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Breaking Down the ‘Boys: How Rob Ryan will stop the Steelers’ passing game
By Jonathan Bales
11:21 am on December 14, 2012 | Permalink
Jonathan Bales is a special contributor to SportsDayDFW.com. He’s the founder of The DC Times and writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He’s also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can follow him @TheCowboysTimes.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have three of the fastest players in the NFL in receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley does an outstanding job of setting up different intermediate and deep routes for those players by implementing a complex screen game. The Steelers’ wide-ranging use of wide receiver screens forces defensive coordinators to play their secondary in a manner that can potentially set up big plays downfield.
We saw an example of this in Pittsburgh’s matchup with the San Diego Chargers just last week. The Chargers played their cornerbacks in a press position on nearly every snap, taking away the Steelers’ ability to get the ball into the hands of their quick-twitch receivers right off the bat. Still, Pittsburgh showed that they can capitalize when given the opportunity.
On a 1st and 10 at the Chargers’ 39-yard line, the Steelers lined up in a bunch trips formation, isolating Brown to the boundary (top of the screen).
Already the third quarter, it was one of the few times a San Diego cornerback played off-coverage. The Steelers had a stretch run to the right called—you could tell by the way the linemen fired off of the ball. Nonetheless, when Ben Roethlisberger saw cornerback Antoine Cason’s position, he pulled the ball from the running back’s belly.
The Steelers have a lot of plays like this one in which Roethlisberger can abandon the running play and hit a receiver on a quick screen. This particular screen to Brown resembled a traditional play-action pass, but the original intention was really to run a stretch.
The Steelers’ screen game is a major reason they’re no longer considered a “balanced” football team; they’ve thrown the ball 60.2 percent of the time in 2012, including on 61.3 percent of plays through three quarters. It’s easy to get caught up in such numbers and say the Steelers are passing too often, but the screens they run are high-percentage passes that are really nothing more than an extended handoff.
The screen to Brown went for nine yards, setting up Pittsburgh in a desirable 2nd and 1 situation. That down-and-distance is the most valuable in all of football, possessing the opportunity to strike on a big play with minimal risk; if you don’t connect, you’re still left with two plays to get one yard. The Steelers have thrown the ball two more times on 2nd and 1 than they’ve run it this year, making them one of only five teams with pass-heavy 2nd and 1 play-calling. If you see Pittsburgh in a 2nd and 1 this week, especially near midfield, look out for the long ball.
On this particular occasion, Pittsburgh knew that at the Chargers’ 40-yard line, they’d be running three plays to get the first down, if needed. Thus, the 2nd and 1 was a prime time to take a shot at the end zone.
Having just gotten caught playing off-technique, the Chargers again moved their cornerbacks into a press position. The Steelers lined up in “Gun Tight End Trips Right.” Using the coaches’ tape, you can see cornerback Quentin Jammer playing in a press position on Wallace.
Wallace ran a ‘go’ route on the play and Jammer actually did a good job of initially mirroring him. He bumped Wallace a bit at five yards and was in fine position 15 yards downfield.
Nonetheless, Jammer can’t consistently run with Wallace. With no safety help for Jammer, Roethlisberger did a nice job of recognizing the coverage and the mismatch, hitting Wallace for a 40-yard touchdown.
On Sunday, the Cowboys need to be really cognizant of the Steelers’ screen game. Whenever the Cowboys are playing off-coverage, Roethlisberger will get the ball out to his talented speedsters whether Haley called for a pass or not.
To limit the big-play potential of Wallace, Brown, and Sanders, look for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to have his cornerbacks play a lot of press-bail coverage—lining up in a press position to take away the quick screens but bailing at the snap of the ball to minimize the opportunity for deep passes.