Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have one of the league's best passing attacks under any circumstances, but especially when Ben Roethlisberger goes on the move and starts to improvise.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS' SIGNATURE PLAY: BEN ROETHLISBERGER IMPROVISING ON THE MOVE
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the league's third-ranked passing attack in 2017 and so far in 2018 they've moved up to number two, right behind the Buccaneers. The Steelers' quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is in the 15th season of an incredibly prolific career; he currently ranks seventh in passing yards and eighth in touchdown passes in NFL history.
A first-round pick in 2004, Roethlisberger stepped right into the lineup as a rookie and helped lead Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record. However, the Steelers' offense at the time was more of a power rushing attack behind Jerome Bettis, as the team ranked second in rushing yards but 28th in passing yards. Willie Parker emerged as a star in the backfield in the next and the Steelers were still more of a running team than a passing team when they won Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008. The Pittsburgh aerial attack gradually improved into the top half of the rankings, but it was only in 2014 when the Steelers began an unbroken run of having one of the league's top five passing offenses.
Still, the 6-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger has always had – and still has – a very powerful arm that can launch any throw and produce big plays downfield. He is also very difficult for pass-rushers to bring down, which allows him to prolong plays and create big gains out of unscripted throws. It is that strength that has turned into the most dangerous thing Pittsburgh does on offense in recent years.
When Todd Haley arrived as the Steelers' new offensive coordinator in 2012 he began to emphasize the shotgun and a quicker passing game in order to get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Antonio Brown with room to run. That approach was also seen as a way to protect Roethlisberger from too many hits and to possibly prolong his career. Haley left this season to join the Cleveland Browns but his replacement, promoted Quarterbacks Coach Randy Fichtner, has adopted the same approach.
So one way the Steelers can generate big plays in the passing game is to put their receivers in a position to pick up a lot of YAC. The other way – the one that can become a nightmare for opposing defenses – is for Roethlisberger to extend plays and improvise, along with his receivers, to get the ball downfield. That's exactly what happened on the play that essentially sealed Pittsburgh's season-opening win over Cleveland in 2017.
This first shot describes the game situation on this Sept. 10, 2017 afternoon at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium. About a minute earlier, Cleveland had pulled within three points on a DeShone Kizer three-yard touchdown pass to Corey Coleman on fourth down, followed by a successful two-point conversion. Even better for Cleveland, Pittsburgh safety J.J. Wilcox had been flagged for unnecessary roughness on the touchdown play, which allowed the Browns to kick off from the 50-yard line. They employed a pooch kick and quick coverage to stop return man JuJu Smith-Schuster at the 20-yard line.
Pittsburgh's drive started with 3:33 left in the game and Cleveland had two timeouts left. The Browns caught a break when Maurkice Pouncey drew a holding penalty on second down after an eight-yard catch by tight end Jesse James on first down. That stopped the clock and put Pittsburgh into a second-and-12 situation. Two more stops and two timeouts and the Browns could the ball back with plenty of time to mount one more scoring drive.
Some teams would try to run the ball in this situation at least on second down, if not on both downs, to avoid the possibility of a clock-stopping incompletion. Not the Steelers. They stayed aggressive, lining Roethlisberger up in the shotgun, albeit with running back Le'Veon Bell next to him for the possibility of a draw play. Here's what the formation looked like:
The Steelers are in "11" personnel, which means a three-receiver set with one tight end and one running back. The tight end, James, is next to the left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva. The three receivers are arranged with Brown split wide to the right, Eli Rogers in the slot to the left and Smith-Schuster wide to the left.
Cleveland has countered with two deep safeties splitting the field and a nickel package with the corner in the slot shaded to the inside and possibly in a position to blitz. The two outside corners are playing about five yards off Brown and Smith-Schuster. After taking the shotgun snap, Roethlisberger will indeed fake a handoff to Bell, who then runs out to be a potential checkdown target.
The three receivers run a "levels" play that every NFL team has in its playbook. From the slot, Rogers runs a shallow cross from left to right. He will eventually "sit down" near the left hash marks when he reads that the defense is playing zone. From his spot wide left, Smith-Schuster runs a deep post. Up top, Brown runs a 15-yard dig, getting behind the cornerback and then running around him towards the middle of the field.
The direction of Roethlisberger's helmet as he first begins to survey the field makes it likely that he considered Brown to be his first option, or at least is trying to make the Browns' defense believe that. However, Roethlisberger does not pull the trigger on a seam pass to Brown because the linebacker in the middle of the field has dropped back to close up the lane to that target. Had that linebacker reacted up towards Rogers on his shallow cross, Brown likely would have been wide open running across the middle of the field and Roethlisberger could have hit him in stride for a probable big play.
Alternately, if the linebacker(s) do react to Rogers' underneath route, the safety on that side of the field would likely come up to try to cover Brown. If that happened, that would open up room for Roethlisberger to hit Smith-Schuster on the deep post. That's the concept of this type of levels play, to make the defense choose one level or another and thus leave another one open.
On this play, however, Roethlisberger doesn't get a chance to react to what the Browns have done and move on in his progressions because the Browns pass-rushers begin to break through.
That's defensive end Emmanual Ogbah who has gotten past the offensive line and has a straight shot at Roethlisberger. Once the protection started to break down, Roethlisberger began shuffling to his left, as there was pressure coming from his right side and up the middle. One of the strengths that has always made Roethlisberger such a dangerous weapon on the run is that he can get off any pass while moving right or left. A lot of righthanded quarterbacks struggle trying to throw when moving left and have to stop and plant their feet.
Roethlisberger doesn’t have time for that because he has only made it a few yards out of the pocket and Ogbah has begun to leap at him. In fact, Roethlisberger doesn't even have room to step into his throw. What he does instead is, while still moving slightly to his left, simply heave a throw down toward the left sideline, where Brown is headed. As is often the case, even if the Steelers' main offense favors quicker throws, when he breaks containment he is looking to go deep downfield. For many quarterbacks, this would not have been a good decision, a low percentage throw for some that is probably going to stop the clock. Roethlisberger, however, knows he can complete this pass.
Meanwhile, Brown, having done this sort of drill with Roethlisberger countless times, recognizes instantly when the scripted play has broken down and goes into what is commonly called a "scramble drill." Here Brown keeps moving across the field from right to left but also curves his route out deeper to give him separation from the cornerback on that side of the field. The safety who started out on that side of the field has been drawn to the middle by Smith-Schuster's post route.
Roethlisberger is standing on his 10-yard line when he releases the throw, and Brown leaps high to make the catch near the Browns' 45-yard line, which means the ball has traveled 45 yards in the air downfield, not counting the additional yards on the angle from where Roethlisberger is standing on the left hashmarks and Brown lands relatively close to the left sideline.
In the previous shot, Roethlisberger is just starting his arm in motion and all the defenders have figured out where he is throwing it. Brown has found an opening but it closes quickly as the Browns converge, as the cornerback on that side and one of the safety arrives just about when the ball does. But Brown, who is a master at making leaping, contested catches, comes down with the ball.
Roethlisberger's improvisation has dug the Steelers out of a potential whole. The Browns have to use their second timeout after Brown's catch, stopping the clock with 2:28 left. When Bell runs for 15 yards on the next play to Cleveland's 28, the Browns know it is over and Roethlisberger ends it with three kneel-downs after the two-minute warning.