Earlier in the week, we talked about how that Pittsburgh Steelers had been successful this season when running play action. That was, however, in spite of their performance in their most recent game, which was actually a game in which they used play action more than they ordinarily do.
Just see the plays from the Cincinnati Bengals game below to see what I mean. These account for the majority of the plays on which the Steelers used a play-action pass in the game, very few of which were even completed, let alone successful. That is not because they were doomed to fail, but rather based on execution.
I have talked about this play before in other contexts, but this is the one in which Ben Roethlisberger turned down the early opportunity to dump off a pass to James Conner for a reasonable gain. He gambled and waited, only to end up forcing a pass to him that fell incomplete late in the play.
A bit later in the game, a play-action pass was intended to be a screen to Jesse James, with Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva getting out in front of the play to block. However, defensive end Carlos Dunlap was able to read the pass in time and batted it. It was batted again and ultimately caught by…Roethlisberger.
Coming out of a three-tight end set, he used play action near midfield to set up for a long bomb to JuJu Smith-Schuster just short of the goal line. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick did a great job of getting back into the play and influencing an incompletion, but this is still a ball you want to see the young receiver complete. This was the play-action pass that was most disappointing in the result.
They eventually got down the field, down to the one-yard line. After a stuffed run on first down, Roethlisberger turned to the play-action pass, looking for James trying to run away from the linebacker in coverage, but the pass was out of reach. The Steelers were stopped on third down as well, which ultimately made them kick a field goal and set up the need for a game-winning drive.
Finally, on third and two on yet another instance of settling for a field goal that could have spared the need for a game-winning drive, Roethlisberger threw a pass to Vance McDonald coming in motion around the right side of the offense. As he was evading an initial defender, he lost the ball.
As I think you can see in the plays above, the use of play action in the Steelers’ last game was not inherently flawed, but the manner in which it was executed was. These plays could have been successful, and is certainly no reason to argue against them using it more than they have, which is about as infrequently as anybody in the league.