Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers Playbook: Effective Play-Calling in 2008

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Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers Playbook: Effective Play-Calling in 2008
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have earned the reputation of being a team built on the philosophy of running the ball effectively, controlling the clock, and emphasizing an aggressive, blitz-heavy defense.

Last season they made a championship run on the strength of these five plays (four on offense, one on defense) that were consistently effective, although somewhat of a deviation of their aforementioned mantra.


1. Fake Blitz, 1-5-5 Nickel Package

At their own 2-yard line with 18 seconds remaining in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII with a 10-7 lead, the Steelers were in danger of losing the lead going into the half if they couldn't prevent the Arizona Cardinals from scoring.

Facing a three-receiver set with Kurt Warner in the shotgun and Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin split out to the left, the Steelers countered with a nickel package that featured one lineman (Brett Keisel), five linebackers (James Harrison, Larry Foote, Lamarr Woodley, James Farrior, and Lawrence Timmons) and five defensive backs.

This funky nickel look placed seven defenders in the box with the addition of safety Ryan Clark, giving the heavy indication of a blitz. But with the craftiness of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the question was: which players would be blitzing?

The play developed quickly as five of the seven men rushed as expected, but Farrior and Harrison faked the pass rush and dropped back into coverage, Harrison in the flat to Warner's left and Farrior over the middle.

Warner, seeing the blitz up the middle, but not Harrison off to his left, tried to hit Boldin on a quick slant underneath.

Harrison read Warner, jumped the route, and 100 yards later, scampered into Super Bowl history.


2. O Bunch, F Peel 62 F Split Em Sink (or a similar variation)

Granted, the Steelers ran a number of plays from this set in their two-minute drill and third down packages, but this particular example was most effective for short-to-medium yardage gains.

Lined up in the Bunch formation (often referred to by Steelers' radio announcer Bill Hillgrove as the "Banana Bunch"), the "Y" receiver (Hines Ward) lines up on the line of scrimmage to the right of the formation.

Meanwhile, the "F" receiver (Heath Miller) lines up off the line to his left, and the "Z" receiver (Nate Washington) lines up off the line to his right, creating a triangle formation between the three of them.

Santonio Holmes, the "X" receiver, lines up on the line of scrimmage to the left of the formation, with a single running back (often Mewelde Moore) in the backfield behind Ben Roethlisberger.

Before the snap, Miller motions in a "peel", pinching across the formation, only to stop at Roethlisberger and shuffle back to his original position. After the snap, he runs a seven-yard stop route.

Holmes has the option route, running a skinny post if the cornerback gives him a cushion off the line. Otherwise, he runs a fade route against press coverage, or a 16-yard in route against a Cover-2.

Washington runs a five-yard quick out route toward the sideline, providing an outlet against a strong-side blitz, while Ward runs a six-yard "middle route": crossing into the middle of the field and sitting down in an open window where Roethlisberger can see him.

Moore's job is to check the protection to see if a blitzer is coming free from the weak side. If not, he runs a stop route similar to Miller's to the left.

This play brought about mixed results, with Roethlisberger using each of his receivers on different occasions, but the most common were Ward and Miller, finding holes in the defense's zone coverage and getting the short yardage necessary to keep the chains moving.


3. Play-Action Pass

The addition of Heath Miller as a first-round draft pick in 2005 gave the Steelers the balanced tight end option they needed, with his ability to stretch the field as a receiver being vital to the passing game.

A heavy emphasis on running the football is bound to eventually leave a defense vulnerable against the pass. The Steelers have developed the ability to sell the run well enough to set up the play-action, allowing Miller to come free over the middle or Santonio Holmes in man-to-man coverage deep down the field.

The success of this play in different formations allowed Roethlisberger and Miller to get the Steelers' offense rolling early in the Super Bowl, getting them into the red zone before settling for an 18-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.

The opening drive may not have resulted in a touchdown, but the tone was set for how the Steelers would use their versatile attack to put points on the board.


4. Counter 34 Stay

This was an effective running play for the Steelers when executed properly, depending heavily upon the offensive line despite injuries and occasional problems with inconsistency.

Lined up with the strong side to the left, Miller lines up as the tight end next to the left tackle. The fullback (Sean McHugh by the end of the season), lines up to the strong side of the formation, off-set to the left in front of the halfback (Willie Parker).

At the snap, left guard Chris Kemoeatu pulls to the right across the formation, while the right tackle (Willie Colon) and right guard (Darnell Stapleton) create a hole for McHugh, who follows Kemoeatu across.

Parker fakes a move to his left, waiting for McHugh to pass in front of him to take on the inside linebacker (the "Jack" in the 3-4), or the outside linebacker (the "Whip" in the 4-3), and Roethlisberger to come to him deep in the backfield for the hand-off.

Kemoeatu seals off the weak-side linebacker or defensive end, depending on whether they face a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment, while Parker follows McHugh's lead block into the second level of the defense.

Kemoeatu is the key to this play, with his kick-out block to the weak side, giving the play the proper time to develop and allowing Parker to get a full head of steam as he approaches the hole.

When executed properly, Parker gets the space to get into the defensive backfield to take on one of the safeties. If he can get enough speed coming through the hole and space to get outside, Parker can get to the corner and get up the field.

This play was effective to help set the tone early in the running game, and helping to wear down opposing defenses late in the game with the lead.


5. Improvisation

There is no set formation, personnel grouping, or designated assignment for what helped the offense get out of a certain loss of yardage time and time again: Ben Roethlisberger's ability to move around in the pocket and buy time to get his receivers the ball.

It was hard sometimes to understand what was more difficult for the Steelers' offensive line: blocking in their designated protection schemes, or giving Big Ben time to move around long after the initial rush time to find an open receiver.

Critics say that Roethlisberger often gets himself into trouble more often than out of it by holding onto the ball and looking to make a play downfield, but it paid off in critical situations that helped them win a championship.

Roethlisberger's movement in the pocket helped set up an unconventional 65-yard touchdown pass to Holmes in the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens, and then another for the Super Bowl game-winner.

Some called it luck; some called it "playground football". Roethlisberger said the Steelers called it, "scramble, left, scramble right until somebody gets open."

Regardless of what it was called, what's important is what the Steelers were called afterward: World Champions.

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