The Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense found itself between a rock and a hard place against the Jaguars Sunday afternoon. The rock was Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette. The hard place was an already demonstrated inability to stop running backs of any ilk.
Two weeks prior, the Chicago Bears destroyed the Steelers’ run defense, particularly from the tackles to the sidelines. Facing a Jacksonville running back who has demonstrated an ability to find great success on the perimeter much like Chicago backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard, Pittsburgh made it a point to protect the perimeter.
So, Fournette and fellow back Chris Ivory pummeled them between the tackles, instead. And, when the Steelers adjusted to protect the middle better, Fournette went outside. It was, in nearly every way imaginable, a terrible day defending the run for the Steelers.
Worse, the Steelers will get no break from the schedule. In Week 6, they head to Kansas City, a team which sports the No. 1 running back in the league right now in rookie Kareem Hunt. His 609 yards are 143 more than his nearest challenger — who just happens to be Fournette. His ridiculous total against the Steelers certainly helped put him into second.
Worst of all, though, is that the Steelers had at least kept the Jaguars from doing any real damage on offense through three quarters. It was the fourth that did them in, though, allowing the Jaguars to eat minute after minute of clock and force the Steelers to rush things if they wanted to have any hope of getting back into the game. Thanks to two pick-sixes by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, that was already going to be tough enough. Having a rapidly dwindling clock didn’t help.
The good news? As I’ve said more than once in these film sessions, the issues are fixable. Now, the Steelers just need to prove they’re capable of it.
4th Quarter, 13:25 Remaining, 1st & 10, JAX 18
This play did its damage because of a lack of awareness on the part of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. As you can see in the diagram below, the play was a straightforward, power-run play, with a subtle misdirection. That misdirection did its job.
The failure on this play, as you can see in the video, is that while the Steelers’ inside linebackers twist, Ryan Shazier totally misses his gap. That’s because he has his eyes on the fullback the entire time and reads it as an off-tackle run. This draws Shazier too far outside and leaves a gaping hole for Fournette, and he takes advantage of it. Shazier isn’t able to recover in time due to his aggressive attack, and is stuck with a virtually impossible angle because of it. He never had a chance.
It looks like the Steelers were anticipating an outside run on this play, as both defensive ends crash straight down on the line, while both outside linebackers stay wide. Cameron Heyward eliminated any chance of a counter or cutback to the left, and the outside ‘backers likely would have forced an outside run toward the sidelines.
4th Quarter, 10:49 Remaining, 1st & 10, JAX 39
This play almost looks like a complete inversion of the previous play. The Steelers play it as if they anticipated another inside run -- and the blocking was textbook inside zone, as you can see below.
Chances are actually pretty good that it was supposed to go inside, but the Pittsburgh defense completely shut that down. The problem starts and ends with outside linebacker Bud Dupree attacking too aggressively inside, losing contain on the outside. Fournette, a decisive, one-cut runner, sees this and abandons the inside run, bouncing immediately outside. Much like Shazier in the previous play, Dupree ends up in react mode, and can’t get back to where he needs to be quickly enough.
4th Quarter, 2:00 Remaining, 3rd & 2, JAX 10
Admittedly, the game was almost certainly out of reach at this point. Still, it resulted in the points that absolutely sealed the game, and served as a punctuation mark on a terrible day.
The truth is, the defense didn’t really do anything wrong. This was a great play call and, likely, a nice pre-snap read by Bortles to run this to the weak side. With a pulling guard, the math worked perfectly: five defenders, five blockers, and strong safety Sean Davis to the right and six yards off the line.
As you can see in image below, it really was simply about counting defenders. The red numbers show the blockers, and the yellow numbers show the defenders, according to which offensive player blocked them:
Had outside linebacker T.J. Watt lined up on the tight end’s outside shoulder, it may have changed the complexion of this play. That would have allowed safety Mike Mitchell a gap inside while cornerback Artie Burns attacked from the outside. The fullback would have needed to make a quick decision on who to block, and the other may have been able to get into the backfield before the pulling guard was able to get to them.
One thing to note is that the Steelers do not have a defender in the left A-gap. This is what allows the guard to pull in the first place: the center has a single responsibility at this point, which is Heyward in the right A-gap. This defensive alignment allows the guard to pull without consequence. The Jaguars ran some very similar plays earlier in the game, with two notable exceptions: 1) this play is run out of I formation, while earlier it had been run from a heavy single-back formation with a receiver split wide; and 2) the guard did not pull on the other plays. This play was the one time from either of these alignments where the center was not covered by a 0-tech. Had he been covered, the guard may never have been able to pull in the first place.
The reality is this was simply a great play to call right here. Jacksonville had run to the strong side at a ratio of about 2.5:1, including the five plays prior to this home run. It was a perfect setup to run to the bweak side when the Steelers presented this alignment.
In week six, the Steelers will face Hunt, another runner they have never played against before. He has the ability to make splash plays inside and outside, just like Fournette. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler will need to find ways to put his players in position to succeed and, more importantly, the players will have to stay disciplined to keep from aggressively taking themselves out of plays.
Oh, it also wouldn’t hurt for the offense to put a few points on their own side of the scoreboard rather than their opponent’s.