Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Offense Have Finally Found an Identity

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterNovember 27, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 03:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass against the New England Patriots in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can still manage the pocket and extend plays to give his receivers time to convert routes versus both zone and man schemes.

However, after watching the tape, this offense in Pittsburgh under Todd Haley has found an identity with core concepts that cater to the skill sets of the receivers. Find the target and get the ball out quickly in the short-to-intermediate route tree.

With a key AFC North matchup this Thursday night versus the Ravens, let’s break down why this offense has been producing during the Steelers' three-game winning streak. 

A Game Plan That Caters to the Receivers' Skill Sets

The Steelers don’t have a Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall or a Larry Fitzgerald in the lineup. I’m talking about size/speed receivers who can consistently create leverage/separation throughout the route stem.

However, when we look at their top targets at the wide receiver position—Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton—Pittsburgh can tailor the game plan to fit their skill sets. These receivers have lateral speed plus the route-running ability needed to win on the release and work in the open field.

Nov 17, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs the ball past Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Houston (23) during the second half at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won the game, 37-27. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-US
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

This allows Roethlisberger to find specific matchups based on the defensive game plan, throw the ball inside of the numbers or target outside breaking cuts where the Steelers can beat off-man coverage.

And even with former Steeler Mike Wallace now in Miami catching passes, Pittsburgh can still take calculated shots down the field because of its receivers' ability to win versus press-man looks on both the fade (9 route) and back-shoulder fade.

Plus, let’s not forget about tight end Heath Miller. Think of the seam here, the stick out, dig (square-in), etc. Middle of the field options. High-percentage throws that give Roethlisberger the ability to attack both zone and man coverages.

Build a game plan around the talent in the huddle. That’s the idea.

Utilize the Short-to-Intermediate Route Tree

This ball is coming out—quickly.

This is the one constant when looking at the Steelers' tape during the three-game run. That could be a smash route, slant, inside combination out of a stack alignment, etc. 

The point here is that Haley is giving Roethlisberger quick reads within the pocket. Identify the coverage, find the primary targets and deliver the football. That takes stress off the offensive line and prevents the quarterback from receiving multiple hits throughout the game. Plus, these receivers in Pittsburgh can create after the catch. 

Let’s look at a couple of quick examples from the All-22 tape.

Route: Pin/Curl

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Doubles Gun Near

NFL Game Rewind

To the closed side of the formation, Roethlisberger can work the “pin” concept (post/dig-curl combination). A two-level read. To the open side, Brown is running the intermediate curl versus Joe Haden. With the Browns playing Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under), Haden is playing off the ball in his outside one-third technique.

NFL Game Rewind

Brown releases with a vertical stem, eats up the cushion of Haden and forces the cornerback to open his hips. Add in a slight push-off at the top of the stem (almost standard in today’s game) and Brown can break back to the football to move the sticks.

Route: Hi-Lo/Out

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far

NFL Game Rewind


A basic Hi-Lo concept inside (dig-shallow drive combination) to give Roethlisberger a two-level read with Brown running the backside 9 (fade) route. And with Wheaton taking a top of the numbers split to the closed side, Roethlisberger can target the out cut versus off-man coverage.

NFL Game Rewind

Wheaton pushes the corner up the field to increase the cushion and breaks on the out. An easy read for Roethlisberger with a single-high safety in the middle of the field to target the outside breaking cut for a quick, positive gain.

Combination Routes from Bunch/Stack Alignments

The Steelers are going to use a variety of bunch and stack alignments within the game plan. This forces defenders in man coverage to chase and fight through traffic. These alignments show up out in the field and inside the red zone (plus 10-yard line) where the Steelers can create pick situations.

Think of combination route schemes from bunch or double stack alignments (called a “vice” look) that allow receivers to get off the line with a free release and work away from the defender’s leverage. And when they see zone, these receivers will sit down in the holes. 

Here is a quick look at two route concepts.

Route: Tare/Slant

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Empty

NFL Game Rewind

To the closed side of the formation, the Steelers are running the “tare" concept. A clear-out 9 route with a stick combination (curl/out-flat) inside. However, look to the open side with Brown aligned in the stack. The Steelers will send No. 1 on a vertical release and target Brown (matched up versus a safety) on the slant with a slight outside stem at the snap of the ball.

NFL Game Rewind

Brown sells the outside stem and works back underneath the vertical release of No.1 to gain leverage here. And with Roethlisberger stepping up in the pocket, the Steelers quarterback can target the slant. After that, it’s all speed from Brown on the way to six points off a basic stack concept.

Route: Hi-Lo

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far

NFL Game Rewind

Another Hi-Lo concept with Miller on the dig route and Brown on the shallow drive versus Cover 1. This is about creating traffic and forcing the defender to bubble over the mess inside to match Brown underneath.

NFL Game Rewind

With Brown on the shallow drive route out of the bunch, the cornerback can’t match to the release and has to chase on the throw. That's stealing for Pittsburgh. An easy target for Roethlisberger on a concept where the ball comes out quick.

What’s next for Roethlisberger, Steelers?

I focused on some base route concepts today to highlight what the Steelers are doing within the passing game, but we don’t want to discount the role of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.

Oct 27, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) straight arms Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Kevin Burnett (94) during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are a zone-running team out of the gun and one-back looks. I like the scheme because it fits Bell’s skill set as a one-cut runner who can press the hole and find running lanes. Check out the jump-cut, the vision and pad-level on contact he shows on the tape.

And while Bell hasn’t produced eye-opening numbers the last three weeks, I’m looking at the balance he brings to the game plan in Pittsburgh.

That’s key as we start to talk about the matchup with the Ravens on Thanksgiving night. Baltimore is going to challenge the offensive front of the Steelers, send pressure and also play some two-man in the secondary. The ability to use the run game will impact how the Steelers can attack this Ravens defense in the short-to-intermediate route tree and when Roethlisberger wants to test the top of the secondary.

But it still comes back to the core concepts the Steelers have put on tape that allow Roethlisberger and his receivers to win versus multiple coverage looks. 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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