The ultimate goal is always to avoid mistakes. But If you to make mistakes, then the goal is to learn from them. And Thursday night’s game showed that the Pittsburgh Steelers did at least learn from one of their mistakes from earlier this season—or at least learned how to weaponize it against their opponents.
Earlier this year, through about the middle of the season, I wrote about how the Steelers’ goal-line defense—specifically, their goal-line package, including four defensive linemen and six linebackers—had been a dismal failure. They gave up a touchdown on every opportunity through the first seven weeks. Two of those touchdowns saw them victimized through the air.
On both occasions, first in Chicago and then against the Bengals, their opponents checked into 23 personnel, showing three tight ends, a half back, and a fullback, on the field. This is typically the package against which they send out their goal-line unit, assuming the run.
On both occasions, the defense was burned on play action, resulting in an easy touchdown to a wide open tight end—Adam Shaheen for the Bears and Tyler Kroft for the Bengals. So the Steelers turned the tables and did the same thing on Thursday against Dick LeBeau’s Titans defense.
But first let’s loop back to Week Three in Chicago. It was a 7-7 game midway through the second quarter before the Bears drove down the field. It was first and goal from the two when they loaded up the run-heavy look. Shaheen was the lone tight end to the left on the weak side.
With the fullback flanking left, off Mike Glennon’s play action, both L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich bit on the run initially. Fort took the fullback in coverage, but Shaheen got a virtually clean release and a wide-open pitch-and-catch score.
Several weeks later, we saw a similar thing happen midway through the second, this time on fourth and goal from the one. Again out of 23 personnel, with Kroft the weakside end to the left, the fullback again flanked out and this time Kroft got a completely free release, resulting in another far too easy touchdown.
The Steelers’ eventual touchdown, in comparison, was complex. They very rarely use 23 personnel, but did so here, employing Chris Hubbard as a tackle-eligible. LeBeau countered with a goal-line package that included three safeties as the only defensive backs.
Hubbard was the lone end to the left, with Xavier Grimble and Jesse James to the right. Ben Roethlisberger used play action and James sold the run block before drifting back into the end zone. He was incredibly wide open for the easy score, because the protection held.
So while the Steelers might have learned from their lumps—throw out 23 personnel and use the play-action pass—they also knew well enough to modify. They attacked the other side of the field on the strong side and used the run-block sell to get James opened, and it worked flawlessly.