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What’s wrong with the Steelers’ offense? Let’s start on 1st down

The title to this article poses a question every Steelers’ fan has considered these past two weeks: What’s wrong with the offense? Is it the scheme? The line? The quarterback? The coordinator? Is it all of the above? Any of those answers could be correct, and each could warrant a treatise on the subject. We’re doing articles in the neighborhood of 1,000 words around here, however, not football versions of War and Peace. So for the sake of brevity, let’s keep things simple.

You want to know what’s wrong with the Steelers offense? Start at the beginning — their performance on 1st down.

That’s a fairly obvious point of origin, given that every possession begins with a 1st down snap. The goal for most offenses on 1st down is to make four yards. This keeps them “ahead of the chains,” which is coach-speak for putting them in advantageous situations where the play sheet is wide open and defenses have to account for an array of potential calls. On 2nd-and-6 or better, an offense can run or pass, can screen, take a shot, throw quick, use play-action. Pretty much anything it wants. The further away from 2nd-and-6 they get, the more the play sheet shrinks. The calls become more predictable, the defense gets comfortable and more aggressive. 1st down doesn’t ultimately determine the fate of a drive. But it has a heck of an impact.

The Steelers have had 43 1st down snaps so far this season. They’ve been in 2nd-and-6 or better on 16 of them. That’s 37%. By contrast, San Francisco has gotten to 2nd-and-6 or better on 28 of 51 1st down snaps. That’s 55%. The odds of making a 1st down increase significantly when teams are in good shape on 2nd down. Because San Francisco gets into those situations more often than Pittsburgh, they convert more 1st downs. Through two games, the Niners have 43 first downs. The Steelers have 24.

Pittsburgh has struggled so much on 1st down that their average yards to go on 2nd down is 8.6. This discounts 1st down plays that gain 10 or more yards, of which Pittsburgh has had a few, including the 71-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Pickett to George Pickens against the Browns. But when they don’t earn 10+ yards with their 1st down play, they are awful. As a result, the Steelers have 14 three-and-outs through two games, the most in the NFL. 

Why, then, have they been so bad on 1st downs? One clue lies in the play-calling, which shows the predominance of 1st down runs Pittsburgh has used, and the lack of success they’ve had on them. According to Warren Sharp, Pittsburgh has run the ball 53% of the time on 1st-and-10. That’s not a huge number, and not exactly surprising. The kicker is this — on 54% of those 1st down runs, the Steelers have faced a stacked box, meaning the defense has put one more player near the line of scrimmage than the Steelers can block. So, if Pittsburgh has six blockers in the box, the defense has seven defenders. If Pittsburgh has seven, the defense has eight. It doesn’t take a calculus professor to understand that’s bad math. If you’re running into a loaded box on half of your snaps, odds are the results are going to be poor. Which they are. Per Sharp, the Steelers have a -0.28 EPA per rush on these runs, and a 33% expected rate of success.

Given both the circumstances and the results, it would make sense for the Steelers to check out of these runs when they see the box is loaded. Most teams do this, including my high school team, where we have an automatic check the quarterback is allowed to activate should the defense load up against the run. The Steelers do not appear to have such a check. Pat Freiermuth said as much last season, when he lamented that the offense doesn’t make checks at the line of scrimmage.

Take the play below, for example. This is a Duo run from a heavy set that includes three tight ends to the right. Pittsburgh has eight blockers in the formation and Cleveland has nine defenders in the box, giving them a plus-one. The Duo scheme stresses an interior double team to create movement against the defensive front, and is often willing to leave a secondary player unblocked to secure the double. Here, that player is the cornerback to the right of Pittsburgh’s formation, who is circled in the photo:

On this run, Najee Harris will head for the B-gap between the right guard and tackle. He will read the linebacker in the A-gap while the guard and tackle stay on the double as long as possible. If the backer works over the top, Harris will keep the run inside. If the backer presses the A-gap, Harris will bounce the run outside, where he will have to beat the unblocked corner one-on-one.

While the thought of Harris one-on-one with a corner in open space is appealing, there’s no guarantee the defense will force the play to bounce. On this run, Cleveland slanted everyone inside and brought the C-gap backer over the top. Harris bounced the run, but when he did he ran into both the corner who was coming up to force and the backer over Freiermuth (88), who was looping to the edge. The play gained nothing.

Rather than leave a defender unblocked, and rely on the defense to run a base front or the running back to win one-on-one, why not check out of the play? It appears as though Cleveland is vulnerable to some sort of play-action to the right, where all three tight ends are eligible. A simple play fake and boot, or a play-action pass from the pocket, would likely produce an easy high-low read for Pickett where he could isolate the flat defender and throw off of his movement.

Why don’t they? That’s tough to know. I struggle to believe it’s because Canada doesn’t know how to, or can’t recognize when he needs to get the offense out of one play and into another. The only explanation that makes sense is that he doesn’t trust Pickett yet to make these checks. That was understandable last year, when Pickett was a rookie and by his own admission spent half the season just trying to get the verbiage down and execute the offense. It wasn’t until late in the season that he felt comfortable enough to focus on the defense and what they were doing. But this year, with an entire off-season to prepare, he should be able to check plays at the line. One way or another, whether it’s Canada orchestrating or giving Pickett the freedom to do it, the Steelers have to get out of the dead plays they’re running. With a 33% projected success rate on 1st down runs based upon the look they’re getting from the defense, they’re setting themselves up for failure.

Pittsburgh also needs to get more creative. The long touchdown pass to Pickens the other night worked in part because Cleveland was not expecting it. The Browns were in a soft cover-3 with a single high safety and eight in the box, which is par-for-the-course against the Steelers on 1st down. When Pickett pulled the ball after faking to Jaylen Warren and threw the dagger route, Cleveland must have been in shock. The Steelers need more of that. Not deep shots, necessarily, but early-down calls that deviate from their highly-predictable norm.

How predictable have the Steelers been? According to Sharp, on early downs in the first half, they’ve thrown the ball 92% when they’re in the shotgun. When they’re under center on those downs, they’ve run it 85% of the time. These tendencies have not gone unnoticed, particularly when Pickett’s in the gun. Pickett has the league’s highest pressure rate (48%) and has been hit more than any other quarterback. No wonder he’s struggled. If the defense knows whether it’s going to be a run or a pass based upon your alignment, moving the football can be a problem.

Then there are the obvious things. While the play-calling certainly hasn’t helped, the Steelers need Pickett to play better, whether on 1st down or otherwise. He can’t miss simple 1st down throws that put the Steelers behind the chains. The line must block better, too. Sometimes, the reason they’re losing on their 1st down runs isn’t because the box is stacked but because there’s no movement up front. When Pittsburgh does get even numbers in the box, they have to be able to run effectively. If it’s six-on-six inside, and a team can’t make four yards running the ball, they’ve got a problem.

The issues are myriad, then. Yes, it’s the play-calling. And the scheme. And the quarterback. And the line. All of those factors have conspired to hamstring this offense, particularly on 1st down. Canada would be wise to devote significant practice time to working situational football where the focus is on executing 1st down plays. And he needs to do a self-scout to recognize his glaring tendencies and find a way to break them. Sometimes, improvement is as simple as identifying a problem and mapping a solution. Whether the Steelers have the right man in charge to find that solution, or the right pieces on the field to execute it, may be the question that determines their success.


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