1) Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley finally are on the same page.
The marriage between the Steelers' franchise quarterback and their offensive play-caller didn't get off to a great start in 2012, when Roethlisberger and Haley appeared at odds over the philosophical direction of the offense. Big Ben seemingly preferred the offense under Haley's predecessor, Bruce Arians, who featured more vertical routes and deep quarterback drops. Most importantly, Roethlisberger favored the quick-tempo, no-huddle offense that Arians implemented.
Haley wanted to tweak the system to feature more quick-rhythm throws designed to quickly get the ball in receivers' hands on the perimeter. In theory, the catch-and-run premise takes advantage of the Pittsburgh receivers' explosiveness, and the quick throws reduce the hits on Roethlisberger, preserving his health and ensuring his availability down the stretch.
Haley's playbook doesn't feature as many vertical throws as the Steelers' previous game plans, but it does create big-play opportunities for playmakers on quick routes and crosses from bunch and spread formations. The short throws challenge defenders to make tackles on elusive receivers in space, while the potential picks and rubs created from cluster formations lead to blown assignments on the second level.
Although Roethlisberger derided the "dink and dunk" nature of the Steelers' scheme one season ago, the small-ball approach helped him enjoy one of the best statistical seasons of his career (3,265 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions) and added some structure to Pittsburgh's "sandlot" passing game. It is apparent this season that Roethlisberger has grown more comfortable throwing the ball underneath on quick-rhythm timing routes. The 10th-year pro has connected on 64.5 percent of his throws, with 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Those numbers are bolstered by a positive seven-game stretch in which he completed 65.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Part of Roethlisberger's efficiency over the past seven games can be directly attributed to the creative quick-rhythm routes designed by Haley. Throwing the ball to the perimeter following one- or two-step drops has enabled Roethlisberger to get the ball in the hands of Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in space. These high-percentage throws have produced big gains in the open field and have been extremely effective in the red zone.
Check out these two play breakdowns:
In addition to using a quick-rhythm passing game, the Steelers have attacked opponents with a quicker tempo, per Roethlisberger's request. Using a variety of quick snap counts, no-huddle tempo and quick-hit plays, Pittsburgh has ramped up the pace to tire opposing defenses while also exploiting favorable matchups. As a result, the Steelers have gotten out to faster starts and helped Big Ben become more comfortable in the offense.
The key to Pittsburgh's fast-paced attack has been the clever use of tempo on early downs following high-percentage plays taken from a scaled-down play-call menu. By trimming the playbook to feature just a handful of quick-hit plays (short passes or runs with a high probability of success, i.e. bubble screens or quick routes), the Steelers have created momentum by stringing together a series of positive plays on first and second downs. Although they will slow their pace on third down to provide Roethlisberger enough time to read the defensive front and check into optimal plays against the blitz, the rapid pace clearly has jump-started Pittsburgh's offense in recent weeks.
2) The pass-catchers' roles have been defined.
While Brown and Sanders have the ability to make plays down the field, both are ideally suited to terrorize opponents on catch-and-run plays underneath coverage. Cotchery and tight end Heath Miller, on the other hand, aren't explosive players at this stage of their respective careers, but each is a dependable pass-catcher with a knack for making key grabs over the middle.
After taking the first quarter of the season to assess the individual and collective talents of the unit, Haley clearly has defined his playmakers' roles to maximize the group's potential. Here's how the pieces of the puzzle fit together:
The Steelers clearly have established Brown as their primary receiving threat. The fourth-year pro has caught at least five passes in all 11 games this season, leading the NFL in receptions (80) and ranking second in yards (1,044), only trailing Calvin Johnson. The Steelers have capitalized on Brown's explosive running skills as a former punt returner by routinely giving him the ball on bubble screens, quick passes and short crossing routes underneath coverage. Brown transforms those quick tosses into big gains by making defenders miss in the open field. Factor in his speed and burst, and Brown's big-play ability has anchored the Steelers' passing offense.
Sanders was expected to slide into Wallace's role as the deep-ball specialist, based on the fourth-year pro's speed and explosiveness. Ideally, though, Sanders is a catch-and-run playmaker who's adept at making plays over the middle of the field. He has a knack for snagging crossers in traffic and is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands. To capitalize on Sanders' combination of skills, the Steelers frequently align him on the outside of spread formations before directing him between the hashes on square-ins and drags to get him the ball on the move (as evidenced in the video clip to the right). These routes are easy completions for strong-armed Roethlisberger, yet they routinely produce big gains for the Steelers. Sanders' underrated explosiveness has added a dimension to the playbook.
Cotchery has been one of the NFL's most dependable pass-catchers throughout his 10-year career, but he has occupied a backup role with the Steelers since joining the team in 2011. He entered the 2013 campaign with just 33 receptions in a Steelers uniform before emerging as a viable third-down and red-zone option this season. Haley has inserted Cotchery into the lineup as the third receiver in spread formations, leaning on the veteran's guile and savvy as a route runner to create space in the middle of the field. Cotchery's patience and deception has made him difficult to guard in most situations, particularly as a slot receiver working primarily between the numbers.
In the following play, the Steelers use a little deception to create a big-play opportunity for Cotchery. The team aligns in a trips formation, with Cotchery positioned in the middle. On the snap, the Steelers will run a fake-bubble screen to the three-receiver side, with Cotchery pretending to block the corner:
When the defender flies up to attack the screen, Cotchery slips past him down the boundary:
The result is an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown that essentially puts the game on ice in a pivotal Steelers win over the Detroit Lions.
Miller's return from his 2012 season-ending knee injury has given Roethlisberger a big target to pinpoint in the middle of the field. Although 6-foot-5, 256-pound Miller is not an athletic tight end in the mold of Jimmy Graham or Antonio Gates, he is an imposing pass-catcher with the size and strength to bully defenders off the spot between the hashes. Additionally, Miller is a post-up option in the red zone, where quarterbacks are forced to make tight-window throws for completions. With those traits also coveted on third down, Miller's size and natural ball skills clearly have boosted the Steelers' aerial attack.
3) Le'Veon Bell has given the offense a spark.
The Steelers made a concerted effort to upgrade at running back in April's draft when they selected Bell with the 48th overall pick. He was regarded as the most complete back in the draft, based on his impressive skills as a runner and receiver at Michigan State. During his final season as a Spartan, Bell rushed for 1,793 yards and added 32 receptions, totals indicative of a player who perfectly fits a pro-style offense that prefers to feature a three-down back.
The Steelers recently have tapped into Bell's versatility by consistently giving him 20-plus touches. Since Week 9, Bell has averaged 23 combined touches and 105 yards from scrimmage.
Looking at how the Steelers have used Bell out of the backfield, I've been impressed with his strength, toughness and burst as a runner. He aggressively attacks the hole between the tackles, but he will slide and bounce to open areas when he spots a crease. When the line blocks plays correctly, Bell has shown the speed and quickness to get to the second level and beyond.
Watch the video clip to the right to see Bell attack the perimeter on a delayed draw. It's not often a 6-foot-1, 244-pound back can scoot on the perimeter like this, but that's what Bell brings to the table.
Bell is just as dangerous in the passing game. He moves well in space and has a knack for setting up defenders with head fakes at the top of routes, giving Big Ben an additional weapon to target when opponents opt to take away the Steelers' receivers on intermediate and deep throws. It also gives Roethlisberger an effective option to exploit overmatched linebackers in space.
In the video clip to the right, Bell showcases his receiving skills by running an angle route from the backfield. He sets up the linebacker with a hard fake to the outside before bursting inside to receive the ball off the break. With few defenders capable of tackling the imposing running back in space, Bell's use in the passing game has made the Steelers' screen plays and short-passing game tough to defend.
4) Dick LeBeau has the defense back on track.
The Steelers' defense hasn't played at an elite level for most of the season, but things are looking up in Blitz-burgh. The unit has regained some of the swagger, aggressiveness and physicality that we've come to expect from LeBeau's defense. Watching the tape, I see a defense that is flying to the football with reckless abandon, and the silly mental mistakes that plagued the unit early in the season have disappeared. More importantly, I see tremendous improvement in three key defensive areas -- big plays, sacks and takeways -- which typically leads to wins.
The playoff picture
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The Steelers gave up too many big plays during the first four games of the season, which led to the four-game losing streak. In turning things around, Pittsburgh's deep defenders have done a better job of keeping receivers in front of them. Against the run, the Steelers have tackled better and reduced the extended runs after contact that plagued them early in the season. By eliminating the big plays on the ground, the Steelers have created long-yardage situations, allowing their pass rushers to hunt off the edge.
This often is overlooked, but losing on first down (allowing plays of 4 yards or more) prevents a defense from consistently collecting sacks and turnovers. To that point, it's not a coincidence that the Steelers' improved first-down play has led to a boost in both categories. Although the Steelers rank 26th in sacks (23), they have notched at least one sack in nine consecutive games, including five Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
With the pressure heating up around the quarterback, Pittsburgh started to consistently generate turnovers in the past seven games, with 14 takeaways (seven fumble recoveries and seven interceptions), giving their offense short fields and scoring opportunities. Given the overwhelming statistical evidence that connects winning the turnover battle with winning games, the Steelers' improvement in those three key areas has kept their playoff hopes alive.