The key 20-yard completion from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown on 3rd-and-12 is probably seared into your brain by this point. But it’s important to revisit, given the way in which it came to pass.
As it turns out, the success of the play is tied directly to a sequence in the first quarter. This is an example of exceptional quarterback awareness, and a reminder of how important it is to keep opposing offenses guessing.
“We ran that play earlier in the game,” said Roethlisberger. “And I ended up hitting Heath [Miller] out of the backfield because they got a little bit of pressure and I didn’t have time. I saw Antonio was open in the first quarter when we ran it. So when we came back to it, I thought, ‘Same coverage, same route, maybe I can get him.’”
Here is the play Roethlisberger is talking about. The Steelers are facing a 3rd-and-19 from their own 37. The Eagles, according to Nate Allen, are in a Tampa 2. Both safeties are deep and Nnamdi Asomugha is protecting the outside. DeMeco Ryans‘ responsibility is to not let a receiver over the middle get beyond him, so he will peel back and track Emmanuel Sanders, who runs a fly. Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are consequently in charge of the middle and settle in near the respective hashmarks.
Both Miller and Isaac Redman line up on either side of Roethlisberger. Miller, the eventual target, leaks into the flat. Brown, meanwhile, will run a deep cross.
You can see Ryans in a foot race with Sanders, who is chasing him away from where the play is designed to go. Brown is about to slip inside Boykin’s coverage. Kendricks, in the blue box, is in no position to make a play if Roethlisberger fires it to Brown. The QB reacts to Cullen Jenkins‘ push up the middle, however, and decides to dump it off to Miller for a seven yard gain. The Steelers are forced to punt. While a victory for the defense at the time, Roethlisberger has identified a weakness in the coverage and will use it to his advantage at the game’s most critical moment.
As the following shot illustrates, the throw to Brown is there to be had if he can buy a little extra time.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. The Steelers are in a third-and-long once again. This time it’s 3rd-and-12 from their own 18.
Given the similar down-and-distance, Juan Castillo dials up the exact same coverage from earlier in the game. Roethlisberger is salivating.
Here, you’ll see the same alignment from the Pittsburgh offense, only the sides are flipped.
The routes are identical. Sanders runs a fly, pulling Ryans with him. Miller leaks into the flat. Brown executes a deep cross. Once again, Brown gets free over the middle between Boykin and Kendricks.
This time the pressure comes from the edge and Roethlisberger is able to step up in the pocket to buy an extra tick. Free to fire, he uses the intel he gathered earlier and nails a wide-open Brown for a game-changing 20-yard pick-up. Below is the stillshot from when the catch was made. You can see Ryans and both safeties at the top edge of the picture way downfield. Kendricks and Boykin were in charge of the middle, but Brown found the hole.
“They ran [Ryans] out of the middle and ran an arrowhead, and got the first down,” said Kendricks. “An open window.”
Kendricks, who arguably could have drifted more towards the middle given the lack of action on his side of the field, claps his hands in frustration following the play.
“They’re the best team in the NFL on third down,” said Nnamdi Asomugha. “We knew that coming in.
“It was the right [defensive] call I think 100 percent, and that’s not saying it to back my coach. It was 100 percent the right call. We had done it throughout the game and had success at it. We’ve done it throughout the year.”
Roethlisberger recognized that and capitalized.