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Eagle Eye: A Multifaceted Steelers Attack

Posted Sep 23, 2016

Everyone knows that the Eagles' defense has a daunting task ahead of itself with the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense on Sunday afternoon. This is a unit, led by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, that has averaged 31 points a game over the first two weeks and sits in the top 10 in total yards and rushing yards. The combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown is as explosive in any in the league, and running back DeAngelo Williams is as productive as ever, rushing for 4.1 yards per carry with a pair of scores. Regardless of how effective that rushing attack is, we know that this offense funnels through Brown and the passing game.

Here’s a shot from Week 1 against Washington. Brown lines up to the far left. The Redskins are lined up in Cover 1 Man Free here, with man coverage on the outside and one safety in the middle of the field. The Eagles' cornerbacks are going to be in this situation at some point on Sunday because you can’t double team a receiver on every play. The corner fails to disrupt Brown at the line of scrimmage. Brown wins with an outside release, and takes off down the sideline. The safety is unable to get over top of this throw, and it’s a 26-yard touchdown for Pittsburgh. With his combination of speed, quickness and overall savvy as a route runner, Brown is a tough cover for any defensive back in the league in straight man-to-man situations.

But as Brown has proven time and time again, beating man coverage is not the only trick in his bag. Last week against Cincinnati, you can really see a great example of Brown being able to find the soft spots in zone coverage and make himself available for Big Ben. The Cincinnati Bengals are running a disguised version of Cover 2 here, with the corner (No. 24) dropping out to the deep half and a safety staying underneath as a cloud player, guarding the sticks. Brown is running a simple comeback route past the first-down marker on this play, but watch him uncover as soon as he whips his head around. When he looks back after coming out of his break, he sees the safety right in the throwing lane, so he quickly slides further inside to find the soft spot in the coverage. Roethlisberger makes his way back to Brown on the back side to move the chains.

Both of those first two plays came against a form of "single" coverage, but what about a dedicated "double?" Late in the fourth quarter against the Bengals, Cincinnati decides to call one of those designed double teams against Brown, lined up as the X-receiver to the boundary. The same two players are in coverage here, and it’s your basic "high-low" double team, with the cornerback taking any vertical route away and the safety taking away anything underneath. Brown beats this double team perfectly, breaking inside toward the post before flattening out toward the sideline. More importantly, Roethlisberger is willing to unleash this throw against double coverage, trusting Brown to get open. Sometimes, even when the defense does double Brown, he’s still going to make his catches and get his yards.

One of the beautiful things about those three plays, from a Steelers perspective, is that they all occurred on third down. Why is that important? Pittsburgh is one of the best teams in the entire NFL on third down (51.6 percent conversion rate ranks fourth in the league). Brown leads the NFL with 11 targets on third down (the next most has eight), and he has six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown (17.3 yards per catch) in those situations. This is going to be a huge "situational football" game for the Eagles, as it’s important to note that the Steelers are also first in the league in red zone offense.

There are a few reasons why the Steelers are successful on third down. They have a lot of weapons in the passing game, and on third down they love to throw it. Of their 33 third-down attempts in the first two games, they’ve thrown it 27 times, an extremely high ratio. With Brown, an explosive second-year wideout in Sammie Coates, a lightning quick Eli Rogers and a rangy tight end in Jesse James, they find ways to spread the ball around and move the sticks. There are plenty of times, however, where Big Ben just does Big Ben things in the pocket.

It’s third-and-9 against the Bengals in the first quarter, and Roethlisberger sits in the backfield in an empty set. He takes the snap, drops back and with a double team on Brown and a vertical route taken away down the field. He has nowhere to go with the football. This is where his ability to withstand pressure in the pocket and buy himself time comes in handy. Roethlisberger spins out of trouble, goes to the other side of the field and lofts a beautiful touch throw out in front of Coates for a 44-yard gain on third down. This Pittsburgh receiving corps is well aware of Big Ben’s ability to keep plays alive in the pocket, so they all do a great job of uncovering in scramble situations to help make plays down the field. This Eagles defense will be tasked with both hugging up tight on the back end for extended periods of time, while the defensive front will have to clog up his escape routes in the pocket and finish tackles in the backfield - not an easy task against Roethlisberger.

One of the other things you’ll see the Steelers do a lot of on third down is a lot of shallow cross or "mesh" concepts over the middle of the field. By creating traffic over the ball, their quicker receivers like Brown, Rogers and Markus Wheaton (who will make his season debut Sunday) break open with interference in the middle. On this play, Rogers breaks free after initially trying to rub off the defender on top of Coates for a 20-yard catch and a first down.

The Steelers literally steal yards with bunch concepts and stacked receivers on the perimeter in key situations both on third down and in the red zone. On this play against Washington, Williams lines up stacked behind Brown, and he runs a quick slant route past the sticks for the first down. Haley knows how to create easy yards on offense, and he uses those types of plays in the passing game to move the sticks and pick up a fresh set of downs.

We’ve talked a lot about the passing game, and rightfully so, but this catch from Williams should take us to the Pittsburgh run game. Yeah, they’re missing Le'Veon Bell who, when on the field, is one of the most dynamic runners in the league. This is still a very multiple run scheme, however, with a variety of zone and gap concepts to attack and put stress on second-level defenders.

Here’s a shot against Washington with Roethlisberger under center. The Steelers are running a Split Zone run scheme here, with double teams up front and a tight end coming from across the formation to block the edge player on the back side. Williams uses his vision and lateral agility on this run to get downhill and bust off a 17-yard run for a first down.

Later in the game, the Steelers are down in the red zone and Roethlisberger sits back in the shotgun. He hands this ball off to Williams on a "gap-scheme" run with a guard pulling from the back side, a double team at the point of attack and a crack block from the receiver on the play side. This leaves Williams one on one with a cornerback on the perimeter, leading him to the end zone for a touchdown. Even with Bell out of this game on Sunday, the Steelers' run game is one to be reckoned with. The Eagles' front seven has to be up to the challenge.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.


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