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3-and-Out: Steelers’ lack of preparation on offense wastes another stellar effort by the defense

In this week’s “3 & Out” column, we look at how Pittsburgh’s failure to adjust on offense to Cleveland’s defense doomed them on Sunday, as well as the quality play of linebacker Elandon Roberts and the team’s questionable strategy on its final defensive possession.

Truly offensive

Pittsburgh’s offense started the game with the ball at their own 9-yard-line. They promptly failed to block Myles Garrett and gave up a sack that moved it back to the one. That set the tone for an anemic first half performance that saw them gain 64 total yards and four first downs. The Browns led 10-0 at the half, but it felt like more.

The first-half run game was at least functional, earning 49 yards on 12 attempts. The passing game was pathetic. Matt Canada called ten passes in the half. Counting the two sacks of Kenny Pickett that lost 19 yards, they garnered 15 yards total. It gets worse. If you subtract the longest completion of the bunch — a fourteen-yard gain to George Pickens — Pittsburgh’s other nine pass calls yielded one total yard.

Two plays into the second half, everything changed. The Steelers ran a misdirection toss to Jaylen Warren, and this happened:

In that moment, it felt like the spark the offense needed to get going. But that wasn’t the case. The Steelers followed Warren’s touchdown with a three-and-out, a drive that gained seven yards and another three-and-out. They did manage a competent drive late in the third quarter, going 62 yards in 13 plays to kick a field goal that tied the score at 10. But their final two possessions gained nine total yards, and Cleveland was able to move the ball into field goal range in the final ninety seconds for the winning kick.

Pittsburgh finished with 172 rushing yards, but their inability to put together a competent passing attack crippled them. They called 31 pass plays overall, which netted 77 total yards for an average of 2.5 yards per attempt. The culprits for that performance were many. Pickett missed open receivers and looked skittish in the pocket much of the afternoon. Johnson dropped a huge pass on the first play of Pittsburgh’s final possession that would have given the Steelers a first down and gotten a potential game-winning drive started. And Canada again demonstrated an inability to cobble together an effective passing attack. Whether he is limited in what he can call by Pickett’s ability to execute the offense or by his own shortcomings as a play designer is hard to know.

Perhaps more troubling were the miscommunications in the passing game that suggested the Steelers were unprepared for what Cleveland threw at them. There were several instances where Pickett and his receivers were not on the same page, which resulted in balls being thrown to no one. The line looked confused as well, leaving pass rushers unblocked on several occasions. Pickett attributed the issues between he and the receivers to Cleveland unexpectedly playing a lot of zone coverage when the Steelers had anticipated more man-to-man. That’s all well and good. Jim Schwartz is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the game, so it stands to reason he’d have a few curve balls to toss Pittsburgh’s way. But for an offense to look so utterly confounded by a simple change from man coverage to zone coverage hints at a disturbing lack of preparation, particularly this deep into the season. That falls squarely on the coordinator, whose job it is to make sure his players can adjust to a defense in real time.

So, while the play-calling gets the lion’s share of the blame for the futility of the offense, and the quarterback comes in a close second, the failure of the coordinator to prepare the unit properly may be the biggest culprit.

Roberts Rocking

Things were much more encouraging on the defensive side of the ball, especially at the linebacker position. With Cleveland starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback in place of the injured Deshaun Watson, it was likely they’d try to alleviate pressure on their young signal-caller by establishing a run game. That put the spotlight on Elandon Roberts and a linebacking corps that had been decimated the past few weeks by injury. Roberts, who began the season as a backup to fellow free agent signees Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander, was the veteran of the unit against the Browns. He started beside newly-signed Mykal Walker in Holcomb and Alexander’s absence, forming one of the least experienced linebacking duos, at least in terms of their Steelers’ tenure, in recent memory.

Roberts more than rose to the occasion. He finished the game with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and several key takedowns that prevented the Browns from gaining a first down. 11 of his tackles were solos, which speaks to both how well he got to the football and how effective he was once he got there.

In the passing game, Roberts is not regarded as a great coverage backer, so it benefitted the Steelers that they were facing a rookie quarterback who was unlikely to throw the ball much into the middle of the field. Still, Roberts was not a liability. Tight end David Njoku caught seven passes for 56 yards, but Roberts was in tight coverage against him much of the afternoon. Cleveland surprisingly attempted 44 passes, but they netted just 161 yards. The coverage of Pittsburgh’s linebacking unit was far from their biggest problem on the day.

Overall, Roberts was the best player on a banged-up Pittsburgh defense that once again did enough to give the Steelers a chance to win. He’s been a pleasant surprise on the team’s revamped linebacking unit and should be one of their most important defenders as they fight for a playoff berth down the stretch.

Costly Change

As good as the defense was, they surrendered 48 yards on Cleveland’s final drive that allowed the Browns to move into comfortable range for the winning field goal. The problem may have been a decision to pull back rather than to put pressure on Thompson-Robinson.

Pittsburgh had been aggressive throughout the second half with their rushes and coverages, mixing man and zone schemes, running twists and stunts and changing up personnel groups. All of that was seemingly geared to confuse the young Thompson-Robinson and keep him from finding a rhythm. It worked, as he had amassed just 126 passing yards heading into the final drive. But Pittsburgh played conservatively at the end, and it cost them.

On the first play of the drive, the Steelers curiously aligned with edge rusher Alex Highsmith outside of the point man in a wide bunch to the left of Cleveland’s formation. This may have been to delay the release of Cleveland’s receivers, but it put Highsmith too wide to apply pressure. That left just three defenders to rush Thompson-Robinson. Meanwhile, the secondary bailed into a soft zone, and with a clean pocket in which to stand, Thompson-Robinson delivered a strike to Elijah Moore for a 15-yard gain that moved the ball to midfield.

Cleveland hurried up to the line, and with the clock ticking under a minute to play, snapped it from a 3×1 formation. The Steelers aligned in a loose cover-2 shell and rotated to cover-3 at the snap. Thompson-Robinson read it easily and threw a quick out to Kareem Hunt for a five-yard gain.

On 2nd-and-5 the Steelers played cover-3 again. This time, Thompson-Robinson found Amari Cooper on a slant to the +37. The Browns were now at the edge of field goal range. Finally, Pittsburgh got aggressive and played man coverage, but they rushed just four. Cleveland ran a well-executed man-beater to Njoku and Thompson-Robinson put the ball on the money. The Browns had the yards they needed for their kicker.

Why the Steelers didn’t bring pressure on the drive is a fair question to ask. Most likely, it’s because the Browns were getting the ball out of Thompson-Robinson’s hand so quickly that Pittsburgh felt a blitz wouldn’t get home. But with the Browns clearly targeting the underneath zones with coverage beaters, sitting in a soft zone and rushing four was ineffective.

Hindsight is of course 20/20, and playing Monday Morning Quarterback is always easy. Still, it would have been nice to see the Steelers play that final defensive possession aggressively rather than allow Cleveland’s rookie quarterback to feel comfortable in the pocket and dink-and-dunk his way down the field.

And Out…

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, especially when it comes to referees, so I’m not suggesting there was some plot at work that favored the Browns. But the officiating crew called just one penalty on Cleveland, and they ruled this play a defensive delay of game for trying to induce the Browns into jumping offsides on the game-winning field goal, rather than a false start:

Cleveland should have been penalized five yards there, and their 34-yard field goal attempt should have been a more challenging 44-yarder. There’s a good chance they still would have converted the kick. But the call was terrible, and it came in a key moment, both of which are becoming far too common throughout the league.


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