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Game tape breakdown reveals ups, downs of Steelers win in AFC North opener

Jon Ledyard explains why teams struggle to run outside on the Steelers, how Sean Davis is developing, Jesse James' problems as a blocker, and much more

After a close examination of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday, these are a few of my key observations:

* The Steelers love to run split zone, and Sunday offered several examples of the variety of options the scheme gives their offense. On the team’s first drive, the Steelers brought David Johnson across the formation to kick out the unblocked defensive end on the backside, Michael Johnson. Cincinnati countered by bringing safety George Iloka up into the box outside of the defensive end. This confused Jesse James as to whom to block when both players fired off the backside edge. James eventually chose Michael Johnson, too late though as the defender busted down the LOS to make the tackle on a short gain for DeAngelo Williams. That was David Johnson’s block to make, and the veteran corrected the second-year tight end directly following the play.

Later in the game, Pittsburgh ran a wrinkle off of split zone action, with Johnson coming across the formation as if to block the defensive end, only this time slipping out into the flat as a receiver. Ben Roethlisberger play-actioned and rolled that way, hitting Johnson for five yards on first down.

Just five plays later, coordinator Todd Haley threw another variation at Cincinnati, running an end-around to Sammie Coates with Johnson coming across the formation as a lead blocker. The defensive end pinched down so he wouldn’t be kicked out, and Johnson and Coates ran right around him and down the left sideline for another solid six-yard gain on first down. That’s all part of the genius of Haley as a playcaller, adding small wrinkles to staple plays to keep a defense guessing.

* Pittsburgh had far better success offensively running outside zone and pin-and-pull schemes than they did matching up man-on-man with Cincinnati up front. The Bengals linebackers aren’t quite as mobile sideline-to-sideline, which allowed Williams to slip around the edge for a few nice gains. Still, that Cincinnati front is very difficult to get movement on in the run game, so I would expect Pittsburgh’s approach to be much different offensively when these two teams meet again in December.

* On Roethlisberger’s fourth-down interception early in the game, the Bengals brought an 8-man blitz (!!!) which the Steelers picked up relatively well. Shawn Williams got free off the edge (8-to-7 advantage for the defense) and bothered Roethlisberger just enough to force the off-target throw. Antonio Brown was open on a dig against Adam Jones, and could have potentially scored with a well-placed ball.

Sean Davis is still mastering awareness in his zone drops, and how to take proper angles as a tackler, but his closing speed is lightning quick from off-coverage. Cincinnati ran an RPO (run-pass option) designed to freeze the defenders before Andy Dalton pulled the ball loose to zip to A.J. Green on a slant pattern. Davis erupted out of his stance to swat the ball down with a well-timed pass breakup. There are some very raw aspects to the rookie’s game, but all of his weaknesses can be taught and improved on moving forward. What you can’t teach are the type of instincts and athleticism that Davis brings to the field in whatever role he’s in.

* Three unsung heroes for Pittsburgh so far: Golden, Johnson and Will Gay. They’ve been excellent in their roles and instrumental in this team getting to 2-0.

* James has not performed well as a blocker through two weeks now, despite his ample contributions to the offense as a whole. It might be easy to pick on the second-year tight end because he hasn’t missed a single snap all season, but watching James on tape reveals some fundamental flaws in his technique.

As a blocker, your upper half can only accomplish what your lower half puts you in position to do, meaning your footwork and your base are the pivotal aspects of the equation. James is putting the cart before the horse and attacking defenders with his upper body before taking the proper steps. This really gets him into trouble when he is asked to scoop a defender shaded outside of him, as James cannot work to the playside shoulder without first taking a proper reach step, and then attacking with a solid punch. Instead, the tight end is shooting his hands first, and the defender is initiating the movement outside, which results in James chasing his backside shoulder, rather than working across his opponent’s face. Until he fixes that fundamental flaw, he’ll continue to be a liability as a blocker.

Alejandro Villanueva wasn’t perfect on Sunday, but he generally found a way to get the job done. The big offensive tackle did allow one sack, shooting his hands wide and leaving his chest unprotected for Will Clarke to explode into. A simple bull rush was all it took for Clarke to get Villanueva on his heels and skating back into Roethlisberger, where the defensive end wrapped up the Steelers quarterback for his second career sack. Little things like carrying and shooting your hands high and tight are technical aspects of playing offensive tackle that Villanueva will occasionally screw up from time-to-time, but generally I think his play has been adequate so far this season.

* Through two weeks, neither Washington nor Cincinnati have been able to successfully run outside zone on Pittsburgh. The Steelers represent a tall task for teams that want to get to the perimeter for several reasons. First, this is a defense built on speed and athleticism, and that starts up front. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the more agile defensive linemen in the league, and they are both very quick off the ball. This makes them really difficult for offensive linemen to get playside on, especially when you add Javon Hargrave to the mix. Behind them, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons are so aggressive in their run fills that your best bet is to catch them over-pursuing and bend the run to the backside, but the outside linebackers pursuit down the line of scrimmage to close that backside gap has been excellent. Add to that Golden’s run fills coming downhill, and Mike Mitchell as a heat-seeking missile if you do get to the edge, and you’ve got a defense that can take away your outside running game very quickly.


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