One of the first things that I took notice of early on was just how frequently Todd Haley varied his personnel from play to play. On first down, he went with the 12 personnel with Isaac Redman the lone back and David Paulson lined up to the right of Kelvin Beachum, who were both lined up to the right of Marcus Gilbert. It was a power run look to the right side, but the play went deep to Emmanuel Sanders instead.
On second down, perhaps partially due to everybody running go routes, the entire skill position personnel was swapped in an 11 personnel package. LaRod Stephens-Howling was the back, David Johnson was the lone tight end, and at receiver were the three reserves: Jerricho Cotchery in the slot with Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye on the outside. The play went for a short gain behind a mediocre blocking attempt by Cotchery.
On third down, it was ostensibly another 11 personnel package, but Cotchery was lined up in the backfield next to Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun. This is a package that the Steelers ran a few times in the preseason with success, and it was no different on this play. Sanders and Paulson cleared out the defensive backs from the offensive left side, allowing Cotchery to trail behind them and sit at the markers for the easy third-down conversion.
Redman’s first rushing attempt exposed what was probably the team’s biggest weakness of the day for the running game, which was the blocking of the tight ends. On this play, the Steelers ran a 13 package with Beachum, Johnson, and Paulson all lined up to Gilbert’s right side. Both Beachum and Johnson failed on their blocks. Paulson was actually the one tight end to hold his block on the play, but the run was designed to go well inside of his block. Redman potentially had a cutback option, but the blocks likely failed too late to change course.
As Mike Tomlin mentioned, it appeared as though Maurkice Pouncey was attempting to release to the second level as the nose tackle tied him up when David DeCastro went in for his ill-fated cut block that ended the Pro Bowl center’s season. I will leave the debate about whether or not such a block should even be legal up to others to discuss, but the traffic jam in the middle of the field that resulted from the block forced the run to bounce outside, which was quickly snuffed out.
I do believe that was the one time during the entire game that the Steelers tried to run a stretch play.
Once again, Jerricho Cotchery continues to show that he just puts his nose to the grindstone and gets the job done. His two conversions on third and long on the opening drive, while impressive, should be no surprise to anybody that has followed his career. He knows where the marker is and how to get to it.
On the following run, Paulson and Johnson double teamed the right defensive end while Mike Adams and Ramon Foster double teamed the right defensive tackle, leaving the right outside linebacker with an easy read to fill the hole and force Redman to try his luck outside. The right defensive end then proceeded to come off his block and make the tackle for no gain. It is not clear to me why neither Johnson nor Adams picked up the linebacker, as it certainly appeared to be a run designed to go through that C gap off left tackle.
The fumbled exchange between Roethlisberger and Redman that bounded into the end zone was I believe Michael Palmer’s first play of the game. His bread and butter in this league with the Atlanta Falcons was as a run blocker. Given the way Paulson and Johnson performed in that capacity, I certainly hope the Steelers intend to use Palmer more.
Steve McLendon registered a quarterback hit in his very first snap as the starting nose tackle of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would later register two more hurries on just 11 pass rushes. This is not Casey Hampton any more. This is not even Chris Hoke. McLendon could very well find himself in on nickel snaps going forward this season, especially with Larry Foote being done for the season. A couple years back when Stevenson Sylvester was forced to start, the Steelers took him out as often as possible. I expect that to be a similar pattern for either Kion Wilson or Vince Williams.
In the nickel package, Cameron Heyward replaced Ziggy Hood to pair with Brett Keisel as the two down linemen on the rush. Heyward did a nice job collapsing the pocket, while Keisel got around the edge and was able to hit Jake Locker and force a bad pass.
Back in the base package, Heyward remained in as Keisel took a seat. McLendon stayed seated as Al Woods came in at nose tackle.
On third and four, it was Heyward and Keisel again on the line, and Jarvis Jones came in to spell Jason Worilds at right outside linebacker. A penalty resulted in yet another third down, and this time Heyward beat Chance Warmack off the snap to get right into Locker’s face and force a quick throw that fell incomplete behind his receiver.
On the first sack of Roethlisberger, the Steelers were in a 13 look, with Palmer, Johnson, and Paulson lined up to Gilbert’s right and Felix Jones in the backfield. Jones and Gilbert should split fault on the sack. Gilbert gets beaten off the line by Jurrell Casey, but Jones jams the defensive tackle. However, he releases before Gilbert is able to re-establish his block, and by that point both Gilbert and Jones turn away, assuming that the other had picked up the block, leaving Casey with a straight line to the quarterback. A most unfortunate miscommunication.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger gets sacked again on a play that ostensibly is Redman’s fault; however, it is not so black and white. Redman initially gets the block on Zach Brown and starts driving him around the pocket, but pressure allowed up the middle forced Roethlisberger to climb the pocket. Brown could see this, but Redman could not, facing the opposite direction, and a quick turn upfield by Brown was all it took to get the sack.
Although the Steelers allowed a short return after the ensuing punt, I liked the ability of Shamarko Thomas to shed his blocker and make the tackle. Tomlin noted his play on special teams as a positive, which suggests to me that Antwon Blake may remain inactive so long as Thomas and Curtis Brown can handle the gunner duties.
LaMarr Woodley’s sack was a pure speed rush, and right tackle David Stewart was just a tick slow out of his stance.
Ramon Foster was beaten on an attempted reach block on yet another running play that netted less than three yards. David DeCastro also was easily tossed aside and spilled to the ground, which is not the most encouraging sign in the world.
Cotchery and Brown each converted a pair of third and long situations just three minutes into the fourth quarter. The Steelers did not convert another third down in the game.
As noted by Mark Kaboly, Redman’s second fumble was partially initiated by the quickness of Jurrell Casey, who easily penetrated the gap vacated by a pulling Ramon Foster. Both Beachum and Adams failed to fill the gap in time, which resulted in David Johnson, who was also pulling, attempting to pick him up, to no avail. Kaboly also notes that this is typically one of their established running plays when executed properly, but it clearly was not in this instance.
Jason McCourty really did a nice job on Emmanuel Sanders all day. He made any attempt at a deep ball a challenge, and he completely blew up a third and long screen for a loss with his quickness and instincts.
Jarvis Jones’ big hit was an impressive visual and all, but we should not make more out of it than what it is. He was completely unblocked and unimpeded to the running back.
On the Roethlisberger interception, a replay seems to show that he alligator-armed the throw a bit, knowing that he was going to get hit. The result was a wobbly pass, although I don’t know if a better ball would have changed the outcome.
Both Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons missed potential tackles in the backfield on a fourth and inches play on the drive at the end of the second quarter that resulted in a touchdown. The game could have had a very different tone at that point if either play were made.
The Titans interior offensive line deserves a lot of credit for that drive, particularly the pulling guards. Left guard Andy Levitre pulled and took Larry Foote out of the play that found its way into the end zone.