You may recall Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin speaking earlier this week about his offensive strategy, which consisted of throwing the ball early and often, and then turning to the ground game in the second half, allowing the pass to set up the run, and the wear down the defense with a fresh approach.
I thought that a statistical look at the numbers would be useful here, and they certainly bear out the point that Tomlin was making. Over the course of the first two quarters—with the Steelers receiving the opening kickoff—the offense ran just a bit more than half of their total plays. Excluding penalty snaps, they executed 39 plays, 26 of which were pass attempts, which is a pass ratio of exactly two-to-one, as they ran the ball just 13 times.
It would probably not be surprising to learn that of their 40 total snaps—including a false start penalty—the Steelers lined up in the 11 personnel 28 times, in addition, utilizing additional ‘blocking personnel on just 12 snaps. And eight of those snaps came out of the 12, usually with Jesse James and Ladarius Green on the field together.
Just three snaps in the first half were run out of either the 13 or 22 personnel looks, with none out of the 21—which is a fullback and a tight end in addition to the running back and two wide receivers. Chris Hubbard served as a tight end on those three plays, two of which were out of the 22 with fullback Roosevelt Nix.
The Steelers, in contrast, ran 34 plays in the second half, including penalties, but excluding the final three plays in victory formation. Of those 34, Nix was on the field for 20 of them, and Hubbard for 26, and there was pretty much always an extra big body on the field.
In fact, over the course of the entire second half, the Steelers ran just one single play with three wide receivers on the field, and that came on a third and three play in the middle of the third quarter right near midfield. On every single other play, there were at least two tight ends or a fullback on the field.
Sans one pre-snap penalty—but including two post-snap penalties—and the kneel downs, the Steelers ran the ball on 28 of 33 second-half snaps against the Bills, and they gave Le’Veon Bell a breather for just one snap—following a 33-yard gain and four consecutive carries to begin the drive.
By my charting, Ben Roethlisberger threw just five passes in all of the second half, in spite of the fact that the Steelers ran 33 plays that were not wiped out by pre-snap penalty or were designed to run out the clock. It is a curiosity to note that only two of those passes targeted a wide receiver.
The Steelers committed to the run game in the second half in a way that I have not seen in some time. On all but five snaps, they had just one wide receiver—Antonio Brown—on the field. The Bills knew what was coming. They just couldn’t stop it.