Contrary to their reputation as a grind-it-out offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians show many different looks when they're near the opponents' goal line. Arians likes to employ hybrid spread offense concepts with enhanced blocking in which multi-receiver sets with quick passes and shotgun formations replace power running up the middle. The obvious thought process behind this change in philosophy is the ability to transcend personnel and create matchup problems for enemy defenses by way of sheer numbers. This is especially true against defenses with multiple fronts, which is what the Steelers faced in Week 15 when they went up against the New York Jets.
Like brother Rob, Rex Ryan throws as many different defensive looks out there as he can – what looks like a simple 4-2-5 could actually be any one of a dozen different alignments by the time the quarterback snaps the ball. In the race to dictate the action, offenses spread wide provide many benefits, even and especially in the red zone. The Jets gave up a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth halfway through the second quarter of an eventual 22-17 New York win, because they couldn't keep up with the numbers game.
Pittsburgh lined up in a four-wide set with Spaeth (89) inline on the right side. The Jets had a 4-2 front with offset linebackers (a product of the "46" defense created by Buddy Ryan, and a Rex Ryan favorite), and their nickel package indicated that they knew the Steelers were intending to stay away from smashmouth in this case. Two separate route concepts took all five defensive backs away from the ability to break off and help with the intended receiver – a crossing route on the lift side, and a Hi-Lo concept on the right side. The Jets brought their safeties to either side of those plays, and left linebacker David Harris (52) to cover Spaeth up the middle on a route that had Spaeth coming back to the ball right at the goal line.
The mismatch was obvious. Harris is an outstanding downhill linebacker, but he got quickly and obviously turned around right about the time that route started, and he never caught up. Spaeth got past Harris outside, away from him again on the comeback, and Ben Roethlisberger threw an absolutely perfect dart to Spaeth for the score. Harris actually recovered pretty as the ball was coming in, but it was still too late.
Roethlisberger has a 102.5 quarterback rating on plays with four or more receivers – only Jacksonville's David Garrard is more efficient by that metric – and it's easy to see why when you watch how the Steelers set their receivers up for success with complex route concepts. On the other hand, the Browns rank eighth in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics in red zone passing defense, so the game will be on. The challenge will be defending Pittsburgh's passing game beyond the one-on-one, because the Steelers have taken it past those simple ideas.