Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season, I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing an important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time. For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player. Let’s get into it.
Since the week 8 meeting between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the two teams have gone in different directions. The Steelers have continued their undefeated run through three below-average teams while the Ravens have stumbled, losing two of their last three losing some key players to injuries along the way.
With a COVID scare in Baltimore announced on Monday of this week stemming from failed tests and a facility shut down, the Thanksgiving game in Pittsburgh is still a go. Due to the Ravens injuries and players being sat because of pandemic protocols this may have a slightly different feel to this game. However, I still feel like the week 8 game strategy can be used to prepare for this Thursday’s game.
Steelers Four & Five Wide Sets vs Ravens
If you don’t remember the Steelers’ offense was stymied for the entire first half of the last game, with their lone seven points coming from a Robert Spillane pick-six on the Ravens’ first drive. Offensively, the Steelers’ first five offensive drives yielded only 113 net yards, four punts, and a fumble. Then, in the second half, they started to open up the offense with four and five wide receiver formations that forced the Ravens into man coverage.
It was later learned after the game that quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger was making the plays up on the fly as he stated in his post-game press conference, “The second half probably was 90 percent made it up as we went,” emphasizing that from play to play he was literally telling each receiver what route to run on that particular down, how to stack, and things of that nature.
With the Ravens depleted secondary likely to only dress 4 cornerbacks this week these formations that have already proved a mismatch could be an even greater one.
Down 21 – 24 with 11:56 left in the game, the Steelers turned to empty as their go-to and went on to an eight-play, 80-yard drive that finished with the game-winning touchdown. It is important to note that empty formation does put a decent amount of stress on your O-Line to win their 1-on-1 matchups as you have no running back help. However, when you combine this with a quarterback that is on track to have the fastest time to throw in the last 5 seasons, it can work efficiently.
Roethlisberger is on track to have the fastest average time to throw over the course of the last five #NFL seasons. #steelers #HereWeGo @Steelersdepot @Ross_McCorkle @Alex_Kozora pic.twitter.com/TGzGeilAW6
— Brad Congelio, Ph.D. (@BradCongelio) November 24, 2020
You can see on this 3&1 play, Roethlisberger feels the backside pressure and moves up into the pocket before finding McCloud on a drag route, who jets up the field for the first down. These are the plays that analysts constantly ding Ben for, just taking what the defense gives him quick and underneath.
While surprisingly only sitting at 13th best for YAC yards by receivers in the NFL it always seems like the Steelers have enough juice at the position that they constantly come up big in important spots of the game and make guys miss for first downs.
When Roethlisberger actually holds on to the ball a little and lets the routes develop downfield, good things do seem to happen. Cornerbacks continue to lack any confidence covering the 6’4’ 240 pound Chase Claypool, constantly grabbing and tugging on him downfield. This play is no different as Roethlisberger is able to extend the play and push the ball the Claypool who is getting interfered with by All-Pro cornerback, Marlon Humphrey.
If there is a cornerback that can cover Claypool without it being a mismatch downfield, we’ve yet to see it. These 5 wide sets that you can move him around and create different matchups are just unfair to defenses.
Here on the game-winning touchdown, while the Ravens are in zone coverage, Claypool’s speed out of the slot is the difference. The deep safety has no chance to keep up with Claypool’s corner route and Roethlisberger’s pump-fake is just enough to freeze the cornerback and fit the ball to Claypool. LET BEN COOK!
The empty sets also put a defense’s communications to the test. You have to be extremely obedient when passing off receivers, especially with crossers. Here, the Ravens are in cover 4 and former Steeler, LJ Fort, begins to carry Eric Ebron across the field until Ebron crosses the midline. Fort then correctly begins to sink back to cover the dig coming into his zone from JuJu Smith-Schuster. The problem is the other linebacker, Patrick Queen, was committed to JuJu instead of staying disciplined in his zone, leaving no one to cover Ebron underneath.
These are the types of plays that Roethlisberger isn’t going to miss. Without the empty sets in the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys games, I’m not sure the Steelers pull out victories. It seems to be their bread and butter, but they refuse to bring it out until it’s a dire situation.
After the Dallas game, head coach, Mike Tomlin, elaborated on their halftime changes to go with more empty sets in the second half, “We were just looking at some of their defensive personnel groups, and we found that they didn’t have a lot of defense when we spread them out and so it reduced the amount of things that we would have to see, so we were comfortable working in that space. And that’s why we did it”.
With the Ravens’ secondary reeling, you’d have to assume this same strategy would apply this Thursday. Will the Steelers take advantage early with empty sets, spread out the defense, and let Big Ben do Big Ben things? Or will Steelers fans have to sit through another half of an unorganized offense until they open things up again in the second half? We’ll see after our turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie Thanksgiving evening.