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The Steelers Have a Wild(cat) Plan to Get Back in the Playoff Hunt

Pittsburgh unveiled a creative offense against the Bengals, utilizing presnap motion, the horizontal part of the field, and, yes, direct snaps to a running back. At 1-3, the Steel City isn’t winning the AFC North yet, but it’s still alive in the postseason race.

NFL: SEP 30 Bengals at Steelers Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Ben Roethlisberger suffered an elbow injury in Week 2, ending his season, the Steelers didn’t throw in the (terrible) towel. Just days later, the 0-2 team traded their first-round pick for Miami defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, sending a signal to the league that despite a slow start and a backup quarterback elevated to the starting role, the Steelers planned to compete.

In a cool 27-3 Week 4 win over the Bengals, that plan finally started to come to fruition. The Steelers beat Cincinnati with a combination of presnap motion and wildcat snaps, showing off enough creative offense on Monday night to make you think that they were the team that must have hired the Sean McVay disciple this offseason, rather than the Bengals. Cincinnati suffered through another listless performance on both sides of the ball to fall to 0-4, suddenly looking like a potential contender in the #TankForTua sweepstakes, along with Miami. The Bengals’ lack of quality puts an asterisk on this win; then again, the Steelers’ losses have come against the Patriots (4-0), Seahawks (3-1), and 49ers (3-0), so their L’s may as well have asterisks too. Pittsburgh has only played great or terrible opponents—and two of those losses came by a combined six points. A win over the Bengals won’t set the league on high alert, but the smoothness with which the Steelers operated on Monday showed they still have playoff potential.

Let’s talk about the wildcat, which is still one of the most exhilarating plays in football when teams break it out. Running back Jaylen Samuels took seven direct snaps in the game, netting the team 46 yards and a touchdown on those plays. They often came in bunches, with the Steelers running the wildcat offense on back-to-back plays twice.

The knock on the wildcat offense—and the reason it faded from the NFL after the Dolphins used it to such great success in 2008—is that for all of the motion and trickery, it’s usually a one-dimensional play: The running back taking the snap is, as you’d expect, much better at running than passing so he usually … runs. That’s easy for NFL defenses to key in on and stop, and, indeed, virtually every one of Samuels’s wildcat plays looked nearly the same. Samuels, in shotgun, would motion James Conner on a jet sweep. The ball would get snapped, and Samuels would either keep it himself or pitch it forward to Conner, which technically counts as a pass. Here’s how it looked when the Steelers first did it, with Samuels thundering ahead for 5 yards:

And here’s how it looked on the very next play, with Conner cutting to the outside for 7:

All seven attempts were designed exactly like that. Ultimately, though, the wildcat was working. Pittsburgh picked up 21 yards on a Conner sweep later in the game, and on the next snap, the motion from Conner allowed Samuels to walk into the end zone untouched on this play from the 2-yard line:

The Steelers seemingly had only two options for this wildcat, which doesn’t bode well for their continued success with the play. Pittsburgh won’t make a playoff run solely with the wildcat, but the creativity seen Monday night is a good sign for an offense that needed a shot of adrenaline.

Even outside of the wildcat plays, the Steelers made use of the horizontal parts of the field. Pittsburgh frequently had quarterback Mason Rudolph roll out before throwing, and he had what was easily his best game as a pro, completing 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards (8.2 per attempt) and two touchdowns with no picks and no sacks. Rudolph’s second-quarter touchdown to Conner shows how the Steelers used Rudolph’s mobility to stress the Bengals horizontally and make life easy for their second-year passer:

(Please ignore all the linemen who are illegally downfield blocking before the pass—the last thing the league needs is more flags, just let this slide.)

The Steelers used more presnap motion too, occasionally bringing multiple players flying through the backfield on the same play to keep the Bengals on their toes. Wideout Diontae Johnson, for example, had a couple of big receptions (that really function more like handoffs) off jet sweeps in the backfield. It was by far the smoothest offensive performance for the Steelers this season.

Rudolph’s passing chart reveals the next step the Steelers need their quarterback to take: challenging downfield. He had just three attempts that traveled beyond 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and that lack of vertical production will be a liability against defenses with more talent than the Bengals. But Rudolph’s efficiency in the short and intermediate game was more than enough to put away Cincinnati.

At 1-3, Pittsburgh is hardly back in the playoffs. But the teams ahead of them in the division (the Browns and Ravens) are each 2-2, and the Steelers host Baltimore next week in a rivalry showdown that now carries divisional importance. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1990, 14.4 percent of 1-3 teams have gone on to make the playoffs—the AFC North is open enough for the Steelers to beat the odds.