All-22: How the Defense Lost the Chess Match

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.



Eagles Wake-Up Call: Solving Big Ben

The Eagles need to figure out how to handle Ben Roethlisberger on third down.

Through three games,  Roethlisberger is 27-of-36 for 354 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions on third down, good for a 145.1 quarterback rating. One of the big reasons behind his success is the ability to extend the play with his legs.

“It’s hard, especially when you’ve got guys like that out there that are shifty, you’ve just got to read them down and stay on them,” said Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  “Make sure you press and keep your eyes on him because you know they’re going to move with him. We’ve been working on that a little bit in practice; the scramble drill and just staying with him.”

The Steelers may be 1-2 but that has nothing to do with their quarterback play. The 30-year-old Roethlisberger has started the year on fire, throwing eight touchdowns to one interception for a 109.2 QB rating.

“He’s a competitor, he’s tough,” said Juan Castillo. “You can see the way he plays ball. He loves competition. The thing we have to take care of, and I think we saw it the first series [in the preseason], he was able to extend plays. We had a third-and-nine and third-and-11 and he broke out of the pocket and was able to extend plays and was able to throw the ball. Once he got it down and it was fourth-and-one and the other one made the first down. That’s what we have to be able to take care of.”

While Roethlisberger is firing on all cylinders, the Steelers running attack is dead last in the NFL, having accrued just 195 yards through three games for an average of 2.6 yards per carry. Rashard Mendenhall is expected to play, which should help the Steelers ground attack. But the focus will remain on Roethlisberger.

“You cannot come off the wide receiver until the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage. And then you avoid the big plays. He may scramble, and he may get eight or nine or five or ten [yards], but if you come off your guy that could be a touchdown,” said Castillo.


Nnamdi Asomugha seems to be getting it from all sides. Seth Joyner is the latest to chime in.

Meanwhile, Kurt Coleman is very bullish about the defense. He thinks it can be the greatest of all time.


The Steelers have seven starters on defense with nine-plus years in the NFL under their belt. There is a lot of wear and tear on those bodies, and Pittsburgh will be using a rotation to try and keep some veterans fresh. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The Steelers told [James] Harrison he will be spelled in the first half by Chris Carter, who has been starting at right outside linebacker since minicamp. The coaches want to be sure Harrison is fresh for the fourth quarter.

“I have to come off,” Harrison said. “It’s no need being out there, being dog-tired, and not be able to do what’s necessary to play the position. You want to stay fresh. You don’t want to go out there and play every snap in the first half and come out sluggish in the third and have nothing left in the fourth.”

The Steelers have a similar plan for [Lamarr] Woodley, who has three of the team’s five sacks.

ESPN’s NFC East blog tackles the fact that the Eagles play four teams coming off a bye this season.

We went to the Elias Sports Bureau and found that, since the current divisional format began in 2002, teams that are not coming off bye weeks and playing against teams that are have a record of 123-156-1 (.441 winning percentage). That is obviously somewhat discouraging if you’re an Eagles fan looking ahead to this middle portion of the schedule. I mean, look, it’s going to be tough. You can’t look at it and say it doesn’t put them at something of a disadvantage. But as I keep telling my 6-year-old, life isn’t fair. It’s how we handle our challenges that determines our character.


Eagles at Steelers, 1 o’clock. I’m live from Pittsburgh. Sheil, the new papa, is expected to make his triumphant return today. We’ll be chatting live during the game.