Week 12 O-Line Spotlight: Pittsburgh Steelers
An NFL team accumulating over 525 yards from scrimmage is typically quite successful. How successful? In the 75 occurrences since the beginning of the 2010 season, teams are 61-13-1 when earning that many yards. After Sunday afternoon—the 76th occurrence—that win-loss record changed to 61-14-1, as the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t turn Ben Roethlisberger’s 462 passing yards into a win against Denver. Their negative-four turnover differential was too much to overcome.
As you can surmise from the yardage total and Roethlisberger’s Week 12 finish as the QB5, the Steelers had no problem moving the ball, despite finding the end zone only once from an offensive formation. The ease with which they moved the ball is owed primarily to scheme and an offensive line that did just enough to keep some of the NFL’s best pass rushers at bay.
Let’s dig deep and examine how Pittsburgh’s offensive line, complete with rookie Chukwuma Okorafor as the right tackle, kept Big Ben mostly upright but weren’t able to get the run game started.
A Sign Of Things To Come
On their first drive of the game, Pittsburgh marched down the field using all pass plays. As we hear on broadcasts so often, they used the passing game as “an extension of the running game,” completing screen passes to Antonio Brown, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels, negating Denver’s pass rush. In the instance of Conner’s screen pass, they allowed Shane Ray to come upfield before throwing the ball in the exact spot he vacated.
The O-line held everything in check until a 3rd & 10 from Denver’s 30-yard line.
Shaq Barrett went underneath on a stunt and delivered devastating punch to the outside shoulder of Alejandro Villanueva, turning the offensive tackle and planting him on the ground. This is one of the few times Villanueva was overmatched, but it came at a crucial time in the drive. The pressure was enough that Ben missed Vance McDonald by a few inches, forcing the field goal attempt.
Time In Pocket
Not only did Roethlisberger have the most dropbacks of Week 12, he also averaged the least amount of time prior to getting rid of the ball. Antonio was often relegated to drag routes and flats out of the slot to ensure his quarterback would have a safety valve. Per AirYards.com, Brown’s Week 12 average depth of target of 7.6 was well below his season-long aDOT of 11.0. The offensive line deserves props for stifling a great Broncos’ front-seven, but Pittsburgh’s play-calling deserves some love too.
To further mitigate Denver’s edge rushers, Conner spent a lot of time doing this:
Even when Conner went out on pass routes, he would chip his way through the B-gap or C-gap to give his tackles a little help. Much to the chagrin of fantasy owners, Conner’s four targets were his second-fewest of the season—only one week after running a league-high 43 receiving routes from the running back position. Conner’s week-winning ways were game-planned out and then amplified by head-scratching fumble at the end of the third quarter.
Wrapping up the First Half
We saw lot of the same for the Steelers’ offense before going into the break. Another great drive ended with a boneheaded play when Xavier Grimble charged into strong safety Will Parks instead of just stepping into the end zone. Grimble fumbled, allowing the Broncos to regain possession with a touchback. The offensive line stood strong. At one point, Roethlisberger had a streak of 15 consecutive completions because of his clean pocket, including this choreographed thing of beauty:
Seriously, how great is that? They turned the whole damn defensive line, allowing Big Ben to scan the whole field at the same time. Anyway, the drive ended on a shovel pass coming out of a timeout. Not a single person on defense bit, and the Steelers brought out their field goal unit. The last play of the half was a direct snap to place kicker Chris Boswell (Editor’s Note: Long live kickers in fantasy football!), who threw a spiral to the tallest eligible receiver you may have ever seen, Villanueva. Not to poo-poo their trickery, but the Steelers nearly went into halftime with over 250 yards and only 6 points. The stout performance from their offensive line was mostly for naught.
Juju is Everyone’s Favorite Player
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, defensive tackle Shelby Harris really made his presence felt in an otherwise smooth game from center Maurkice Pouncey. Shelby came about six inches away from forcing an incompletion at worst and a safety at best. The football gods will reward his effort in an even more crucial moment later, but on this play the glory needs to be bestowed on the Pittsburgh offense.
After softening up the short and intermediate parts of the field with what felt like 135 first half passes, Big No. 7 chucked the ball 30-plus yards downfield from his own three-yard line as Harris crashed down on him after exhuming Pouncey. As a result, Mile High Stadium turned into Mile High Cemetery when JuJu Smith-Schuster hauled in Roethlisberger’s bomb for a 97-yard score.
JuJu’s overall numbers from the game further evidence how well the coaches schemed this matchup, despite the loss.
Good coaches scheme good players into beneficial matchups.
Against the slot coverage of Chris Harris Jr last week, PIT played JuJu in the slot a season-low 19 times & played him on the perimeter a season-high 47 times. He went 2-9-0 vs Harris Jr. He went 7-144-1 vs Bradley Roby.
— JMToWin (@JMToWin) November 28, 2018
Dipping a Toe in the Running Waters
Inexplicably, the Steelers began their third drive of the third quarter with four straight runs out of “22” personnel, with moderate success. They would go right back to the pass and eventually end the drive on a Chris Harris interception after Harris changed his coverage from man to zone. Pittsburgh never went back to the run, and I really can’t tell you what they were trying to do by showing I-formation jumbo packages.
Like we will see with teammate Von Miller later, Shaquil Barrett’s burst off the line is so good, you just assume it’s defensive offsides. The first gif below shows Barrett being forced to loop around the tight end before he makes his move towards the pocket. Considering Barrett’s unbelievable get-off at the snap, Villanueva does a great job cutting the outside linebacker off with a big, wide first step. It’s nice to be 6’9” sometimes.
Barrett finally got the best of Alie-Alie-Alejandro and notched Denver’s first sack of the game while Miller and Bradly Chubb were on the sideline. Villanueva held his ground well enough until his right foot slipped out from under him. Once he dropped to his knee, it was curtains for Roethlisberger, who couldn’t escape Shaq’s grip.
(That circling is totally from the broadcast, I can’t take credit. If you would like to teach me how to gif better, please yell at me on Twitter.)
Something I appreciated about Pittsburgh’s playing calling up to this point was how they called screens directly at pass rushers when those defenders got too aggressive. I couldn’t tell you if this is Roethlisberger’s doing or offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s, but it’s impressive either way. The play right after his sack, Barrett got back into the pocket but was left watching as James Conner caught a pass in the spot Barrett vacated for 20-plus yards. Conner would end up fumbling the ball at the end of the play, but that has nothing to do with the call.
The Stadium Gets Involved, Relegates Conner To Pass Protection
In a stadium that gets as loud as Mile High, most away team offensive lines now use a silent count in which a guard will tap the center for the snap after he sees the quarterback lift his foot (as opposed to the tried and true “Hut-Hut”). Depending on play call, the center will snap immediately or wait a second or two before he delivers the ball to his waiting quarterback. The problem with this method seems obvious when you’re playing explosive, perceptive, athletic freaks like Miller and his gang of quarterback harassers: he will simply watch the guard from his outside linebacker position and react to the snap before the man tasked to block him can get in position.
Here is a great quote from future hall-of-fame tackle Joe Staley on the topic:
The silent count is the worst thing in the world for a tackle. I don’t think the public realizes how hard it is on the tackle when you play on the road. When we play at home I am so less stressed. I can use the cadence. I can get off on the snap count… That can be a half-second that adds pressure already. Your guy is looking at the ball, and he’s getting off. But you have to periph the ball. If he gets one step before I’m out of my stance, he’s already got pressure. You have to get off the ball the exact second he gets off the ball.
You can see this come into play in the gif below, even though the Steelers have three of their players accounting for Miller.
- Jesse James is supposed to give a chip before running his route. He doesn’t have a chance.
- Okorafor is wrecked from his first step. He attempts a last-ditch push upfield. He doesn’t have a chance.
- Conner is left in the backfield to help his rookie right tackle with a double-team. He ends up single-teamed on the best defensive player in the National Football League. He doesn’t stand a chance.
All in all, the offensive line did a phenomenal job. Western Michigan’s “Chuks” Okorafor was the lone downfall, and honestly, he didn’t do terribly against the best pass rushers in the game. He was forced into the start by injuries to Marcus Gilbert and backup Matt Feiler. Okorafor had played only 66 snaps prior to this game, and nearly all of them were as an extra tight end in jumbo packages. Although he held his own, Okorafor will go back to his mostly-redshirt delegation with Feiler back at practice this week. Gilbert still has a couple weeks before he returns, having missed the previous five games with a knee injury.
Here’s what Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin had to say on the topic:
I was really pleased with Chuks… I think we’re showing some really unique depth at the tackle position. Sometimes, someone else’s misfortune creates an opportunity for others. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention those guys meeting expectations, Matt Feiler has done it repeatedly in recent weeks, we’ve talked about that. But Matt’s injury gave Chuks an opportunity and he was definitely above the line with his play.
Offensive Line Outlook
The Steelers share something in common with the highest scoring offenses in the league: a stout offensive line. Moving forward, we shouldn’t worry about Pittsburgh’s lack of scoring against Denver. If not for the Steelers’ minus-four turnover differential, the game script could have worked out much better. We wouldn’t have had to worry about a rookie right tackle getting overwhelmed by pass rushers if the Steelers felt they could successfully run the ball. Brown wouldn’t have had such a low aDOT if he wasn’t matched up against a great cornerback and Roethlisberger didn’t need him running underneath routes as a security blanket.
On Sunday night, they face off against the L.A. Chargers, who have a powerful tag team of their own in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The Steelers have proven they can scheme away the aggressiveness of elite pass rushers, and I don’t think they will lose that ability in one week. We can be assured that our fantasy players in offenses racking up 500-plus yards will eventually gift us some fantasy goodness.
Looking beyond the Chargers, the Steelers finish off the fantasy playoffs with a trip to Oakland, a huge game at home against the Patriots, and the fantasy championships will culminate in New Orleans. Hold on your britches, it’s gonna be a fun ride!