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One aspect of the the Steelers running game has been consistent throughout the season, but the other has not.
We’re back at it again this week, so let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex– a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
The topic at hand this week is looking at the Steelers running game yet again. In the 36-10 victory over the Bengals on Sunday, there was little else which was an issue as the Steelers played a complete game for all four quarters. But when looking deeper, it’s a regression based on where the Steelers are running the ball leading to the lost production.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
First and foremost, I have to give the credit to Geoffrey for identifying a discrepancy in the Steelers running game. He has noticed a big difference between the Steelers inside running and outside running as the season has gone on. Geoffrey also identified the key turning point in the season of when the Steelers went to Tennessee for their sixth game. Therefore, I’m going to be looking at the statistics for the Steelers first five games (NYG, DEN, HOU, PHI, and CLE) versus their most recent four games (TEN, BAL, DAL, CIN).
The other metric which is going to be broken down here is the Steelers outside runs and inside runs. To specify, I used Pro Football Reference’s breakdown where runs considered at tackle or end as being outside and guard or center being inside.
In the first five games of the 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had good success running to the outside. In 62 run attempts, they had an average of 6.5 yards per carry. In those plays, they scored 4 touchdowns and 19 of the plays have gone for 10 yards or more. Conversely, there were also 10 plays in which there were no yards gained or a loss on the play.
In looking specifically at running right versus running left, the Steelers attempted 30 rushes to the outside on the right side where they averaged 8.8 yards per carry with 1 touchdown, 6 plays of 10 yards or more, and only 2 plays where they did not gain any yards or lost yardage. When it comes to running to the left side, the Steelers had 32 runs for 4.4 yards per carry along with 3 touchdowns, 3 plays of 10 yards or more, and 8 plays of zero or negative yards.
When it comes to the four most recent games for the Steelers (weeks 7 through 10), the Steelers success is a whole different story. In 38 run plays to the outside, they are only averaging 2.1 yards per carry, have scored 1 touchdown, and had only one play of 10 or more yards. When it comes to plays for no gain or loss of yardage, they have had 13 of said plays. When running outside to the right, the Steelers have had 13 runs for a 3.0 yard per carry with 0 touchdowns, 1 run of 10 yards or more, and 6 negative or no yards gained plays. As for the left side, they have had 20 rushes for a 1.3 yard average with 1 touchdown, 0 plays over 10 yards, and 7 plays in which they gained no yards or lost yardage.
Obviously, the numbers show a completely different running game when it comes to the outside over the last four games. But is this strictly for outside running or does it just show how the running game has gone in general?
For this, let’s look at inside runs over the same period. Just to clarify, quarterback kneel downs are not included in this statistic although technically they are a running play. The first five games of the season, the Steelers have run inside on 82 occasions for an average of 3.6 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns, 8 plays of 10 yards or more, and 12 plays of zero or negative yards gained. Over the last four games, the Steelers have run the ball up the middle 40 times for an average of 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown, 3 plays of 10 or more yards, and 7 plays of zero or negative yards. While the stats of touchdowns, runs over 10 yards, and negative plays are somewhat indicative of the decrease in the number of attempts, the Steelers have actually averaged slightly higher per carry running up the middle over the last four games versus the first five.
In looking at these numbers as a whole, what is interesting is how the Steelers had more negative yards running to the inside in the first five weeks (12 vs 10) but yet had almost twice as many negative plays running to the outside over the last four games (13 vs 7).
So in looking at the problems in regards to the Steelers’ run game, there hasn’t been hardly any change when it comes to running inside early in the season versus their most recent games. Where things have changed completely for the Steelers are the outside runs over the last four weeks. Why has this been the case? I guess it’s time to check the film…
The Film Line:
Last week I talked about the Titans countering the Steelers short passing game out of 11 personnel by putting an extra defender in the box but keeping the linebackers a bit deeper, and how that extra defender in the box helped thwart the Steelers run game.
It wasn’t the only problem with the Steelers run game though, and we are going to talk about some of the others this week including a glaring problem that showed up constantly throughout the Bengals game.
Week 10, 2nd quarter, 2:18.
This play is bad. This run is supposed to go between Chukwuma Okorafor’s block on the defensive tackle and David DeCastro’s block on the defensive end. Conner should follow Maurkice Pouncey into that gap, only the gap doesn’t exist. There are three Bengals in that gap and one outside. How did they get there?
Here’s the field right before the jet motion starts.
And here it is right after the snap.
Before the motion the Bengals have a 5-man canopy behind the nickel front. At the snap that canopy is 3 players, the strong safety is almost in the box, the corner is about to fill the run lane while the linebacker follows Conner outside.
The Bengals moved on the motion. The moment Chase Claypool starts coming across the formation the Bengals sell out on the run, and not just the run in general, the outside run the Steelers are running here. They know to defend the sweep and an off-tackle run to the opposite side. This play has become predictable.
It’s so predictable, a simple cutback is something they are surprised to see.
Week 10, 1st quarter, 6:42.
The defensive end to the top of the screen just drives Alejandro Villanueva back while the strong safety shoots to cover the jet sweep. Watch the inside linebackers, they split with #57 running to defend the off-tackle run that Conner is supposed to run here. When he cuts back there is no one there and it’s an easy 16-yard gain. This play was actually before the one above, the Steelers saw the Bengals biting on both the sweep and the off tackle run and kept calling the play.
This wasn’t a new development for Week 10 though.
Week 8, 2nd quarter, 6:38.
There’s no motion here, but the Ravens read the run and defend it perfectly, because its a run the Steelers constantly use.
There are multiple problems here. The run lane is closed when the Ravens drive David DeCastro into the lane and the edge takes on Matt Feiler’s pull too far inside for the kick out to work. DeCastro is a great lineman, but he hasn’t been himself since his injury in Week 5. He’s still doing good in pass blocking, but he’s been pretty bad in run blocking since. The pull gets stuffed because there aren’t a lot of runs out of shotgun, and the Steelers use this run a lot, especially off of jet sweep motion. Against the Bengals, the jet motion actually made the run play worse because the Bengals figured out something that other teams hadn’t exploited to the level they did.
The Steelers don’t throw the ball when they use jet motions. I don’t mean they never throw it, they run a pass play off jet motion about once a game, and those plays don’t work.
Week 10, 3rd quarter, 0:46.
First off, look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s jet motion on this play. He takes a deep arc because he has to make sure he doesn’t end up running into one of the tackles dropping into their pass block set. Second, Eric Ebron is on the line to the bottom of the screen. As he comes across the middle, once he passes the linebackers he’s wide open. The corner responsible for Ebron is reading run first, and is 5 yards behind him.
The play design worked, but Ben Roethlisberger takes a deep shot to a covered Chase Claypool when his tight end is wide open. I rarely complain about Ben Roethlisberger taking deep shots, but the Bengals are jumping on jet sweeps, pulling the corners in to run defense to stuff those run plays. Passing with that motion is an attempt to catch them looking for a run, and it works. The entire point of this play is hoping that corner is reading run and late picking up Ebron, and Roethlisberger throws it to Claypool for a 50/50 ball.
And this brings us to the real problem.
The Steelers have two offenses. They have the 2018 Ben Roethlisberger offense that Randy Fichtner was promoted to run for him. It is an offense that was heavily pass based with a run game that was largely solved by the end of 2018. The Steelers tried to fix the problems with that offense by bringing in Matt Canada to add more motion, play action, and creativity, especially in the run game.
The challenge is melding the two into one offense, and that has been problematic. The run-pass options didn’t work because Ben Roethlisberger was running them off of pre-snap reads. Passing out of heavy sets with running backs lined up as receivers didn’t work well either. Now the jet-sweeps that were a huge boost to the run game have become a liability because they can’t pass on plays with that motion and teams tee off on the run the moment that motion starts.
Ben Roethlisberger is an old dog, and not one with a history of learning new tricks quickly. Everyone remembers the Rosetta Stone comments and the long learning curve Roethlisberger had in Todd Haley’s offense. Roethlisberger may not be complaining publicly about Matt Canada, but he isn’t running his additions to the offense well.
This has the Steelers in this weird mode where they try to run a dumbed-down version of the new, more creative offense for a few series before giving up and running Ben Roethlisberger’s offense. So far every attempt to merge the two into one effective and balanced offense has failed, the quarterback just isn’t able or willing to run the new stuff.
Randy Fichtner is still trying, though.
Week 10, 2nd quarter, 9:21. James Conner is the Steeler farthest to the bottom of the screen.
This is 11 personnel, the Bengals don’t adjust well to covering it when the Steelers go empty with James Conner at wide receiver and JuJu Smith-Schuster is open for a 24 yard reception. If the Steelers can switch from a singleback look to empty set, maybe they can make the singleback plays a bit harder to defend.
The Steelers can’t keep running two different offenses. Both have become predictable, to the point that the only way the Steelers really move the ball is to go empty set and just pass the ball.
Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers offense, he’s the straw that stirs the drink for this team. They aren’t going to win without him, and any improvements to this offense have to be ones that work with him. Randy Fichtner is still working to find ways to utilize Matt Canada in ways that work for his quarterback. Hopefully he finds it, or this offense will never reach its real potential and rival the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, who use a lot of motion and misdirection to make Patrick Mahomes an even more effective quarterback than his talent and receivers would allow in a more vanilla offense.
If they don’t find that solution, the Steelers can at least run outside less and run inside more, and maybe consider playing Kevin Dotson until David DeCastro is healthier.
This is the NFL. Once a team puts something on tape, other teams are going to break it down and figure out a way to stop it. If an opponent takes certain things out of the equation which don’t occur in a given personnel and formation, it’s much easier to stop the play. The whole term one-dimensional is about knowing the other team is going to run or pass. Right now the Steelers need to stay ahead of the curve by figuring out what defenses are doing to try to stop certain things and exploit them, not simply run the play right into what they are guarding against. It’s a constant game of chess (not checkers), and you can’t make the exact same moves every game and expect the opponent to sit back and take it.
The Steelers made the first move in establishing the outside run game. Their opponents countered by selling out to stop it. It is now up to the Steelers to exploit their move. Once teams have to counter against the Steelers taking advantage of them selling out on the outside run, hopefully those runs being successful will be back on the table. It’s up to the Steelers to make them pay and get them out of the defense which is shutting down the outside run.