There is a school of thought in football that you take what the defense gives you. I have always ascribed the notion that a good offense takes what it wants to arrogance. However, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, they have not been able to impose their will, particularly in the run game all season long.
But why? Obviously, the rash of injuries to the offensive line has played a huge part in all of this. However, even with these problems, it hasn't completely precluded the Steelers from running the football. So, how is it that at times there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak?
It starts with running back Le'Veon Bell. The numbers may not always wow you, but there is something special about Bell. His vision and cutback ability are impressive, and his quickness in and around the line of scrimmage is very good for a back his size. He runs with a great forward lean and never gives up on a play. His future is bright with this franchise.
Along with Bell, upon closer inspection, the formations and play-calling of this offense have also had a significant role in the success, or lack thereof. There are moments when the formations work and times when they don't, but looking back on Thursday's game, it became pretty clear that there are some distinct looks that work better than others.
Here is the first play of the game. Keep that in mind. The first play of the game. There is no situational football here. No exotic defenses or pressures to be seen. Just the Ravens lining up in base and waiting to see what the Steelers give them.
And what the Steelers give them is their goal-line offense from their own 20-yard line. Really? All these skills players and all this speed, and they trot out the Rhino set on the opening play of the game? Did the Steelers hope by trotting out an extra offensive lineman, a fullback and only one wide receiver they would catch the Ravens off guard? C'mon man.
From a technical standpoint, the play could have worked. Nevertheless, as we have seen all year, the Steelers don't always work well when they have numbers. The reason being, it forces them to make decisions about who to block, and that doesn't typically work out for the best. Here, the Steelers have seven on the line to block five Ravens. That's not including the fullback or wide receiver, who is also in tight to block.
This is the most telegraphed play of all time. The Steelers have the advantage as the Ravens only have seven in the box, but because all these extra men create congestion at the line of scrimmage, and there's no release by the free linemen, the play dies on the vine.
Two plays later, the Steelers are on 3rd-and-12, and they use their 11-personnel set with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. On paper, this looks like a pass set, in a passing situation.
The Ravens have the exact same number of men in the box at the snap as on first down. The difference being, they must respect the pass and cannot simply fire off at the line and attack running back Le'Veon Bell.
The result is there are creases in the middle, and Bell is able to get loose for an 8-yard gain. It was really that simple. And the best part is, with the personnel on the field, if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had seen something pre-snap he could work within the passing game, he had the bodies on the field to audible out. On the opening play, a play-action pass to tackle Mike Adams likely wasn't going to be the call, regardless.
Moving ahead to later in the game, with the Steelers down 13-0 to the Ravens. Again, the Steelers spread the Ravens out. It's first down, so the playbook is open and it's 11-personnel again, this time out of the shotgun.
However, a quick head count shows the Ravens are still keeping seven defenders near the line of scrimmage. So, while they respect the pass, they are still looking at the run.
At the snap, the space the Steelers have created with the formation allows Bell to once again find a crease. It's less about the decision-making of the offensive line and more on Bell. When he runs up into the back of eight blockers who can't beat their man, he has nowhere to go. However, when it's five-on-five, there is room for him to operate, and he takes advantage for another nice gain.
Finally, we look at the big run of the game. The Steelers have a key third-down play and only need two yards to go. The tendency earlier in the game was to bring out all the extra beef and just try and pound it right at the Ravens. Unfortunately, that hadn't worked.
Fortunately, offensive coordinator Todd Haley had finally recognized this, came out once again in 11-personnel, allowing flexibility in pre-snap adjustments and just as importantly, forcing the Ravens defense to respect the run.
This time the Ravens stack eight in the box, hoping to knock the Steelers off the line. However, because it's a quick-hitting inside run, Bell is able to get upfield without dealing with all the traffic that he sees so often when things start to knot up in the middle. His quickness allows him to get to the second level and from there, he's off to the races.
The Steelers win on this play because the threat of the pass forces the safety and linebacker to shade heavily to the bunch formation on the right side. In the jumbo set, both those players are set at least three or four yards inside and likely are in a much better position to make the play.
It seems so elementary to always use formations that offer variety and force confusion among the defense. However, for whatever reason the Steelers and many teams across the NFL continue to try to run plays that are doomed to fail from the get-go.
There is no doubt the Steelers can establish and maintain a sound rushing offense even with this makeshift offensive line, if they are smart about it. They showed it on Thursday against the Ravens and should continue to for the remainder of the season.