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The Steelers’ explosive play frequency is the most exciting thing about the offense this preseason

The Steelers authored their second straight dominant preseason performance on Saturday night, defeating the Buffalo Bills 27-15 in a game that was not that close. Pittsburgh’s starting offense was flawless in its two drives together, scoring twice from outside the red zone. The touchdowns are certainly encouraging, but it’s the distance from which they’ve occurred that creates the potential for real excitement.

Last season, Pittsburgh finished last in the NFL with just two touchdowns scored from outside the red zone. By contrast, Philadelphia and Las Vegas led the league with 17 such touchdowns, and a majority of NFL teams scored at least nine. Pittsburgh was great at driving the football — over the final nine games, they finished fifth in the league in time of possession — but their 18.1 points per game ranked 26th. By not creating explosive plays, they were forced to score from inside the red zone, which can be difficult. The field condenses, throwing windows get smaller and defenses become more aggressive. Pittsburgh’s offense finished 29th in red zone scoring efficiency, and Kenny Pickett was 32nd in red zone completion percentage. Being more explosive would have taken some of the burden off of their red zone offense, and allowed them to score more points.

Saturday night against Buffalo, they scored the same number of explosive touchdowns as they did all of last season. Through two pre-season games, they’ve doubled last year’s total. The Steelers have already scored from distances of 25, 33, 63 and 67 yards, There was a lot of talk this off-season about Pittsburgh needing to create more big plays on offense. The sample size is small, but so far it’s been mission accomplished in that department.

The reasons for their improved big-play success are many. Against Tampa Bay, Calvin Austin III’s superior athleticism led to an easy score on a straight Go route where he simply ran by an overmatched defensive back. That won’t happen very often in the regular season, but the Steelers now have a weapon on offense who brings the possibility into play. Their other score — a 33-yard toss from Pickett to George Pickens — showcased Pickens’ evolved route tree. Pickens scored on a dig route, or an in-breaking route that attacks the middle of the field, which was an area in which he rarely operated last season.

Against Buffalo, their first explosive touchdown came on a 63-yard run from tailback Jaylen Warren. The second- year back took a handoff to his left, cut between a couple of blocks from Isaac Seumalo and Dan Moore Jr, picked up a downfield block from Diontae Johnson, and outran safety Jordan Poyer to the end zone:

Warren’s touchdown was exciting for several reasons. First, it came on an outside zone run, which is a scheme for which Steelers fans have recently clamored. Pittsburgh ran a decent amount of outside zone last season, especially later in the year as the run game improved. But they were not well-equipped to run the scheme up front, where left guard Kevin Dotson was a liability. Outside zone requires linemen to reach block adjacent defenders. To do so, they must move well laterally. Dotson is a solid north-south blocker, but his laterally mobility is an issue. Not so with Seumalo, who seamlessly reached the play-side linebacker on Warren’s run, then turned his shoulders and pinned him inside to open a lane to the edge.

The Pittsburgh run game was inside zone-heavy last season because their limitations up front reduced their schematic options. This year, with the upgrades they’ve made to the line, and the familiarity the unit seems to have with one another, the scheme has expanded. Anthony McFarland scored on a Duo run in their first pre-season game, while Warren took outside zone to the house in Week 2. These are both schemes the Steelers ran with limited success a year ago. If Pittsburgh can be more versatile in their run game, it’s likely they’ll create more explosive plays.

Their other explosive touchdown was a pass to Pat Freiermuth that followed a long punt return by Austin, setting the Steelers up at the Buffalo 25-yard-line. From there, Pickett took a snap, sat in a clean pocket, had plenty of time to diagnose coverage, then delivered a perfect strike over the back shoulder of linebacker Matt Milano (58), who is one of the best coverage backers in the game:

You can see in the clip how Pickett strategically placed the ball on Freiermuth’s back side, where Milano could not make a play on it. That’s the type of fluid adjustment we saw Pickett begin to make late last season and with which he looks completely comfortable now. It’s not enough for Pickett to know that targeting Freiermuth, whose seam route split the middle of Buffalo’s two-high coverage, was the proper read. He then had to place the ball far enough behind Freiermuth so Milano couldn’t defend it, but not so far it either missed Freiermuth or led him into the closing safety. This is high-level quarterback play on Pickett’s part.

The other exciting aspects of the play involve the protection, which was flawless and provided Pickett ample time to process what was happening; and the play-call by coordinator Matt Canada. Canada correctly anticipated Cover-2, then dialed up a two-high beater featuring vertical routes from his wide receivers that widened the safeties enough to give Freiermuth room to operate one-on-one up the seam. Taking a shot at the end zone after Austin’s big punt return was aggressive thinking by Canada, too, which should come as a pleasant surprise to Steelers fans after last year’s largely conservative approach.

If the Steelers can replicate this success in the regular season, they’re going to be significantly better on offense. They’re on pace to score 34 explosive touchdowns in 17 games, which is unrealistic. Half that number would have tied for the league-lead a season ago. What seems certain is they won’t be anywhere near the two explosive scores they tallied last year. A more explosive Steelers offense equates to an offense that scores more points. It stands to reason that, after going 9-8 a year ago while averaging just 18 points per game, a modest improvement in scoring will equate to more wins. For that reason alone, Pittsburgh’s improved explosive-play frequency is the most exciting thing about the offense so far this pre-season.

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