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3-and-out: Clutch Kenny returns, plus other notes from the win over the Ravens

The “3 & Out” article is something I wrote regularly last year following Steelers games over at our previous website. In it, I look at three key elements of Pittsburgh’s 17-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens, with some numbers at the end to take us out.

The audible heard ’round the Burgh

Most people know the story by now. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada does not allow the Steelers’ quarterbacks to check out of plays. The degree to which this is true is hazy, since none of us are in the meeting rooms and we don’t know exactly what this means. Also, there are varying degrees of checks. Some are as subtle as changing the pass protection when the quarterback sees a blitz or flipping the direction of a run from right to left to attack a certain technique along the defensive front. Other examples are more aggressive, like killing the existing play in favor of something else. Jon Gruden famously gave three calls in the huddle — usually a run, a pass and some kind of screen — and had his quarterback pick the one at the line of scrimmage that was most appropriate for the structure of the defense. In that sense, Gruden didn’t call plays at all. He just provided options.

The story on Canada seems to be the opposite. Canada calls the plays he wants, and he doesn’t allow his quarterback to deviate from them. The reason for this would take some insider knowledge to which I’m not privy. But the story has been repeated enough over the past two seasons from reliable sources (Mitch Trubisky, Pat Freiermuth, Kenny Pickett) that it seems accurate. It would also explain why the Steelers so often run “dead” plays into stacked boxes where there aren’t enough blockers to account for the defensive personnel. A quarterback who can count — six blockers vs. seven defenders, for example — would know to check to a perimeter screen or a one-on-one route against such a look. Unless, of course, that quarterback was not permitted to do so.

Which is why, with the Steelers trailing the Baltimore Ravens 10-8 on Sunday, and with possession of the football on a 2nd-and-9 play at Baltimore’s 41 yard-line and 1:17 to play, it was curious when the CBS television crew caught Pickett making a “Randy” call at the line of scrimmage. That call presumably signaled the offensive line to slide to its right in order to pick up an all-out blitz from the Ravens, who had aligned in the following configuration:

Pickett likely recognized the Cover-0 blitz look from his film study of the Ravens’ previous game, where they used it several times in the 4th quarter against the Indianapolis Colts. Doing his homework paid off. While it does not appear Pickett changed the play call, he did change the protection. The line then picked up the blitz, and Pickett uncorked a perfectly thrown deep ball to George Pickens, who beat the press coverage of cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the go-ahead score.

Much of the reaction after the game centered on video of Canada during the play, where the coordinator remained stoic as bedlam erupted from the crowd at Acrisure Stadium. Canada’s reaction has sparked a wide range of speculation on why he didn’t seem particularly happy about the result. Was it because Pickett changed its structure against Canada’s wishes? Was it because someone else called the play, like perhaps quarterback’s coach Mike Sullivan? Was it because Canada was contemplating his next move, which turned out to be the two-point play the Steelers ran immediately after? Or was it, as my colleague Bryan Anthony Davis has suggested, because Canada knows that no matter how the Ravens game ended, his job is slipping away and he can’t find it in him to celebrate? Whatever the truth, between this video and last week’s speculation about Canada’s alleged Twitter burner account, it won’t shock me if someone accuses him next of assassinating JFK.

The Canada drama aside, Pickett’s audible, and the subsequent throw to Pickens, was another example of how the second-year quarterback seems to play his best football when the game is on the line. This is the second straight contest against the Ravens where Pickett has led the team back from a 4th quarter deficit to win in the final minutes. It’s the fifth-such 4th quarter comeback win for Pickett in just 17 professional starts. No matter his struggles in the first three quarters, Pickett seems to pull his game together in its ultimate moments. On Sunday’s touchdown drive, he was 4-6 for 79 yards. The rest of the afternoon, he went just 14-26 for 145 yards. Whether it’s a matter of focus, of how defenses play in those final minutes, or of the situation dictating he have more freedom on the field and less micro-managing from Canada, is hard to know. Whatever it is, Klutch Kenny is a real thing. And because of it, the Steelers somehow enter their bye week at 3-2 and in first place in the AFC North.

To blitz or not to blitz?

The Steelers wouldn’t have won, of course, had Baltimore been able to catch the football. The Ravens had nine drops, with at least four of them sure touchdowns had their receivers held on. Baltimore went up-and-down the field in the first half and yet led just 10-3 at halftime, with the drops killing several drives.

They were less effective in the second half. Part of that had to do with the Steelers abandoning their early strategy of sitting back and trying to make Lamar Jackson diagnose coverage. This proved ineffective, as coordinator Todd Monken did a nice job of moving Jackson around and neutralizing Pittsburgh’s pass rush. Baltimore dialed up bootlegs, play-action passes, RPOs and read-options to keep the Steelers off-balance. Jackson pulled the ball on one such play, a zone read call on 3rd-and-2 on Baltimore’s opening possession, and ran it off the left end for 26 yards. He seemed way too comfortable with how Pittsburgh was defending him.

By the middle of the second quarter, Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin had seen enough. Austin began bringing heat in the form of linebacker stunts and occasional safety blitzes. This forced Jackson to get the ball out quickly, or with pressure in his face, and to throw before his receivers had come open. Jackson was 15-25 passing for 154 yards in the first half but just 7-13 for 81 yards after the break. The Steelers sacked him twice in the second half and forced him into poor throws on several other occasions, including a six-man pressure with Baltimore inside Pittsburgh’s five-yard-line and 4:04 to play that resulted in perhaps the game’s biggest play:

Austin’s decision to heat up Jackson may have looked foolish had Baltimore converted a few of the opportunities they squandered in the passing game. But it was better than sitting back and letting the Ravens operate out of their base offense, like they did early on. Kudos to him for challenging Jackson and taking him out of his comfort zone.

Rookie report

It was a largely positive afternoon for Pittsburgh’s rookies. whose presence on Sunday in a huge game against the Ravens spoke volumes about their potential.

1st Round pick Broderick Jones made his first NFL start and more than held his own. Jones was beaten inside on a couple of counter moves from Baltimore’s edge rushers but did not give up a sack, which is huge considering how Baltimore employs some of the league’s most exotic blitz schemes. In the run game, Jones was excellent on wide zone plays and on climbing to the second level to block linebackers. His movement for a big man is superior, and he demonstrated that by winning position on Baltimore defenders repeatedly.

2nd Rounder Joey Porter Jr’s first career interception, shown above, probably saved the day for the Steelers. A touchdown there would have made it a two-score game, and there’s little chance the Steelers were coming back from that. Porter has shown himself to be aggressive and intuitive and may already be the best cover corner on Pittsburgh’s roster.

Fellow 2nd Rounder Keanu Benton continued to contribute as a regular part of the defensive line rotation. While Montravius Adams remains the starter at the 1-tech position, Benton played a career-high 33 snaps against Baltimore, including 14 where he lined up outside as a four or five tech. The Steelers are giving him a bigger role each week, and it seems like only a matter of time before he pushes Adams out of the starting lineup.

3rd Round tight end Darnell Washington struggled a bit as a run blocker. He needs more reps to hone his communication on zone and duo runs where he has to start on a double team with one of his fellow linemen before one of them chips off to a linebacker. Twice Washington miscommunicated that responsibility, leading to run-throughs from the defense. But when Washington gets his hands on people, he moves them off the ball. He is an aggressive and willing blocker, and once the timing and communication comes, he’s going to be a force in the run game.

4th Round pick Nick Herbig didn’t make any splash plays, and he was fooled by Jackson on a few read options. But the fact Herbig was on the field when Baltimore recovered Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt late in the fourth quarter with the game in the balance shows how highly the Steelers regard him.

All things considered the rookie class is showing signs that it could be a special one.

And Out…

Pittsburgh’s seven-point win was their biggest margin of victory in this rivalry since a 26-9 win in 2017. That’s a seventeen-point spread. Amazingly, the Steelers last five victories in the series prior to Sunday came by a combined total of just sixteen points, with margins of four, five, one, three and three. The close nature of Pittsburgh-Baltimore games was perhaps best summarized in a graphic CBS showed during the telecast that revealed the following: since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007, the two teams had played 35 times, with Pittsburgh scoring just two points more than Baltimore in those contests. That total is up to nine points now, while Tomlin has upped his record to 20-16 against his biggest rival.

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