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Dominant play in the trenches leads the Steelers to a big win over the Chargers

The Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage vs. the Chargers, and in the process developed a winning template moving forward.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers delivered a clinic on the fundamentals of interior line play Sunday night, as their sound and physical execution up front sparked them to a much-needed 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

While much of the evening’s intrigue centered on the debut of The Duck — rookie QB Devlin Hodges, who afforded himself fairly well in offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative game plan — the outcome was decided in the trenches, where the Steelers were simply dominant. On both sides of the ball, the Steelers were technically sound and physically superior, controlling the line of scrimmage and making life miserable for the Chargers.

Defensively, the Steelers front seven assaulted an over-matched Chargers offensive line that was missing its two best players in Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey. Their patchwork starting five resembled a sloppy high school team for all of the bad technique and blown assignments on display. The Steelers poured into the backfield with regularity, harassing quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Melvin Gordon nearly every time they touched the ball.

Conversely, the Steelers lessened the burden on Hodges by establishing a run game and affording him time when they needed to throw. Hodges was not sacked once on 20 pass attempts, allowing him to complete a host of quick throws and checkdowns. In the run game, the offense produced 124 hard-earned yards behind improved line play and tough running from James Conner and Benny Snell. It was a physical performance by an offense that has struggled in that capacity so far this season.

Here’s a closer look at how the Steelers beat up the Chargers to earn their second victory of the season.

A Physical Front Seven on Defense

The defensive line and linebackers were, in a word, stellar. They won the push at the line of scrimmage on almost every snap. Los Angeles could not get into any sort of rhythm for the first three quarters because of the constant disruption the Steelers front seven provided.

This was especially true for Rivers. Rushing just four on most downs, the Steelers seemed to be racing one another to the veteran quarterback on most of the Chargers’ pass attempts. The demonstrative Rivers was visibly frustrated at times as he was treated like a piñata throughout the first half.

Below, we see the Steelers generate a near-sack one play prior to Rivers throwing a lateral that was scooped up by Devin Bush and returned for a touchdown to open the scoring. At the top of the screen, Stephon Tuitt and TJ Watt run a well-timed twist stunt. At the bottom, Bud Dupree uses a nice dip-and-rip move to beat LA’s left tackle around the edge. All three players arrive at Rivers simultaneously, leaving the quarterback to spike a hurried throw into the turf:

Watch the craft work of all three pass rushers here. Watt and Dupree win the battle of the hands — T.J. by executing a beautiful arm-over swat to rip through the right tackle, Dupree by getting his hands inside and gaining leverage — while Tuitt gets extension and uses his athletic advantage to bend the edge and get back inside on Rivers. Technique-wise, the Steelers were simply better up front than Los Angeles on both sides of the football. Plays like the one above were the rule for the evening, not the exception.

Rivers may have had that pressure on his mind when he rushed his swing pass to Gordon on the next play, resulting in the lateral and Bush’s touchdown. It also resulted in my favorite image of the night from the NBC camera crew:

As if the Steelers weren’t strong enough on their own merit, Los Angeles occasionally made things easy by blowing assignments. Here’s LA’s third play from scrimmage. It’s designed as a zone run to the right with a playside fold scheme. This means rather than straight zone block it, whereby everyone blocks the gap to their right, the right tackle will block down on the 3-technique (Tuitt) while the right guard pulls around him to kick the edge (Watt). The play is designed to be blocked like this:

The Chargers have several problems executing their scheme. First, the backside tackle fails to climb to Vince Williams (98), who is stacked in the A-gap over top of Cam Heyward. Next, the left guard and center double team Heyward but neither chips off to block Devin Bush (55). With clean lanes to the football, Williams and Bush both come free, forcing running back Melvin Gordon to stop, stutter and attempt to cut back, where he is swallowed up by Dupree coming free from the left edge.

This play was a harbinger of the evening ahead for the Chargers offensive line. They were not physical enough to block the Steelers at the point of attack (watch Tuitt rip across the face of the tackle’s down block and Watt hold his ground against what becomes a double team) and they were not sound enough in their assignments to keep Steeler defenders from running free to the football.

Right guard Michael Schofield (75) was particularly accommodating in this regard. Schofield was a turnstile most of the evening, allowing black and gold-clad defenders to pour through his gap. To wit:

That’s Daniel McCullers — Daniel McCullers! — all 6’7-350 pounds of him, rushing Rivers like the second coming of Reggie White. The communication by the Chargers offensive line here is awful. The center doubles back on Heyward while Schofield slides away to block air, leaving no one to account for the largest man on the field. Rivers winds up having to throw the ball away in frustration, earning an intentional grounding call to boot.

Here’s another one. Watch Javon Hargrave (79) slap Schofield’s hands away on contact and blow past him to team up with Tyson Alualu (94), who expertly splits a double team on the other side of the center. The two combine to tackle the beleaguered Gordon in the backfield.

Then there was the problem of Vince Williams the Chargers failed to solve. Williams’s return to the lineup was a huge plus for the Steelers in the run game, as he brought energy, a veteran presence and a knack for filling gaps back to the defense. The fact the Chargers refused to get a body on him was simply astounding and led to a host of plays like this one, where Williams came unblocked to make a beautiful form tackle on Gordon before his teammates joined in the fun.

When LA wasn’t struggling with their scheme, Williams was just too good to block. Here the Chargers attempt to execute an outside zone run whereby the tight end to the bottom of the screen will reach block Watt while the right tackle will climb up onto Williams. Watch how deftly Williams ducks under the block to combine with Dupree to stuff Gordon yet again.

Williams was credited with just four total tackles but he felt more disruptive than the numbers indicate. I could say the same for several players. Tuitt was a beast before leaving with what turns out was a year-ending injury. Thankfully his replacement, Tyson Alualu, was also disruptive. Bud Dupree continued to perform in what is shaping up as his best year as a pro. Devin Bush led the team in tackles and made a couple of splash plays. And T.J. Watt turned in his usual solid performance before getting dinged up as well.

It’s difficult to say if the success of the front seven was a factor of quality play on their part or a morbid performance from the LA offensive line. Likely, it was a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the Chargers were shut out for three quarters and limited to just 32 yards rushing on the evening. Losing Tuitt certainly hurts but Alualu is a solid veteran who has shown himself to be a steady contributor throughout his time in Pittsburgh. If the front seven can dominate the way they did Sunday night, the Steelers will win football games no matter who quarterbacks the team.

Improvement in the Run Game

The big guys up front on the offensive side of the ball weren’t quite as dominant as their defensive counterparts. Still, it was a significant step forward for the much-maligned run game. James Conner and Benny Snell (Benny Snell Football!) combined to rush 33 times for 116 yards. Those stats are by no means overwhelming, but in a game where everyone knew the Steelers had to establish the run, it represented great progress from the previous five weeks, where the offense ranked 29th in the league at a paltry 67 rushing yards per game.

How did the Steelers do it? For starters, they ran heavy doses of jumbo personnel formations that included either a sixth offensive lineman, multiple tight ends or some combination of the two.

Here’s an example of the Steelers utilizing heavy personnel on the second quarter drive that culminated in James Conner’s 26 yard touchdown reception that put them ahead 21-0. It’s a 2nd and 3 from the LA 35 and the Steelers are in an eight-man line with six offensive linemen plus tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett. They run an inside zone play to the left, with Vannett coming across the formation to seal the right edge. Watch the blocks on the left side of the football, where Zach Banner (72) turns out defensive end Issac Rochelle (98), Alejandro Villanueva (78) seals linebacker Kyzir White (44) and Ramon Foster buries the interior defensive tackle. Snell gets square and runs downhill through the hole, banging his way for seven yards.

It’s not a sexy play but it shows two things: one, Fichtner did a nice job utilizing his big personnel to bully LA’s smaller front seven (he even allowed them to get into three-point stances to run block, a point we’ve been hammering on for weeks!); and two, the technical work of the Steelers offensive line was just as impressive as the defense’s at times. Look at the flat backs, low pad levels and hand placement of the OL in the photo below. Football is still a game of fundamentals, and when linemen stay square and have superior vertical and horizontal leverage, good things happen in the run game.

Here’s one more example. Watch the Steelers reach block the LA defenders on Conner’s 12 yard touchdown run one series earlier. This is outside zone, where the aiming point for linemen is wider than on inside zone and the object is to reach a defender’s playside shoulder before driving them upfield. The Steelers are in an Ace formation out of true 12 personnel with Vance McDonald to the top of the screen. McDonald and Villanueva double team Joey Bosa (97) to seal the edge before McDonald chips off to kick out safety Roderick Teamer (36). Diontae Johnson (18) gets a nice stalk block to turn out the corner and the rest of the OL stays engaged on their assignments long enough to allow Conner to hit the seam. It’s textbook outside zone blocking — especially the combo block by McDonald and Villanueva on Bosa and Teamer — and a strong run by Conner.

It’s interesting, and in my opinion encouraging, that Fichtner utilized so many heavy and double tight end formations. With McDonald healthy (for now) and Vannett looking like the solid second tight end this team has desperately needed, a return to some old-school power football would be a boon for an offense struggling at the receiver position and with two inexperienced quarterbacks running the show. Once fullback Rosie Nix returns from injury, Fichtner might really have some options should he choose to embrace a more smash-mouth style.

Things got a bit dicey in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers lapsed into some sloppy play that allowed Los Angeles to make things uncomfortable. Missed tackles, a blown coverage on a 3rd and long, an inability to cover tight end Hunter Henry in the middle of the field, a dropped interception by Minkah Fitzpatrick and a terrible pick thrown by Hodges all contributed to the Los Angeles comeback. But the Steelers’ dominance up front that created a 24-0 cushion proved too much for LA to overcome.

With Hodges bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bubby Brister in his white No. 6 jersey, the Steelers produced a vintage physical performance that felt like something conjured from the past. They now head into their bye week with some momentum and perhaps a template for going forward - run the football, be physical on defense, dominate the trenches. For one night in LA, at least, it was a beautiful sight to behold.