Over the course of the last two preseason games, Jonathan Dwyer ran the ball 22 times -- 14 more carries than any other back on Pittsburgh's roster over the same span. The stat sheet shows that he amassed 93 total rushing yards on those 22 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per attempt.
Those stats do not tell the whole story.
Dwyer flashed some potential with just under 20 percent of his runs going for more than 10 yards, but if you are doing the math at home, it means he also had his share of minimal runs as well.
Two of the most critical tools a running back must have are vision and patience. They need to be able to see the holes, their blockers and the defenders, and allow the hole to develop at times. Running backs do have to use these tools to help them decide when to change the direction of the run or even set up their cutback. But not all running backs see the same things, and some notice gaps in the defense - away from the designed hole - that can close quicker than they anticipate.
Dwyer is no exception to this and his decisions to cut the run against the grain can be a double-edged sword.
Jonathan Dwyer vs. the Washington Redskins
In this first play, Steelers originally intended to run a zone play to the left. Immediate penetration by the right defensive end causes Dywer to look for a new route before he even gets the ball. He sees that the LOLB has not maintained his backside integrity, so there is an opening to the right.
As the play continues, Dwyer tries to do too much. He has already turned a poorly blocked play into a 3-yard gain and with Markus Wheaton sealing the corner to the outside, Dwyer should have planted his foot and taken the safety and LB head on. At minimum, he should have waited to make his move to the outside until he passed Wheaton's block and was further up field. Instead, he tries to immediately bounce the play further outside and is tackled for the 3-yard gain. Dwyer left yards on the field.
The next play against the Redskins was less noticeable because he gained good yardage, but he still showed questionable vision on the play.
This is a variation of a power running play that Steelers fans have seen run since the days of Alan Faneca. On this variation it is a "35 power" (which means it is directed to the left of the LT as opposed to "36 power" which goes to the right of the RT). David DeCastro is kicking out the end man on the line, but instead of a fullback or the backside tackle leading the RB to the hole - TE David Paulson is pulling from the backside (a wrinkle the Steelers have shown in each of the preseason games so far).
As Dwyer gets the ball he actually sees two gaps: (1) the play-side hole, which was formed by a double-team of the LT and LG, in conjunction with DeCastro's pull from RG, and (2) the backside gap, which was formed by the NT shooting the gap to Maurkice Pouncey's right and LB London Fletcher flowing too far to the play-side. Instead of taking the play-side hole -- which has blockers there to help -- Dwyer chooses the backside gap in the defense.
Since Dwyer chose the gap that was not play-side, he has no one in position to pick up the safety. However, the safety DeJon Gomes played an overaggressive angle to the intended play-side hole so Dwyer is able to make him miss. This play ends up going for 14 yards (on 3rd-and-18).
Why is this a problem then?
For starters, if you focus on Ramon Foster (the left half of the double-team in front of Dwyer in the first image, and on the right of Dwyer in the second image) you can see he was focused on sealing his defender to his right (and away from the play-side). Once he sees Dwyer running to the right, he tries to prevent the defender from disengaging to get to Dwyer. This creates an opportunity for a holding call and Foster came dangerously close to one, if he did somehow manage not to hold (camera angle makes it hard to tell).
Another reason why this is a problem has more to do with the success rate of the play. Cutting the run to the back-side forces Dwyer to take on two unblocked defenders in order to get the first down. On the play-side, both middle linebackers are blocked and the ROLB is sealed. Antonio Brown is also coming from his position on the left on an angle to block the FS. Since Rambo's angle makes it impossible for him to get Dwyer, the only defender to beat is the corner who was covering Brown. And in general, corners are probably the worst tacklers on defense.
Dwyer vs. the Kansas City Chiefs
On the flipside, there were two perfect plays against the Chiefs that could be used to measure the highs and lows that can come from Dwyer's vision and decision-making.
The first time the Steelers ran this play, Dwyer highlighted his ability to cut the run back.
To start this play the Steelers are in a weak-offset-I-formation with the TE lined up on the right side. The Chiefs have seven men in the box and the FS is cheating up before the snap. When the ball is snapped, LT Mike Adams seals off the ROLB Tamba Hali, Foster and Pouncey double-team the NT, and FB Will Johnson picks up the Mack LB in the hole. There is no where to go for Dwyer.
But Dwyer sees a backside gap in the defense between Kelvin Beachum (lined up as a blocking TE) and the RT Marcus Gilbert. Dwyer plants his foot and heads towards that gap. Gilbert's defender slips the block and helps close the gap while the strong safety, Eric Berry, properly fills it, and Dwyer has no other option but to bounce the play outside. He uses his quick feet (and a slight hold by Beachum) to turn the corner for a big play.
In the next play highlighted, Pittsburgh is in the same formation, running the same play. It is the third time they have run the play in this game.
The Steelers are once again in a weak-offset-I-formation with the TE aligned on the right (which is Beachum again). The Chiefs show a similar look to their defense as well. At the snap, Adams seals Hali to the outside, Foster and Pouncey drive the NT Dontari Poe backwards into the linebackers, Johnson takes on the Mack LB in the hole, and Antonio Brown blocks down on the safety. While crowded, the play is blocked well enough on its intended side.
However, Dwyer notices the natural gap between the TE and RT once again and makes his cut. The RT's job on this play is to prevent the DE for getting to his left (towards the play-side), and because of this, the DE is able to disengage from Gilbert and easily fill the gap to the right. Dwyer's gamble backfires -- a play that is blocked well enough play-side for an easy 5 to 6-yard gain (and potentially more) instead goes for almost nothing.
Many people question why Pittsburgh is reluctant to give Dywer the starting nod at RB. The answer is he isn't consistent. With Dwyer it is either a boom or a bust. He doesn't trust his line to get off their designed double-teams and get to the LBs and is often too willing to try to bounce the play outside. An old adage RB coaches like to say is "speed through the hole, not to it." Dwyer fails to understand this. Patience on some plays is just as important as speed, and Dwyer needs a lot more of the former. He also seems to lack the ability and understanding to set his blockers up for success. If the hole isn't already open by the time he gets the ball, he's already looking to change where he runs.
Whether it is entirely a trust issue or an issue with his vision and anticipation of the blocks, Dwyer lacks consistency. This is something he has shown not only in this preseason but in his starts last year as well. Dwyer's status as the starter or even as a member of the Black and Gold will continue to be questioned until he stops leaving yards on the field due to his own mistakes and poor reads.
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