Steel: Poor Playcalling Doomed Steelers

Matt Steel believes the Steelers got out of their game plan too early against the Ravens.

The offense I have been clamoring for all season; the one that fits the talents on Ben Roethlisberger to a "T." You saw it last night, except you saw it executed by the Baltimore Ravens.

In my piece last week, I wrote how the Pittsburgh Steelers would lose if they got too pass-happy and allowed Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to tee off. Well that's exactly what happened. Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin played right into the Ravens' game plan. All of Ben's sacks were taken out of the shotgun. The Ravens were more than happy to drop 7 into coverage and rush 4 against 5-man protections versus a quarterback that likes to hold onto the ball. It was the same recipe that caused the Steelers to underperform against a handful of inferior opponents during the regular season.

The Ravens, meanwhile, ran most of their first and second down plays from under center. In the first half, Joe Flacco was protected by 6 or 7 players. Only twice in the first half did they protect Flacco with five. The first attempt, Cameron Heyward put Flacco on his back on a near sack. On the second and very next play, he was pressured out of the pocket on a 3-man rush. James Harrison clipped Flacco's elbow and they were forced to settle for a field goal.

For much of the game, the Ravens looked to attack down the field. And unlike the Steelers, they looked to attack the intermediate to deep intermediate off of play-action. The Ravens' first scoring drive included a play-action pass to Owen Daniels for 19 yards. The Ravens opened their next drive that led to a field goal with a play-action pass to Steve Smith for 23 yards.

The Steelers ran only one play-action pass during the game that looked to attack the intermediate. Ben Roethlisberger completed the pass to Antonio Brown for 18 yards.

But whether it was the intermediate passes, the deep pass that resulted in a horrible penalty call against Mike Mitchell, the 40-yard completion to Steve Smith, etc, all of these attacking plays softened up the cushions and were helpful in allowing the Ravens to complete a catch-and-run on third-and-14 against Antwon Blake's soft coverage, a third-and-13 against Mitchell soft cushion, and get 15 yards on a third-and-20 to get back into field-goal range against William Gay's off coverage. Those three conversions cost the Steelers nine critical points.

The Steelers ran the ball successfully with Ben Tate on the opening drive, only to abandon that threat after Tate fumbled and Josh Harris was stopped for no gain. Following that play, the Steelers went to the empty backfield and took a sack. Forced to make a play in another tight window, Heath Miller dropped the pass on the next play.

That sequence is the Steelers roller coaster offense in a nutshell. The Steelers ranked 18th in the NFL in red-zone offense this season. But what is never talked about is how drives begin to stall for the Steelers once the field begins to shrink, and that starts to happen around the opponent's 35-yard line.

I strongly question both Mike Tomlin's and Todd Haley's Xs-and-Os IQ because they don't seem to understand that the windows of opportunity become extremely tight when you try to spread it out on a shorter field. Due to the short field and extra defensive backs, when the first read isn't open, the windows get closed when the play breaks down. If they did understand that logic, they wouldn't keep making the same mistakes repeatedly.

I have no doubt with the talent they have in Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Miller, and Will Johnson, they should easily be a top 5 red-zone offense. That's if they maintained a physical/balanced mentality on offense. Patiently running the ball and attacking the seams with Miller and Bryant off of play-action or creating mismatches with Brown in the slot would make a mediocre red-zone offense elite. I believe Johnson could be a Pro Bowl fullback if utilized more often. How Tomlin and Haley can't see this mentality would work is beyond me.

The Steelers have a yards-producing offense. The offense looks good on the stats sheet. While the Steelers ranked second in yardage and seventh in scoring, the Ravens finished 12th in yardage and eighth in scoring. And let's remember the pick-6's by Gay and Brice McCain, the punt return by Brown, and the late meaningless scores against the Saints and Jets before we hold onto that seventh in scoring ranking like it was some great achievement.

I wish you all could watch these games with me. This isn't after the fact Monday morning quarterbacking. I'm calling these plays out as disasters well before the ball is snapped. Like the sack on first-and-goal at the 10 with the little guy, Dri Archer, in the backfield. That happens throughout the game. I sit there shaking my head with arms folded watching Roethlisberger take sacks in empty-backfield sets against a front four that features Suggs, Dumervil, Haloti Ngata and the underrated Brandon Williams.

Meanwhile, the Ravens play-action/under-center game creates field space, like the space Crockett Gilmore had on the final back breaking touchdown. If you look to simple stats for answers, you'll say the Ravens' running game was ineffective. It wasn't ineffective. It did just enough to set up play-action chunks that win games.

Speaking of Bell, I'm seeing his loss being used as an excuse, but excuses are for losers. Let me harken my inner John Wooden by saying that when it comes to excuses, your foes won't believe them and your friends don't want to hear them. The Ravens didn't back out of using a championship style, run-committed offense when they lost both of their starting tackles to injury. Forsett was supposed to be their third running back on the depth chart. The offseason free-agent acquisition beat climbed over the No. 2 and didn't cause them to abandon the run this season.

The Steelers ran the ball effectively early in the game. But after the fumble by Tate, negative runs by Harris in the shotgun and pistol and Archer in the pistol, it was all the excuse they needed to abandon the run and execute their shotgun/short-passing/sack-taking/field goal-settling offense.

Some people might think I'm an emotional fan. I'm not. I slept well last night. I don't shout at my TV. I don't jump and scream when the Steelers score. I stay pretty even-keeled. I quietly watch the strategy and personnel used during the course of a game. It's what I enjoy most about watching games. It allows me to see things ahead of time. So when I told my buddy just prior to Bernard Pierce's 5-yard TD run "They're going to run it down their throats here for a touchdown," it's not because I'm in touch with the psychic friends network. It's because I saw the Steelers inexplicably using their nickel personnel against the Ravens' two-TE set.

I don't get mad. But I'm frustrated. I'm frustrated in knowing what would work best for this quarterback and their personnel, yet the head coach and offensive coordinator somehow can't see it.


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