GREEN BAY – Though the Packers came up short on the scoreboard, their offense had a wildly productive day in Pittsburgh, totaling 399 yards.
More than half of those yards were produced on six explosive gains of 28 yards or longer. That's a lot of big chunks.
So here's a closer look at exactly how and why those big plays worked.
Play No. 1: First-and-10 from the Green Bay 31, second quarter, 5:54 left
Result: 40-yard run by AJ Dillon
This is what can happen when every block is executed practically to perfection. The Steelers are set to defend the run with an eight-man box (not including the defender following the motion man), and the Packers have seven blockers, but this quickly turns into advantage offense. The triangle on the left side represents TE Tucker Kraft (85) and LT Rasheed Walker (63) double-teaming DL Armon Watts (94), while the circles match up to RT Zach Tom (50) and RG Jon Runyan (76) pulling across the formation to take out LB Mark Robinson (93) and LB Alex Highsmith (56), respectively. But wait, if it's 8-on-7 and one block is a double-team, doesn't the defense still have two free defenders? Right, but LB Elandon Roberts (50) gets caught up in the double-team wash (also triangle), and S Keanu Neal (31, boxed) is in no man's land with the run going away from him. When S Damontae Kazee (23) takes a bad angle charging down from the back end, it's Neal who ends up chasing Dillon down after his career-long run.
Play No. 2: Third-and-16 from the Pittsburgh 35, second quarter, 4:21 left
Result: 35-yard TD pass to Jayden Reed
Three plays later the Packers are in a long-yardage situation thanks to a sack, but they convert and then some, thanks to stellar pass protection. First, RB Aaron Jones (33) throws a chip block on LB T.J. Watt (90) to delay his charge against Tom. Elsewhere, it's four blockers vs. three rushers, and the Packers keep it all mucked up inside for a beautiful pocket and clean platform for QB Jordan Love.
Play No. 3: Third-and-7 from the Green Bay 49, third quarter, 5:11 left
Result: 36-yard completion to TE Luke Musgrave
On this third down, the Steelers are in a dime defense (six DBs), and it's all about Love reading the coverage – in this case, two defenders in particular. Musgrave is running right down the middle seam, splitting S Elijah Riley (37) and CB Patrick Peterson (20). Reading the coverage isn't just about seeing where defenders are, but also recognizing their body positions to understand where they can or cannot go. Love sees one of two things on this play, if not both. First, Riley's head is turned and staring right at the QB, so there's no way he's ready to run with Musgrave deep. Second, Peterson's body is square to the line of scrimmage and his feet are flat, showing he's in no position to run with Musgrave either. So Love lets it rip down the middle for a big gainer, and Peterson's reaction shows regret at getting caught, well, flat-footed.
Play No. 4: First-and-10 from the Green Bay 25, fourth quarter, 5:14 left
Result: 28-yard completion to Musgrave
A few different items to keep an eye on here. First, Love recognizes that Musgrave is matched up against a linebacker, Roberts, who won't have much help on the corner route with a single high safety, an empty backfield and five perimeter weapons spread across the field. Second, Dillon throws a chip block on Highsmith to help Walker settle in and keep Love's blind side clean. Last but not least, Watt tries a grab-and-rip on Tom, who's able to keep contact with Watt and hold him off long enough for Love to make the throw.
Play No. 5: Third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 47, fourth quarter, 4:22 left
Result: 32-yard completion to WR Dontayvion Wicks
Three plays later, on third down, the Steelers bail out of a blitz look up front into zone coverage, and the Packers' combination of routes on the left side creates an opening for Wicks (starred). From the inside slot, Reed runs a go route that occupies Peterson and Riley (circles), while Musgrave's presence in the flat draws just enough of Neal's attention (boxes). Neal takes one extra step toward the outside that opens Love's window, and Wicks slips in behind for the grab.
Play No. 6: First-and-10 from the Green Bay 19, fourth quarter, :59 left
Result: 46-yard completion to Reed
On the first play of the game's final drive, the big play is a bit of improv on the part of both quarterback and receiver. Remember the analysis of reading defenders' body positions in Play No. 3 above? Well, Reed is running straight up the middle seam, bracketed by S Trenton Thompson (17) and Kazee. Love is under pressure and has nowhere to go with this ball, but Kazee's body is turned, facing the middle of the field. That means in the deep area behind him, there's no danger. He can't get there. So Love lets fly a tough throw with bodies in his face, hoping his guy can make a play. Watch closely as Reed fortunately, and smartly, never takes his eyes off Love, so never breaks stride and sees right where the ball is going, to an empty area of the field. Dropping into the middle zone, Peterson (boxed) even points out where the ball is headed, but the only player who can get to it is Reed.
Here are a couple other good pieces of film that aren't explosive plays, but important ones.
Bonus play 1: Fourth-and-6 from the Pittsburgh 40, third quarter, 13:22 left
Result: 7-yard completion to Jones
This is a key play that keeps the opening drive of the second half alive, and at first glance it's natural to ask how the Steelers allowed a fourth-and-6 conversion so easily. It's due to an instant read with no hesitation by Love. Peterson is lined up across from Jones, but he comes on a slot blitz. His replacement in coverage is Neal, who's mugged up at the line of scrimmage in a blitz look, but he's got no chance to get to Jones, whose route goes outside away from him, rather than inside toward him. As soon as Love sees the slot blitz by Jones' man, he goes there right away with the ball for the first down.
Bonus play 2: Third-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 26, third quarter, 10:40 left
Result: 12-yard completion to Jones
Three plays later, another clutch conversion to Jones, this time on third down, comes oh-so-close to breaking for a TD. It's a nifty, well-designed play, as all three receivers on the left run routes to the right, taking the defense that direction. Meanwhile Jones, starting from the right side of the backfield, leaks out to the left, which has cleared out. Major props to Roberts for his quick reaction and pursuit of Jones, which saves a touchdown and ultimately four points, as the Packers settle for a field goal. The Steelers' two interceptions late in the game make all the highlight reels, but this proved to be just as big a defensive play. Jones even points the ball at Roberts as a tip of the cap.