Anatomy of a Play: One Blitz Paid Off Twice for the Chiefs
After not getting any sacks in the first 55 minutes of the game, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times in the final three minutes of regulation. The first sack came on a third down, forcing the Steelers to punt while the third sack, also on third down, ended Pittsburgh's chances of keeping the game from going to overtime.
Now the frustrating part was that both of those third-down sacks came on the exact same blitz call by the Chiefs, both of which took advantage of a flaw in the Steelers' blocking scheme.
On third and seven with 2:44 to go in the game, Pittsburgh lined up with one back, Mewelde Moore, in the backfield, two wide receivers and a tight end flanked out to the right and Santonio Holmes alone on the left. Kansas City had two defensive linemen with their hands on the ground, lined up outside of Max Starks, another lined up in the "A" gap between left guard Ramon Foster and center Justin Hartwig. Kansas City also had three linebackers/defensive ends standing up on the right side of the line and out to Hines Ward while the middle linebacker was lined up on the right side of the nose tackle.
From initial appearances, it looked like Kansas City was lined up for an overload blitz from the Steelers' right side--the three linebackers/defensive ends standing up on that side included Kansas City's top pass rusher Tamba Hali. But looking a little closer, it seems unlikely that Kansas City could send more than one of the three potential pass rushers. It was third and seven, so Pittsburgh didn't need a big gain. And with a base four defensive backs in the game, and only two lined up on the side that had three receivers (Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller) any all out blitz from the Steelers' right would result in a quick dump off to a wideout for a likely first down.
Instead what the Chiefs did was walk safety Mike Brown up to the line just before the snap. He attacked the "A" gap between Foster and Hartwig, as did linebacker Derrick Johnson. By itself that shouldn't have been a big deal--Foster could pick up one of the blitzers and tailback Mewelde Moore could block the other.
But that's now how it worked out. Nose tackle Wallace Gilberry did a good job of firing out to his right, getting his hands on Foster. He then cut back to his left to head towards Justin Hartwig, creating room for the oncoming blitzers. Ideally Foster would hand Gilberry off to Hartwig, then pick up Johnson or Brown. But Foster stuck with Gilberry, which gave Moore, the blocking back, an impossible decision--he could block Johnson or Brown, but not both. Moore took on Johnson and gave a solid effort. But while Moore did his job, Brown was left unblocked for an easy sack.
Here's how the blitz looked in graphic form (apologies on misidentifying Chiefs defensive end Alex Magee as #73 instead of #71).
That's the kind of play that happens in a game. You either have a blocking scheme that isn't really a good fit for the blitz that is called or players don't execute the blocking scheme was it was drawn up.
But where it gets very frustrating is when you see the same blitz work again just two minutes later. The situation was third and five for Pittsburgh with 1:02 left in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh was at its own 43, so two first downs could put them in field goal range.
This time Pittsburgh lined up with a wide receiver and a tight end to the left and two receivers to the right. Once again Mewelde Moore was flanking Roethlisberger in the shotgun. And the Chiefs lined up in the same alignment as before. The only difference this time was they flopped the formation with the two down linemen (Gilberry and Magee) on the Steelers' right and the three guys standing up at the line all on the Steelers' left.
Before the snap, Chiefs safety Mike Brown appeared to be lined up in man coverage on Heath Miller. But right before the snap he took off to blitz again, this time aiming at right guard Trai Essex's outside shoulder. Derrick Johnson was coming through the same gap, just like the previous blitz. And just like the last time, Gilberry fired off into Essex, then shifted to attack center Justin Hartwig. Gilberry actually ended up lined up against the left guard Foster before the play was over--that's how far his loop took him. But that was fine for the Chiefs, as Gilberry's job was to give himself up to help create a sack for someone else.
And again, it worked just like the Chiefs drew it up. Essex stayed with Gilberry leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Pittsburgh's line. Moore again was faced with two men to block. He again blocked Johnson and again Brown rushed in untouched.
Unlike the last time, Roethlisberger did have a quick option this time. Heath Miller saw Brown blitz, cut off his route and immediately started looking for the ball. It's questionable whether he would have gotten the first down--cornerback Brandon Flowers was around to possibly tackle Miller before he reached the first down marker, but it was an option if Brown hadn't leaped in Roethlisberger's face, forcing Roethlisberger to pull the ball back down.
The leap meant Brown flew right on past Roethlisberger, but by the time Roethlisberger was ready to throw again Miller was well covered. With no other open options, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket, but that just gave Magee and Gilberry good angles to track him down for no gain and the Chiefs' third sack of the game. Soon after that Kansas City had a shocking upset win.
The good news for Pittsburgh's offensive line is that there are less plays where they are being physically beaten for sacks. But they still seem vulnerable to being confused by different blitz packages. That's a big worry going into the Ravens game because Kansas City's blitz package seems like pre-algebra compared to the calculus that is the Ravens' blitz package.