One of the most memorable moments from last week’s Steelers-Packers matchup was when quarterback Aaron Rodgers caught Pittsburgh substituting, the gunslinger attempted to get one of his patented “free plays”, and Mike Tomlin quickly realized the situation and called a timeout. The CBS cameras quickly got close-ups of both competitors, who with a wink and a nod acknowledged to each other that both of them realized exactly what they were trying to accomplish at that moment.
Aaron Rodgers and Mike Tomlin. Pals. pic.twitter.com/gA6BbbPxAA— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 3, 2021
Schematically, you can tell when opposing teams know exactly what the other is doing, too. Often, it shows when both teams are so stubborn that they refuse to change, as they think they have the advantage in the specific matchup, formation, and situation.
In the fourth quarter in Week 4, we saw the Steelers and Packers both dig in their heels to the extremes. Pittsburgh was rotating their coverages toward wide receiver Davante Adams for most of the night, not much of a surprise with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the team’s speed receiver, placed on injured reserve the prior Friday for a hamstring injury.
Green Bay’s response was simple: detach Adams from the formation, trot out the bowling ball that A.J. Dillon is in the backfield, and line up three tight ends all opposite of Adams to create a wall of blockers to run behind should the Steelers continue to “double” Adams. The Packers lined up in that exact formation and personnel five times in a row. The Steelers shaded their safety to Adams five times in a row.
If you're into watching teams pay it in flesh:— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 5, 2021
Green Bay ran five straight plays out of the same formation vs Pittsburgh in the 4th. Want to rotate the safety to Davante? They're running behind three tight ends to the same side.
Almost ended in a TD shot off play action. pic.twitter.com/AuGVgXkwdE
By running inside from that formation, it kept both Pittsburgh cornerbacks and the high safety shaded to Adams from being able to influence the run plays. Essentially, the Packers were able to get eight hats (five linemen and three tight ends) on eight hats (all defenders other than those three defensive backs listed) and just chipped away at the defense while they kept the clock moving to close out the game.
Four runs turned into 20 yards and a running clock, easily a result one would take up multiple scores in the fourth quarter. The fifth play was a play-action shot thrown to tight end Robert Tonyan one-on-one with a cornerback, who at one point was a solid two or three yards behind the target. A backfoot throw by Rodgers led to an incompletion, but Tonyan was open and the decision-making in that situation from a play-calling perspective was very sound.
For what it’s worth, the Packers would use that three tight end look twice more on the following drive, their last true drive of the match before they kneeled out the ball game. For most of the game, the offense manipulated both the Steelers rotating coverages to Adams and their personnel substitutions to gain an edge. For example, they would pass out of formations with multiple tight ends, attacking the Steelers’ “base” personnel in the air, but ran downhill with three receivers on the field when Pittsburgh was in their lighter “nickel” defense.
This very well could be the “base downs” identity of the team until MVS returns to the field from his hamstring injury in a few weeks, which is good for those of you who want to see more Dillon touches moving forward. The Packers adjusted mid-game to many of Pittsburghs’ tendencies, but none were more clear than this five-play stretch where they turned the game into a binary decision on the Steelers’ end: “Are you doubling Adams or not?”