NFL Week 6 Steelers at Titans – Breaking the camel’s back

Frank Martin breaks down two pivotal 3rd down plays  from Pittsburgh vs Tennessee for The Football Educator.

For whatever reason, (is it lack of prep time or lack of rest?) these Thursday Night NFL games are pretty good.  This week, we were treated to another fine finish as the Tennessee Titans beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-23.

In this week’s column we focus on two key third down plays that helped decide the game.  Both came in the 4th quarter.


The Steelers were clearly trying to win the game on their final drive.  Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger effortlessly moved the ball to the Titans side of the field by mixing in play action and short passing routes.  It was an example of “vintage” Bill Walsh philosophy.  (Hitting the running backs, on timed routes, out of the backfield to eat up yardage)

Following the two minute warning, everything was going according to plan and the Steelers were in position to either score a touchdown or set themselves up with a chip shot field goal.  After QB Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for a 14-yard gain, the Steelers followed with another designed “short pass” on first down.  (below)

The play design gave Big Ben two options to move the football.  He could dump it out to his RB Baron Batch on a short screen “set-up” to his left or hit TE Heath Miller off of an option route to the right.  As we see after a few steps, both options would have worked as Batch and Miller are “open.”  (below)

Big Ben chooses Miller and the Steelers get 5 yards.  (Thanks in part to a nifty one-handed grab by Miller)  Pittsburgh follows with a run (which BTW, Mike Mayock broke down expertly on the telecast, so I won’t have to do that here) but Batch gets dropped for a loss.

That’s the key play in this drive.

Why did the Steelers run here?  This is also vintage Bill Walsh thinking… He liked running on second down because he felt it was advantageous to his offense.  His thinking was, ‘the defense might be expecting pass,’ and thus making a run more apt for success.  If his team could get a couple yards that would subsequently set up an easier conversion on third down.

When you hear coordinators talk about “moving the ball with a controlled passing game,” or “using the pass to set up the run (and vice versa),” This is what they are talking about.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, after Batch loses yards all of Todd Haley’s planning goes out the window.  Instead of third and short, the Steelers must convert a “third and long.”

So what do you call?

You need 8 yards to convert, but you also want to stay in field goal range.  (Albeit a long 54 yard field goal)

(In full disclosure , I am not sure what Haley called.  It was a very confusing design.)  Todd Haley dials up some sort of clearing route by his outside WRs.  (below) The plan, I think, is for the WR’s to create space past the first down marker before getting open.  The Steelers send Emanuel Sanders in motion behind Antonio Brown to create space off the line of scrimmage.  By formation, the Steelers keep Miller and Batch in to block a potential Titans blitz.  This type of play has been Pittsburgh’s bread and butter.  In the past, Hines Ward would have gotten open or Ben would have scrambled for a big gain and first down.

As we get to the snap, notice how Tennessee reacts.  (below) The Titans bring Safety #33 Michael Griffin  to the line.  Tennessee is sending 6. Pittsburgh is set up to protect and allow Ben to make a play to one of his receivers.

Pittsburgh has 7 able-bodied blockers and should have had enough to keep Ben upright, but as we look at the play a few steps in… (below) the Titans last minute look causes a Griffin and LB to get to the second level of the Steelers protection and that forces Ben out of the pocket.

With NO short route to bail him out (by design), Roethlisberger’s  pass falls incomplete.  The Steelers settle for a 54-yard field goal attempt.  Suisham’s kick misses its mark.

The field goal would have been Suisham’s second straight (potential) game winner.  But his miss left the door open for the Titans.  Here’s how they took advantage of their chance to win.

The Titans respond


 “After the Titans stopped Pittsburgh (Suisham’s miss), Hasselbeck drove them 33 yards with the big play a 25-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook.”

The Titans’ drive begins much like the Steelers’ drive did with QB Matt Hasselbeck completing a short pass to RB Chris Johnson.  The 5 yard gain is followed by an incompletion to WR Nate Washington.  Setting up a third and long 5.

It’s a similar scenario to what the Steelers were faced with.

So what do you call?

SIDE NOTE: After the 2nd down play, I swear I saw Matt Hasselbeck say something to TE Jared Cook in the huddle.  Take a look, he specifically walks up to Cook and says something.

Okay, I may be crazy… and that’s not what Hasselbeck said, but on the next play, Tennessee calls Cook’s number.  It’s a basic crossing route. (below)


Hasselbeck’s read on the play is In, Shallow, RB dump…

The Titans were hoping (through film study or lucky guess) that Pittsburgh would play man coverage in this situation.  Man would enable Cook to get free.  Pittsburgh sends 5 rushers and does in fact play man to man behind their rush.

And as we see after a few steps, the “shallow” instantly comes open.  (below)

#92 James Harrison can’t keep up with Cook and the result is a 25-yard gain for Tennessee.  From there the Titans ran down the clock and gave Rob Bironas a chance to win it.

He did.

Two plays, similar scenarios and two different results.  On one side, you have the Steelers who prepared for to “block” a blitz and couldn’t convert.  On the other side, you have the Titans who prepared to “throw” out of a blitz and the result is a big gain.  The Titans win, Steelers lose and most likely you were eliminated from your suicide pool.

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