Everything is faster in Pittsburgh these days. Their receivers have gotten faster, their quarterback is throwing the ball faster and their offensive pace is faster. That’s been the goal the last few years, ever since offensive coordinator Todd Haley was hired in 2012.
Haley brought in a quick passing game that relied on getting players the ball with room to run. This meant screens, hitches, quick ins and quick outs. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw 36.8 percent of his passes in two seconds or less. That was the third highest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Many of those came on screen passes that he threw 14.5 percent of the time, also the third highest.
And now he’s looking to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands even faster.
The Steelers are implementing more no-huddle and quick passing plays this season. They’ve already picked up the pace from 2013, when they relied on it the second half of the year. They used it on 23 percent of their plays, according to Pittsburgh-Tribune Review, and averaged 25.8 points per game in their final 12 games.
In the preseason, they didn’t spend any time in the no-huddle in the first game with Roethlisberger at quarterback against the New York Giants because he only played six snaps, throwing on two of them. But in the second week against the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers used it on 11 of the quarterback’s 17 snaps.
The no-huddle allows the offense to pick up the pace, completely controlling the clock by calling plays at the line of scrimmage, while forcing defenses to play basic coverages because of their time constraint in communication. The offense can snap the ball at any time. This makes the favorable matchups clear and lets the quarterback read the defense easier. It also helps receivers, like Antonio Brown, get in position to make plays after the catch.
In the first quarter against the Bills, Brown was lined up well outside the numbers when Roethlisberger called for an empty backfield in the no-huddle. This meant no running backs surrounding him and five pass catchers split out. Trips were to his left and twins were to his right.
Defensively, the Bills were in a single-high shell and attacking downhill. It looked like they were in proper position to do so when Roethlisberger took a one-step drop and looked to his left, where a receiver screen was set up. The Bills’ linebackers all flowed in the same direction, forming a 4-on-3 matchup in their favor. But then Roethlisberger looked to his right, where a flat-slant combination was ran. There, only two defenders covered two receivers.
Brown ran a three-step slant. The cornerback covering him was shaded outside, thinking he had help from the free safety in the deep middle of the field. The strong safety was in the way, however, ball-watching and unknowingly setting a pick on his teammate. This let Brown run free inside the 30-yard line and to the middle of the field, where he outran the free safety’s angle and crossed the field to outside the numbers, celebrating as he ran into the endzone for the 76-yard score.
Matchups are critical in every style of offense. They give players the chance of making big plays, like Brown's, when it boils down to one-on-one. That's essentially what it became to the Twins side. With Roethlisberger finding the defense's one small mishap, Brown was gone.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense have the potential to do even more damage this season because they have added more explosive weapons to help Brown out.
In the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Kent State’s Dri Archer. He’s a multi-purpose talent, with the ability to split out and catch passes or line up in the backfield and carry the ball. He’s explosive and quickly accelerates downfield, making him difficult to catch when he has room to run.
In the first preseason game against the New York Giants, Archer showed his explosiveness on a 46-yard catch and run.
Albeit not (yet) from the no-huddle passing game, Archer lined up in the slot to the twins side of an empty backfield. The formation was similar to Brown's play. Only this time, the twins were to Roethlisberger’s left and the trips were to his right. And the play-call?
Roethlisberger took a quick drop and faked the screen to the trips side. Like in the Bills game, both Giants’ linebackers flowed to that side, ball-watching and easily baited by the quarterback’s eyes. The dime-back, too.
To Roethlisberger’s left, Archer faked a flat route before curling back to the middle of the field and running parallel to the line of scrimmage. He caught the pass and immediately turned downfield, running straight and then cutting back across the field, blowing by Giants defenders at midfield and sprinting outside, where he found two more blocks before finally he was pushed out of bounds.
The quick-hitting, fast-paced offense is unlike the Steelers, who have always prided themselves on a power running game and a long passing game to complement it. But these days are different. The modern day Steelers are adapting to the evolving NFL, especially after an 0-4 start last season saw them fall behind quickly.
The offense struggled to move the ball and score during the first quarter of the season. It averaged 17.2 points per game, a drastic difference from the 25.8 it averaged the rest of the year.
With Haley committing to the no-huddle more this season and more explosive weapons to work with, the Steelers hope to force the rest of the league to keep pace with them.