The Steelers extended their dominance over the Browns on Sunday, and one of the questions I had to ask myself after the game was about Cleveland’s outside linebackers. Specifically, where in the world were Sheard, Kruger and Mingo?
Paul Kruger registered two solo tackles and three assists. No sacks. No quarterback hits. Jabaal Sheard had one tackle. Nothing else. Barkevious Mingo? No tackles. One hit on Ben Roethlisberger. No sacks.
In other words, the Steelers were able to neutralize group. But how did they do it?
We won’t go into a ton of detail here. But there were a few things that the Steelers did that made a huge difference. I’ll break it down into three categories. Everyone has already talked about their use of quick short yardage passes, which is very true. They ran a lot of screen to their wide outs and quick hitters to keep the Browns from getting to the quarterback. So we’ll look at a few other details.
The first is personnel match-ups. The Steelers were able to keep the Browns off balance by using the no-huddle to keep the personnel on or off the field that they wanted to.
The first drive of the game was a big example of that. Pittsburgh trapped the Browns in a nickel package and proceeded to run the ball. They put together a nine play drive to put themselves in field goal position. Other than the two play “drive” that included the long touchdown pass, that drive was Pittsburgh’s longest.
How exactly did they trap the Browns in nickel coverage? Well, the Browns substituted on the second play of the drive based on the Steelers’ personnel plus down and distance. Pittsburgh knew the Browns would do it. After the play was over the Steelers immediately lined up on the ball, making it impossible for the Browns to substitute. They ran six straight plays with only two defensive linemen on the field for the Browns. Neither of which was Phil Taylor.
In fact, if you take a look at the snap count for the defensive linemen, you will see that Phil Taylor was on the field for only 25 of the defense’s 69 snaps. Far below his average. Desmond Bryant was on the field for 44 of them. Pittsburgh ran 17 plays without huddling in the first half alone.
The second thing the Steelers did may sound obvious, but it is no less true. They blocked extremely well. Especially TE Heath Miller and the receiving corps. Take a look at this play from that first drive. Heath Miller is on the left end of the Steelers line, and Jabaal Sheard is lined up across the ball from him.
At the snap, the line blocks left and La’Veon Bell (#26) darts to the left side. They have a receiver crossing behind Roethlisberger to freeze the inside linebackers as well as Kruger on the other end. Bell takes the hand-off and looks for a hole on the left side.
Notice Ben continuing the fake to the wide out. Also notice the block that Heath Miller is putting on Sheard. Maybe a slight hold, but nothing that really jumps out at you watching it. His block allows the tackle (#68) to head to the second level to make a block. Again, the Browns are operating at a disadvantage here as they were down a defensive tackle because of the no-huddle. Phil Taylor would have been at the nose and Bryant would have been out wider occupying the tackle.
Look at how far Heath Miller blocks Sheard. Fantastic blocker from your tight end on an outside linebacker. Miller does a great job all day long blocking, both in run and pass protection. He wasn’t alone. The Steelers wide outs did a great job blocking on the second level to help Le’Veon Bell get 80 yards rushing.
Now take a look at this play.
Here the Browns have their three defensive linemen, but look at what the Steelers have lined up. Mike Adams (#76) had reported as an eligible receiver (as the ref had to announce like a dozen or so times on Sunday) and was lined up as the tight end on the right end. Miller is the tight end on the left side, with FB Will Johnson lined up as a wingback behind him. Bell is straight up behind the quarterback. This is an obvious run formation. The strong side would be on the left.
At the snap the Steelers all block left, and Bell heads towards the left end. Notice Kruger pursuing down the line with Adams behind.
The play is a fake. Johnson goes into the flats on the right side and Roethlisberger hits him for a nine yard gain. Kruger is a dead duck. Take a look at another example.
Check out this formation. Strong side of the play is obviously to the left. The Steelers ran a couple of WR screens out of this kind of formation. There are only two blockers on the right.
The Steelers run to the weak side. Again, the Browns were caught with only two down linemen and find themselves being double teamed on the weak side.
You can see the hole open up for Bell. Rubin slipped a bit and was not able to get a hand on Bell as he went through the hole. Again, excellent blocking at the point of attack. Kruger has no chance.
The answer to the question “what happened to the OLBs?” is simple. They were out-schemed and out-executed. Ouch.