One of the most significant patterns that we can trace during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ active four-game winning streak is the fact that the offense liberally adopted an RPO (run-pass option) set during that time, which has been instrumental in driving their marginal improvement in success.
It also plays a large role in the fact that they have actually recorded 30 or more rush attempts in four straight games, which is just the second time in head coach Mike Tomlin’s 15 seasons with the team in which that has happened, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has gotten in on it, running two RPOs in the past two weeks in which he called his own shot, although one play, a two-point conversion attempt that was successful, was negated via penalty.
The 39-year-old tried to close out Monday’s game by attempting to option run for a first down on 3rd and 2 with under a minute to play against the Chicago Bears, but he came up just short, and they were forced to settle for a field goal.
Asked on Wednesday if he has another run plan for himself this week, he laughed in answering no. “I told you, I’m not the R in RPO”.
That R, of course, is RB Najee Harris, their first-round rookie, who has recorded 95 rushing attempts over the course of the past four games, rushing for 356 yards during that stretch at 3.75 yards per carry, along with three rushing touchdowns. He also has 14 receptions for another 111 yards and another touchdown on top of that.
It’s not all runs with the RPO, of course. The week before last, they did successfully close out the game with an RPO when Roethlisberger hit wide receiver Diontae Johnson on a slant that he was able to turn upfield for 50 yards.
While the use of the RPO is not suddenly unique in the Steelers’ offense, it is a part of the influence of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, in his second season with the team but first in that role. His use of pre-snap motion, jet sweeps, and play action are other tangible, readily visible aspects of his influence.
Over the first four games of the season, the Steelers only scored 67 points, averaging just 16.75 points per game, and that included a touchdown scored on a blocked punt. Over the past four games, however, they have scored 94 points, including a season-high 29 on Monday night, averaging 23.5 points per game.
That’s still not spectacular by any means (it would rank 17th in the league right now), and the 15 points they scored against the Cleveland Browns without a kicker for half the game didn’t help, but it’s certainly an improvement. The use of RPOs—and Roethlisberger’s decision-making within it, particularly when he’s not calling his own number—is a big part of that movement in the right direction.