3-and-Out: Steelers jump-start their offense in a big win over the Rams
In this week’s “3 & Out” column, we look at how the Steelers left-side run game was the catalyst to their comeback win in Los Angeles, how the offense conquered its red zone demons, and the continued growth of the team’s rookies.
The Left is the Best
I was a big fan of the rock band “The Doors” growing up, and I vividly remember the first time I heard their lead singer, Jim Morrison, bellow the following line in their iconic song, “The End”:
“The West, the West is the best. Get here, we’ll do the rest…”
A modified version of that lyric played in my head as I watched the Steelers take the game over in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Los Angeles. Trailing 17-10 as the final frame began, Pittsburgh finished off a 5-play, 59-yard drive by running left on consecutive plays behind the blocking of guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Dan Moore Jr. Both carries went to Jaylen Warren — the first on a split zone run play where Moore pancaked L.A’s defensive end, and the next on a wide zone toss that Warren took 13 yards to the end zone behind two lane-clearing blocks from Seumalo:
You've been warned 😏 @Nunless2
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) October 22, 2023
On Pittsburgh’s next drive, which went 80 yards in 10 plays, they ran the ball five times for 28 yards, all on plays to the left. These included sweeps, zone runs, a tackle wrap play and the finisher — a dive to the left side with some jet motion as window dressing:
.@ohthatsNajee22 in for 6️⃣
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) October 22, 2023
“The left,” I heard myself singing, “the left is the best…”
Steelers fans have been waiting for Seumalo, this off-season’s prized free agent signing, to play like the guy he was in Philadelphia the past few years. On Sunday, particularly in the 4th quarter, Seumalo did so. The Steelers didn’t light the world on fire in the run game (another Doors reference, for those who may be counting), but they ran the ball when they needed to. And when they did, they ran behind Seumalo, who played with both power and technique. All told, Pittsburgh ran 10 times to the left in that pivotal period, gaining 48 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Seumalo and Moore were the keys to their success.
One quarter is not enough to declare the Steelers have rediscovered their run game. They still rank 28th in the league in yards per game, averaging just over 81 per contest. But their performance in the second half was reminiscent of how they emerged from the bye last year, when they closed the season by winning seven of their final nine and averaged over 140 yards on the ground throughout. It’s an encouraging sign, especially given how Moore and Seumalo played together. A consistent rushing attack would be a boon to Kenny Pickett, who always seems to play better when the run game is clicking. The same is true for the offense in general. I’ll temper my enthusiasm for the moment. But the fourth quarter in L.A. just may have been the catalyst to help the run game break on through to the other side.
(That’s it for the Doors puns. I promise…).
Red Zone-to-End Zone
The Steelers entered Sunday’s game with just two touchdowns on seven red zone trips for the season, both of which were NFL lows. Their 28.6 red zone touchdown percentage ranked last in the league as well.
They took a big jump in the standings, at least in terms of touchdown percentage, by going three-for-three from the red zone on Sunday. The first one was a gift, as a T.J. Watt interception on the opening play of the second half set them up at the Rams’ seven-yard line. Three plays later, Pickett snuck the ball across the goal line from the one, and the Steelers took a 10-9 lead.
Pittsburgh moved the ball into the red zone on their two fourth quarter scoring drives as well. On the first one, they ran it in from the 18 on two carries by Warren. On the second, they dialed up a well-timed bootleg pass to Conner Heyward into an open left flat that Heyward took to the three. Harris punched it in from there, as the Steelers completed a perfect red zone performance.
Give credit to beleaguered coordinator Matt Canada for mixing his calls and formations. On the drive where Warren scored, they first aligned in a 12-personnel formation. Heyward and fellow tight end Darnell Washington set up in an unbalanced wing set, while George Pickens and Allen Robinson were in a slot to the field. Robinson motioned across to remove the corner from the run fit, and Warren ran inside behind the blocks of Seumalo, Moore and Washington to make five yards.
The touchdown came on the following play, with Pittsburgh in a 2×2 spread formation. Robinson again motioned over, giving the Steelers an extra blocker at the point of attack, and with Los Angeles matching Pittsburgh’s three receiver set with smaller personnel of their own, Pittsburgh blocked up the perimeter to provide Warren a path to the end zone.
On the drive where Harris scored, Pittsburgh ran their first red zone play by aligning in a 12-personnel bunch set that compressed the defense. This created space to the boundary for Heyward, who was the inside receiver in the bunch. Heyward initially started inside as though he was going to pull. That action, and the run fake to Harris, drew L.A.’s linebackers away from the bootleg. Heyward then broke back to the flat, where he was wide open for an easy completion.
Then, on the touchdown, Canada went with a rare 32-personnel configuration, using three tight ends and two running backs. He often runs jet sweeps from these tightly compressed sets, only here he faked the jet to Heyward and handed the ball to Harris instead, who bulled his way into the end zone.
Canada has taken plenty of heat this season, and rightfully so. But he deserves praise when he does things well. He earned it on Sunday by being on point with his red zone play calls.
The rookie class has been impressive so far, and Sunday was no exception. Several players stood out, all in a positive light.
2nd Round picks Joey Porter Jr. and Keanu Benton were both excellent. Porter was credited with three tackles and a pass break-up, but his presence seemed larger and more impactful as he provided tight coverage on L.A.’s receivers all afternoon. Benton’s playing time was limited because the Rams went almost extensively with spread formations, which forced the Steelers to counter with their nickel and dime packages. But he had two quarterback hits and was in the Los Angeles backfield almost every time he was on the field. Porter and Benton look like rising stars and should see more playing time as the season progresses.
Washington, the 3rd Round tight end from Georgia, saw his most extensive action of the season with Pat Freiermuth out. He took 31 snaps as the Steelers ran much of their offense out of 12-personnel with he and Heyward on the field together. While Washington wasn’t targeted in the passing game, he made his presence felt as a run blocker, particularly late in the game.
4th Round edge rusher Nick Herbig collected the first sack of his NFL career with a takedown of Matthew Stafford in the 2nd quarter. Herbig added three solo tackles as well. Herbig got just 12 defensive snaps, but he made the most of them.
Notably absent from the stat sheet was 1st Round tackle Broderick Jones, who returned to the bench after starting the Ravens game before the bye. Jones played well in that contest, prompting many to call for him to be inserted into the lineup ahead of Moore, who missed the Baltimore game with an injury. Jones’s performance may have motivated Moore, who turned in some of his best play of the season. Having Jones push Moore for playing time is a good problem to have — for the moment.
As if Steelers fans needed evidence that “Clutch Kenny” is a real thing, consider this: throughout the first three quarters so far this season, Pickett’s quarterback rating is 75.9. In the fourth quarter, it’s 102,8. I don’t know what happens in the fourth quarter, or why whatever happens doesn’t happen sooner, but if Kenny’s going to be great, the fourth quarter is a perfect time to do it. Over his last 14 starts, he’s piloted the Steelers to six come-from-behind wins in the final frame, as the Steelers have gone 10-4 overall in those contests.