh will certainly have their work cut out for themselves this weekend in Kansas City. The two-time defending AFC champs are currently 12.5-point favorites. No other playoff game has a spread of double digits at the time of this writing. Yet as unlikely as it seemed that Pittsburgh would even be playing this week, I'm not sure I would count them out just yet.