Last week, we dedicated our video breakdown to how defenses are adjusting to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense. Their goal? Take away the quick game. Force Pittsburgh to win some other way. Either via their invisible run game or non-existent vertical pass game.
Buffalo didn’t follow the exact blueprint set by Baltimore or Washington. They played a more aggressive, blitzing style. But on third down, they made sure they weren’t getting beat by the quick game. And the Steelers never made them pay over the top.
The clearest example of it came on Ben Roethlisberger’s second INT of the game. The one that essentially sealed Buffalo’s win. 3rd and 4. Pittsburgh comes out in a stacked set at the top. Their offense has relied so much on stacked and bunch sets to create free releases off the line and picks/rubs against man coverage. So when defenses see stacks and bunches on third down, they’re immediately alerting to some sort of slant/pick play.
Like Baltimore and Washington have done, the Bills bluff a blitz look pre-snap but drop out of it on the snap of the ball. Drop both OLBs into coverage. That takes away the slant to Johnson while Smith-Schuster is covered in the left flat. Those are Roethlisberger’s first two reads but they’re taken away.
His only other option on the play is James Washington to the bottom. Isolated on the corner, he’s running a go route. One-on-one with the CB, safety rotated away. Washington has a great release, stacks the CB, and this should be a big play. Even a TD. But Roethlisberger’s throw hangs, Washington has to try to come back for it, and Levi Wallace picks it off.
The goal here? Eliminate the short game. Take your chances with the deep ball because Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense has struggled over the top.
But it’s not the only example. Earlier in the game. 3rd and 6. Bills rotate and spin their FS down to the sticks to rob Washington of any dig route. Force the ball vertical instead. Roethlisberger takes his shot but the pass is off the mark and incomplete. You can see Roethlisberger’s footwork here is poor. Maybe he’s worried about some of the pressure but there’s no weight transfer or follow through on this pass.
To be a little fair, the Bills commonly rotate their safeties to disguise coverages and this is 3rd and 6, not 3rd and short. But the result works the same. Ensure anything short/intermediate is robbed and be comfortable with getting beat over the top.
And let’s check out his first interception. 2nd and 5. Steelers again in a bunch set, which alerts the Bills to something quick-hitting. Buffalo in zone coverage. Taron Johnson reads the route through the QB and breaks on JuJu Smith-Schuster’s out route. Roethlisberger’s throw is behind and Johnson picks it off, racing the other way.
This wasn’t forcing the deep ball but anticipating and capitalizing on Roethlisberger trying to get the ball out quick.
Until the Steelers become a threat vertically, defenses will have no problem taking away the short/quick game and daring Roethlisberger to work over the top. I’m not an expert on QB mechanics but in these clips, I’m not seeing Roethlisberger transfer weight from his back to front foot to drive the football and it’s causing his throws to hang and sail. Have to wonder how much his knee injury is playing a role. Is Ben uncomfortable putting that pressure on his front foot/knee?
Regardless of reason, the deep ball has been ugly and it’s causing the team to miss a critical component of their offense. In their Super Bowl years during the Colbert era, this team has always had a vertical threat they consistently hit. Wasn’t always a superstar, wasn’t always their #1 weapon, but a clearout player that helped open up the run game and rest of the field.
Here are those guys.
2005 – Cedrick Wilson (17.3)
2008 – Nate Washington (15.8)
2010 – Mike Wallace (21.0)
They don’t have that right now. Not for a lack of weapons but the deep ball isn’t connecting. Chase Claypool and James Washington are tied for the highest yards per catch at just 13.3, a far cry from those above numbers. Defenses know if they can take away the quick game, there isn’t much the Steelers can do to sustain offensive success. Nothing else hurts them. That road won’t be any easier come playoffs.