Anatomy of a first down

Against the Browns, Ben Roethlisberger threw for a score and ran for another, and Willie Parker set a franchise rushing record. But Ryan Wilson takes a look at a first-quarter play that set the tone for the rest of the night ... and maybe the season.

A few weeks ago I wrote a similarly-themed column, looking at Willie Parker's 72-yard run against the Saints. Coincidentally, Parker went for over 200 yards that day, just like he did last Thursday against the Browns. So instead of documenting, frame by frame, another Parker long haul, I thought I would instead look at a late first-quarter first down. At the time it seemed innocuous enough, but in hindsight, it might've been the most important play on the Pittsburgh Steelers' first touchdown drive.

Following a Cleveland punt, with 7:32 to go in the first quarter, Pittsburgh started their second series of the game on their own 3-yard-line. As Chris Collinsworth noted during the NFL Network telecast, the Steelers hadn't had a touchdown drive of 95 or more yards since 1997.

Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh started conservatively, running Parker right for a short gain and then throwing a swing pass to Dan Kreider a play later. The next four plays were all runs: Parker left, Parker right, Parker right and Parker left. Twenty-nine yards later, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-4 from their 35-yard line.

To this point in the game, the Steelers had faced three third downs and converted two of them, one pass and one run. With Parker starting to warm up, a third-and-4 put the Browns' defense in a bad spot (well, other than the obviously bad spot they were already in by just being the Browns defense); a run was almost as likely as a pass in this situation, especially with Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson on the sideline in their Duce Staley commemorative sweats.

Well, barring a Mike Mularkey-inspired gadget play, the Steelers pre-snap formation indicates they intend on throwing the ball. They come out in a five wide-receiver set with Sean Morey wide right, Nate Washington in the slot to the same side and Walter Young immediately to Washington's left about three yards outside of right tackle Max Starks. Santonio Holmes is wide left with Heath Miller in the slot on that same side, also about three yards outside of left tackle Marvel Smith. Pittsburgh has only five lineman and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the shotgun.

Cleveland counters with their dime package (six defensive backs); defensive tackle Nick Eason lines up over Jeff Hartings' left shoulder, and Willie McGinest – the other defensive tackle – lines up in the gap between Hartings and right tackle Kendall Simmons. Both ROLB Kamerion Wimbley and LOLB Leon Williams are standing, lined up outside Marvel Smith and Max Starks, respectively. Safety Brodney Pool is between Washington and McGinest about a yard off the line of scrimmage and the only middle linebacker on the field, Andra Davis, assumes a similar position between Eason and Wimbley. The other safety, Sean Jones, is four yards off the line of scrimmage right in front of Miller.

Cornerback Ralph Brown gives Sean Morey a six-yard cushion, and Leigh Bodden does the same for Washington. The third safety, Justin Hamilton, is lined up on the left hash, eight yards off the line of scrimmage opposite the always-dangerous Walter Young. Finally, Daven Holly plays five yards off Holmes on the short side of the field.

The pre-snap read is blitz – with Pool and Davis near the line of scrimmage, the Browns have six potential pass rushers against five Steelers' blockers. Roethlisberger probably has a good idea where he wants to go, now it's a matter of execution.

At the snap, five of the six aforementioned Cleveland defenders rush the passer, with Davis faking a blitz before shadowing the quarterback near the line of scrimmage. Smith takes Wimbley outside; with Davis not rushing, Faneca helps Hartings with Eason; Simmons pushes McGinest inside; and Starks takes Washington wide right. This leaves Pool a clear path to Roethlisberger. With Pool blitzing the Browns' secondary is in man coverage and Big Ben has to know this.

Meanwhile, Morey, Young and Holmes run straight downfield giving no indication of their routes through the first five yards of their routes; Miller and Washington run crossing patterns with Washington cutting in front of Miller effectively allowing the tight end to legally screen Bodden. One consequence of Miller and Washington working the middle of the field is that they draw two defenders – two defenders that won't be patrolling the area Roethlisberger wants to throw the ball.

Big Ben knows he doesn't have a lot of time – he saw Pool and Davis before the snap, and now Pool is only seconds away from a sack. After taking the shotgun snap, Roethlisberger takes three quick steps and throws the ball. At first it's not clear if the Browns have hurried him into a bad decision, if he's just throwing the ball away, or if he actually has a chance to convert the third down.

By this point, Morey is now seven yards past the line of scrimmage and has run an out pattern. Young has occupied the third safety, Hamilton, by running straight at him, effectively preventing him from helping either cornerback on anything deep. At the same time, Holmes is running the same pattern as Morey, but on the opposite side of the field.

Five strides after the snap, Holmes is just about to make his break to the sidelines and Roethlisberger's pass has already traveled five yards. Pool is a step late on the sack, but manages to push Big Ben in the back just after the football leaves his hand. Holmes has less than a second to pick up the flight of the ball and haul in the catch. He makes it look effortless. Holly's in no position to make a play and the rookie wideout gains 16 yards, and more importantly, converts a big third down.

Now, in the scheme of things, this probably doesn't seem like a very big play. It's the first quarter of a meaningless late-season game and the quarterback and wide receiver play throw-and-catch on third-and-4. Big whoop. But here's the thing: Holmes is the guy going forward. Yeah, Ward is still the No. 1, but the Steelers have big plans for the rookie first-rounder and it all starts with Roethlisberger feeling comfortable enough to throw to him in critical situations. The seemingly insignificant play was a great example of that.

In addition to keeping the drive going – something the Steelers certainly have struggled with this season – on the very next play, Roethlisberger pump-fakes, Washington runs an out-and-up and 49 yards later Pittsburgh scores a touchdown … on a 97-yard drive.

As fans, it's always the big plays that stick out in our minds, but it's the little things – like converting on third-and-short – that often mean the difference between winning and losing. And at 6-7, the Steelers are very familiar with that.

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