Film Room: Steelers Learn From Mistake, Weaponize It Vs Opponents

The ultimate goal is always to avoid mistakes. But If you to make mistakes, then the goal is to learn from them. And Thursday night’s game showed that the Pittsburgh Steelers did at least learn from one of their mistakes from earlier this season—or at least learned how to weaponize it against their opponents.

Earlier this year, through about the middle of the season, I wrote about how the Steelers’ goal-line defense—specifically, their goal-line package, including four defensive linemen and six linebackers—had been a dismal failure. They gave up a touchdown on every opportunity through the first seven weeks. Two of those touchdowns saw them victimized through the air.

On both occasions, first in Chicago and then against the Bengals, their opponents checked into 23 personnel, showing three tight ends, a half back, and a fullback, on the field. This is typically the package against which they send out their goal-line unit, assuming the run.

On both occasions, the defense was burned on play action, resulting in an easy touchdown to a wide open tight end—Adam Shaheen for the Bears and Tyler Kroft for the Bengals. So the Steelers turned the tables and did the same thing on Thursday against Dick LeBeau’s Titans defense.

But first let’s loop back to Week Three in Chicago. It was a 7-7 game midway through the second quarter before the Bears drove down the field. It was first and goal from the two when they loaded up the run-heavy look. Shaheen was the lone tight end to the left on the weak side.

With the fullback flanking left, off Mike Glennon’s play action, both L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich bit on the run initially. Fort took the fullback in coverage, but Shaheen got a virtually clean release and a wide-open pitch-and-catch score.

Several weeks later, we saw a similar thing happen midway through the second, this time on fourth and goal from the one. Again out of 23 personnel, with Kroft the weakside end to the left, the fullback again flanked out and this time Kroft got a completely free release, resulting in another far too easy touchdown.

The Steelers’ eventual touchdown, in comparison, was complex. They very rarely use 23 personnel, but did so here, employing Chris Hubbard as a tackle-eligible. LeBeau countered with a goal-line package that included three safeties as the only defensive backs.

Hubbard was the lone end to the left, with Xavier Grimble and Jesse James to the right. Ben Roethlisberger used play action and James sold the run block before drifting back into the end zone. He was incredibly wide open for the easy score, because the protection held.

So while the Steelers might have learned from their lumps—throw out 23 personnel and use the play-action pass—they also knew well enough to modify. They attacked the other side of the field on the strong side and used the run-block sell to get James opened, and it worked flawlessly.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • capehouse

    Really neat combo block by Grimble and James that allows James to sneak through to the 2nd level wide open. Kevin Byard never sees him.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I dunno MM, maybe you’re just a nicer guy than I am. Play action is nothing new. I was upset with how poorly the Steelers handled those plays you showcased. Here I thought we were going to see them turn it around on the defensive side of the ball.

  • SteelerFanInMD

    My thought is that Haley should already have this play and variations of it in his playbook. Why he didn’t use it before is my question.

  • Uncle Rico.

    The bigger take away for me is putting Roethlisberger under center inside the 5. In consecutive games Roethlisberger has had playaction TD passes. Well executed playaction. Half that is just putting in the effort to sell it. And that’s been lacking in recent years to the point of playaction being nearly extinct on gamedays. Last week had him under center, inside the 10, on the road, ….. and in a dome. When’s the last time we’ve seen that? There have been a number of things this year that made wonder about Roethlisberger’s commitment this season. But then there are instances like this where effort to improve has surpassed recent years. Idk, I’ll take in the spirit of optimism.

  • Rob H

    Was thinking the same thing, last week it actually caught me off guard, like “wow, where the hell has that play been?” The one this week was as good of a play fake as I’ve seen from him since the Whisenhunt years, when he was really good at it. All we can do is hope it’s a sign of things to come.

  • Michael Putman

    Predictability has been the issue with Haley’s offense the last couple of years. We either line up 5 wide and there is ZERO threat of a run, allowing the defense to sell out to the pass… or we line up in run formations and run, allowing the defense to sell out to the run.

    That option quick pitch to JJSS a couple weeks ago to convert a 3rd down and seal the game was a great display of trickery. The play-action pass TD to James was a good display of trickery. If we showed the ability and desire to pass out of “run formations” and stopped putting 5 people wide and selling out to the pass then defenses would have to respect both the run and pass. Not allowing them to sell out to one or the other would make us enormously more successful all the time in the red zone. I hope Haley figures it out…

  • Mister Wirez

    Lol. Me too.

  • Lambert58

    Nice fake/delay by Jesse on that play. How does a defense stop that??

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’ve been doing the charting for several years now and they’ve barely ever run this 23 package. Literally just a few snaps over the past few years. Without actually checking, I think this might be the first time they ran a pass play from it using play action.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I get that. I meant on the defensive side, you always have to protect against the pass, even on a spiked ball. How are these players so open??

  • MC

    I don’t know if this is the steelers using something that’s worked against them, its more of them finally doing something that is just smart in that situation. Many other teams run plays like this, even offenses like the niners have pulled off some nice misdirection and shovel passes at the goaline.
    I just have no idea why they haven’t called something like this but they would bring Watson in and give it to him when the D kknew it coming.

  • MC

    nailed it.