Behind The Steel GIFs: Steelers Stretch Run Struggling In 2012

Remember Steelers running back Barry Foster?

Big success in Pittsburgh, lots of yards. Career cut short, the whole bit. A big part of Foster's success was his vision. That trait begets patience as a running back. Foster ran behind a very talented offensive line but all of them as a unit moved and executed as one.

That's something that isn't happening in Pittsburgh right now. The Steelers are averaging 2.6 yards per carry, which is 30th in the NFL. While the sample size of two games is small, the amount of negative carries they take crushes their average, along with any momentum the offense may have.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley came into Pittsburgh with the seemingly agreed upon mandate of incorporating a better running game. One of the weapons he's used to this point is the stretch run out of a zone blocking scheme.

It simply hasn't worked well to this point. Much of that is caused by the lack of cohesion the offensive line has - left guard Willie Colon has barely played for the last two years, and when he did play, he was at right tackle. Left tackle Max Starks has never played next to Colon, and neither has center Maurkice Pouncey.

It will come, but for now, let's look at an example of why it isn't working.

The Steelers have the ball 2nd-and-10 with 9:40 remaining in the third quarter. They line up strong left, with three tight ends - David Paulson is off the line by two yards, and Heath Miller and Leonard Pope are outside/inside, with Starks to Pope's right.

It's an obvious run formation.

At the snap, the offensive line moves in unison - the key trait of a zone-blocking play - to its left. Paulson and Miller double-team the outside linebacker, but everyone behind them is working as a wall as opposed to simply moving the man in front of them.

Everyone except the Steelers' tackles, that is.

The basic premise in zone-blocking is centered around the fact defensive linemen are typically better athletes than offensive linemen. There aren't many offensive linemen who can flat-out beat a defensive tackle in a man blocking scheme. In zone, they don't have to dominate (i.e. physically move them backward), they can take an angle, and force the defensive linemen to move laterally, which benefits the offense. A running back will win an angle race with a defensive lineman nearly every time.

Plus, if the offensive line maintains its integrity, the running back can exploit defensive linemen or linebackers who overrun the play, and run through creases left by those vacating players.

The problems in this scheme come when defensive linemen aren't moving laterally, but they're moving straight ahead. The absolute one thing that cannot happen if a stretch zone run is to be effective is allowing penetration. That forces the running back to cut early, which eliminates the advantage he has in the angle. The longer he has the ball and isn't moving forward, the less likely he's going to be able to hit the seam created in blocking.

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via assets.sbnation.com

Jets defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson had an outstanding game, and flashed enough to suggest he's a rising stud in the NFL. On this play, he simply beats Starks to the edge, gaining leverage on the outside, which disrupted Jonathan Dwyer's angle to the outside. Wilkerson gets two yards of penetration before he meets Dwyer, who, without an angle, has to try to cut back to make a play.

It wasn't a good decision. On the other side of the line, RT Marcus Gilbert fails to get between the inside shoulder of defensive tackle Marcus Dixon and the play. Gilbert is not the greatest athlete, and fails to land an initial punch, which allows Dixon to simply shoot the open gap to Gilbert's inside, and chase the play down from the back side. This wouldn't be as much of a problem had the play continued moving upfield, but Dwyer cuts back to the left (something he's prone to do, which has shown up on film and is a big part of why he hasn't run successfully this year), and right into Starks, who's vainly trying to stop Wilkerson.

Wilkerson makes the tackle on Dwyer's mistaken cut-back, and the Steelers lost six yards on the play.

Translate the failures of Starks and Gilbert on this play to Pouncey, and what he does after the snap. Pouncey is an excellent zone blocker, and likely the first cut Dwyer is hoping to take would be back to the right, behind Pouncey's block. Easily the best athlete on the line, Pouncey maintains the integrity of the line, while moving at the perfect angle to force the defender to commit one way or the other. That's how creases open. Pouncey's ability to do that is likely the reason why the Steelers are trying to implement zone running, but Starks in particular needs to refine his technique, or the Steelers simply cannot run in zone.

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