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Film Room: How Kenny Pickett Was Injured (And How The Steelers Keep Falling Into The Same Traps)

Kenny Pickett’s first Steelers/Ravens game was short-lived, leaving in the first quarter after suffering a concussion on the team’s first drive of Sunday’s game. After initially being cleared, he was removed from the game a drive later and replaced by Mitch Trubisky.

The sack/injury saw the Ravens have a free runner, a linebacker up the middle, that Pickett managed to escape before being taken down by LB Roquan Smith, spun, and thrown down leading to the injury.

That begs the question – why was the linebacker free? Who is to blame?

We’ll answer that today but look at a bigger question, a running theme. The Steelers keep trying the same thing and it’s not working.

To Sunday. It’s 3rd and 4. Pittsburgh’s in empty protection here. Five linemen to block any and all potential rushers. No tight ends, and no running backs as part of the protection. The Ravens are showing a look seen around the league this year, a Mug/Double Barrel look with both ILBs in the A gap. Nearly every team shows these looks to stress protections. Even the Steelers have this year though they do it less often than other units. This is the pre-snap look.

The Steelers have five blockers, their o-line, to block six potential Ravens’ rushers. The d-line, the ROLB, the LOLB, and both ILBs. That’s uneasy math. The Steelers are short one when it comes to their protection meaning they aren’t safe and the ball has to be thrown hot.

Before we do our deep dive, let’s just show the whole play. LB runs free, LG Kevin Dotson appears to block no one, Pickett’s in trouble, ends in a sack.

So is Dotson really at fault? My first thought was actually to be careful blaming him. Empty protection can be tricky and sometimes players who don’t block anyone are actually doing the right thing, carrying out their assignment. On the surface, it’s logical that Dan Moore would be asked to block the ROLB and Kevin Dotson the RDT. Depending on scheme and protection, sometimes that may be the assignment and until I watched the All-22, I thought Dotson might be absolved. But that’s not the case.

This is on Kevin Dotson. And I know why because of something that happened against the Cincinnati Bengals.

All football is a series of patterns. It’s not a game played in a vacuum. And at this stage of the year, they’re pretty easy to pick up on. Taking it back to Week 11 against the Bengals. A third-down incompletion to Najee Harris tells the story. Like the Ravens above, the Bengals show a double-barrel look and the Steelers are in empty protection. The route tree is a mesh concept with the RB as the hot receiver. The Steelers are trying to beat the blitz by allowing the RDE to come free, blocking up the ILBs, and hitting the RB in the flat. So long as the RDE rushes, there’s no one on the back (and if the ILB is covering him, he’s out-leveraged) and the back will have space in the flat. All sounds good.

Here though, the RDE Trey Hendrickson realizes the back is releasing out and the Steelers are throwing hot. The line slides down, blocking the ILBs, but Pickett’s hot-read to Harris is covered. Ends up trying to throw back-shoulder and Hendrickson contests it well to force the incompletion.

Here’s the concept and the protection. Watch Dotson slide down to take the ILB.

Same thing happened against the Ravens. Empty protection against a double barrel look. Same mesh concept with the back releasing to throw hot. Same protection with the RDE allowed to run free. Again, Justin Houston drops into coverage and takes the back instead of rushing and eliminating the chance to throw hot to RB Jaylen Warren. That’s Kenny Pickett’s first read. Just like to Harris, check his eyes and shoulders on his drop. The Y is running the mesh and Warren is the only player running to that area.

But Dotson errors here by not sliding down on the ILB. This is how it’s supposed to be blocked up.

Dotson makes a mental error and takes the RDT when Moore has him. Moore doesn’t even get eyes on Houston, more evidence Dotson screwed up, and immediately takes the RDT. The ILB runs free (this may be a “Rain” blitz where the ILB who blitzes is opposite the center slide), creates the pressure, and it goes downhill from there.

Here’s the play, aerial and end zone view. Watch Pickett here first look to Warren off the snap. He wants to throw hot but Houston and the Ravens have the perfect answer.

From a protection standpoint (the route concepts were different) the same happened against the Colts. Remember when RDE Yannick Ngakoue rushed free off the edge to drop Kenny Pickett? That was by design. He was intentionally left unblocked as the line slid down. Moore on the DT, Dotson on the LB. Steelers had the same issue, trying to throw hot, but the angle route by the RB took far too long and this was just a bad plan.

So short answer is. Dotson didn’t do his job. Some teams may block things up differently, and sometimes the Steelers may too, but we’re talking the same down and similar distance and concept and read by the QB. At its core, these are all the same. Third down, same protection against these MUG looks, RDE is free, back is hot to the boundary. So we can spot the error.

But there’s a larger point to make. The fact the Steelers keep trying to throw hot is an issue. They’re trying to outsmart the defense but defenses are winning the chess match, the ROLBs dropping and taking the back and eliminating the primary/hot read.

I’m no o-line coach but for my money, I’d always have the back stay in against those double-barrel looks. At least check for the blitz and release if there is no threat. That’d allow the OG to take the DT, the OT on the OLB, and the back has a linebacker. Pittsburgh has capable pass-pro backs and Warren has done well. Instead, Pittsburgh is choosing to allow a potential free rusher, the OLB here, and try to throw it over his head. It’s not working. The Steelers are putting their hand on the stove, getting burned, and putting it right back on just to make sure.

That’s a more fundamental problem. Dotson isn’t absolved of his error here. Unfortunately, he’s full of them and it’s why I noted he’s such a frustrating player to watch. Big on talent, big on mental errors. But the Steelers need to stop trying to out-wit defenses because it’s not working. Keep the back in, make it six blockers vs six rushers, and let the QB work his concept.

One last look at the three plays in the same video. Same looks, same protection every time. Only against the Ravens does Dotson error and so all the evidence points to him as being the culprit for allowing the initial pressure that led to the sack, injury, and Pickett’s exit.

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