Believe it or not, there were third downs the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to convert Sunday. It might have only seemed as if the Ravens defense could not figure out how to get off the field in the team’s 23-16 loss. In fact, the Ravens stopped Pittsburgh’s first third down of the game.
Early in the first quarter, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap out of the shotgun, assessed his options on a run-pass option and handed the ball off to James Conner. The running back got 4 yards; he needed 10. The play call was a bet that Conner would get the Steelers to fourth-and-manageable, with the offense too far away to kick a field goal and too close to punt.
The offense remained on the field, Roethlisberger and Co. bluffing that they’d go for it. Instead, he executed a pooch punt, one that, if not for safety Eric Weddle’s quick thinking, likely would’ve pinned the offense deep in its own territory.
The series lasted six plays, covered 42 yards and yielded no points, but the circumstances of its ending underscored the importance of the Ravens’ play on the two downs before. When the defense forced third-and-long, it had a chance.
When it didn’t, the Ravens were just asking for trouble. Pittsburgh converted 10 of 16 third-down opportunities Sunday, and many of them came easily. Just seven of those 16 third downs were third-and-long situations, defined here as needing 7 yards or more. The Steelers averaged 6.2 yards to gain on third down and never had to get more than 11.
Against a defense with another defensive scheme, Pittsburgh might not have been as efficient. But the Ravens pride themselves on their press man-to-man coverage, on meeting a receiver at the line of scrimmage and gumming up the works by making a release off the snap difficult. With good coverage and a dependable pass rush, it can make life difficult for even the Roethlisbergers of the world.
Limited by an inconsistent pass rush and exploited by smart offensive play designs, the Ravens never managed to do that Sunday. They were game for Pittsburgh’s first third-down play. They were stumped on the Steelers’ second, and on many other “pick” plays to come.
Late in the first quarter, on third-and-5 from the Ravens’ 7, Roethlisberger motioned tight end Vance McDonald to his right, giving the Steelers a set of three receivers about 5 yards from one another. As the play developed, it was fair to wonder whether they were ever serious receiving options. They did just fine as decoys and obstacles.
At the snap of the ball, McDonald chipped edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, and Conner, to Roethlisberger’s left in the shotgun formation, feinted as if he were headed to the left flat. Inside linebacker Kenny Young bit on the fake, and as he tried to catch up to Conner, his mark across the line of scrimmage, he ran into more trouble: McDonald, setting a pick.
With the Steelers wide receivers’ crossing routes occupying the other defenders, no one was wise to Conner’s route out of the backfield. Roethlisberger found him wide open in the right flat, and Conner wasn’t touched until just shy of the goal line. He scored easily.
The 7-yard score was among the most complex of Pittsburgh’s successful “rub” concepts Sunday, but even the Steelers’ elementary plays worked.
Earlier in the drive, McDonald had caused similar trouble. On second-and-1, cornerback Tavon Young stood across from JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot. The wide receiver’s first cut was inside, behind McDonald, who was running up the seam against inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Young’s path across the middle of the field took him into McDonald’s. One player weighs 267 pounds; the other, 185. The collision knocked Young back 5 yards downfield — legally, it should be noted, because McDonald was making what the NFL deems a play on the ball — leaving Smith-Schuster wide open for an 18-yard catch-and-run.
The next quarter, Pittsburgh made another rub route tougher with back-and-forth presnap motion. On third-and-2, slot receiver Ryan Switzer was already 2 yards closer to the sideline than Young, having started his flat route with a near-sprint at the snap of the ball.
With Smith-Schuster’s inside release against cornerback Brandon Carr, both of whom were split out wide, Young had to take the long way around traffic. By then, it was too late for the corners to switch assignments, and Switzer was able to turn upfield after making the catch short of the sticks for an easy first down.
The Ravens’ two Youngs weren’t the only victims of Pittsburgh’s pick plays.
On third-and-7 early in the third quarter, Roethlisberger found wide receiver Antonio Brown for 9 yards after another helping hand from Smith-Schuster, this time with cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
On the Steelers' final drive, with the Ravens down seven points and one stop away from retaking possession in solid field position, Pittsburgh faced third-and-5. The passing play called wasn’t technically a rub route, but the “mesh” concept of two receivers, Brown and McDonald, crossing underneath worked just as well in getting Brown the fraction of space needed against cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Again, it wasn’t a deep pass, but with the offense-friendly down and distance, and the open-field space cleared for Brown, it didn’t need to be.
“Their offense is built that way,” coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. “Those high and low routes over the middle — that’s what they do. They create a triangle in front of Ben [Roethlisberger]. Their whole offense is built on that. Pretty much any way you can do it, they do it.”
The Ravens weren’t powerless in stopping the plays. Sometimes, outside linebacker Matthew Judon got in Roethlisberger’s face before he could find the open man cutting across the field. Other times, the Ravens traded assignments against the criss-crossing receivers, negating the offense’s advantage.
But just over a month after blunting the same Steelers attack in a 26-14 win, the Ravens defense was left to rue a bad day in a season going sour. In the teams’ Week 4 meeting, Pittsburgh’s average third-down distance was almost exactly what it was Sunday: 6.3 yards. The Ravens stopped them on every second-half third down, and all but two of 12 overall.
Was Sunday’s game evidence of an elite offense finding its level? Perhaps. But Mosley said afterward that the Ravens needed a mental break more than they did a physical respite.
“You can try to play zone, but there are so many holes in the zone that a guy like Ben [Roethlisberger] can just pop it over there for a first down,” Weddle said Sunday. “So now they’ve predetermined that we’re most likely going to be in one, which is man, and then you’ve got to deal with the pick routes and the unders and the over routes. It’s tough to do that type of stuff.