It would be easy to sit back and wag a finger at one person for the Steelers' game-clinching touchdown against the Eagles on Sunday. But it would be indolent, just as Doug Pederson’s tip of the cap to Ben Roethlisberger for his audibled pass told only half the story.
The Steelers quarterback saw the Eagles' coverage, checked to a new play -- even though, he said, the offense had never practiced it out of that formation -- and threw a third-down strike to receiver Chase Claypool to give Pittsburgh a 38-29 lead with three minutes remaining.
Kudos to the future Hall of Famer.
“It’s as much a really good call by the Steelers and really, between Ben and Claypool, than it was the call on defense,” Pederson said Monday after watching the film. “He saw what was going on. He read the coverage, and it was just a one-on-one situation.”
But canonizing Roethlisberger distracts from how Pederson, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and a couple of players failed in that moment. Roethlisberger saw a two-deep safety look with linebacker Nate Gerry over Claypool in the slot. He saw the Eagles didn’t switch Gerry with a cornerback to cover tight end Eric Ebron, who was flexed out wide.
Roethlisberger saw that Pederson didn’t call a timeout even though the clock ticked for 10 seconds as he alerted his receivers to their new routes.
“I didn’t want to burn a timeout in that situation,” Pederson said, “because I knew that we were going to have to get the ball back, and we could have used those timeouts there.”
And Roethlisberger saw Gerry stay close to the line even though he was opposite a receiver who had been burning the defense all game, and even though cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman seemingly motioned for the linebacker to get deeper.
“Could Nate have maybe backed up a touch and tried to keep the play in front of him?” Pederson said. “Sure.”
Gerry sat in the zone near the sticks, but Claypool, after a slow release off the line, motored past the linebacker. Gerry was caught flat-footed, but he was also without safety help as Rodney McLeod drifted toward his right to support cornerback Jalen Mills, who was responsible for JuJu Smith-Schuster’s out route.
Roethlisbeger looked McLeod off and went back to a wide open Claypool, who waltzed into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown.
“Ideally, would we like Nate to be on a wide receiver? No,” McLeod said after the game. “We would prefer a defensive back. But that was a call that was made defensively and they checked to a good play.”
Defenses, it should be noted, have the ability to check to other plays, as well, but it’s often at the behest of the players on the field, typically the play-caller [Gerry]. Schwartz had been using various man or zone coverages on third down all day. Most didn’t work. The Steelers, overall, converted 11 of 15 third downs.
On the fateful Claypool touchdown, he called quarter-quarter-half coverage on third-and-8 at the Eagles' 35. The Eagles trailed by two points and wanted to force at least a field goal to keep it to a one-score game. Schwartz didn’t want to get beat deep so he went with a soft zone.
The Steelers had 01-personnel -- four receivers and one tight end -- and the Eagles matched with dime personnel -- six defensive backs and one linebacker -- as they had done previously in the game.
Gerry, though, had been matched up against Ebron inside on earlier plays, and in this circumstance, Pittsburgh lined the tight end split wide with an empty backfield. Schwartz had been primarily going with single-high man coverage against 01 empty looks, but with mixed results.
The Steelers had clearly prepared for the Eagles' man defense -- which they have played more of this season -- and were successful with rub routes.
That may have played into Schwartz’s decision to go zone here. Every coverage, of course, has holes. But Claypool had already scored three touchdowns -- two receiving and one rushing -- and when Roethlisberger saw the rookie lined up opposite Gerry, he pounced.
Pederson, after defending the call, was asked Monday about the execution.
“Well, ultimately it was a touchdown, so obviously we can coach the defense and coach the play a little bit better,” Pederson said. “The awareness of where we were on the field, the down, the distance, all that kind of stuff we teach during the week.”
Coaching matters. But so does talent. So while teaching, play-calling, and execution, or a lack thereof, all factored into the ill-fated Roethlisberger-to-Claypool dagger, so, too do personnel decisions.
Gerry did fine as a situational linebacker last season, but to have him as the No. 1 linebacker who plays every down and makes the calls has been negligent. McLeod is a fine safety and has played well, especially in the last two games.
But to not replace Malcolm Jenkins with a safety as savvy in X’s and O’s, especially with a neophyte play-caller, has been negligent. Offenses have been attacking the middle of the Eagles defense, especially with misdirection, and they won’t stop until it can be stopped.
Pederson wasn’t going to call out his defensive coordinator, or his players, or especially the general manager Monday. What the Eagles say publicly doesn’t matter as much as what they’re saying and doing behind closed doors.
Do they see where they have gone wrong? Do they see why Roethlisberger saw what he saw and why the Eagles were unable to stop it?
“Ben saw it,” McLeod said, “and we have to live with that play.”