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Analyzing the play of Steelers ILB Mark Barron, Part 1: Run Defense

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Taking an in-depth look at Mark Barron’s day in Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One of the common sentiments I hear after every game this season is how poorly Mark Barron played. He’s a liability in coverage, can’t defend the run, he’s just dragging the team down.

I heard it again after this game, and I was surprised because I thought he had a really good game. So I went to the film and watched Mark Barron on every play, took notes and decided to do the film room this week on Mark Barron. This is part one of a two part series on Barron, this first one will cover his ability defending the run, the second part will cover him in coverage on passing plays.


Sealing the Edge

One of the basic responsibilities in run defense is sealing the edge. The outside defender needs to force the runner inside toward the rest of the defense and not let the RB get outside. This is usually an OLB job, but in the Steelers defense Mark Barron fills this role a good bit as well.

Mark Barron starts the play on the far right of the screen.

Bud Dupree and both DTs are crashing inside, Barron has to seal the edge or Joe Mixon can follow his pulling center and get free outside. Barron does a great job of delivering a blow to the TE and forcing Mixon to go inside of him, which gives T.J. Watt and Devin Bush time to get into the play. T.J. Watt makes the tackle for a 1 yard loss on the play.

This one is even better: Barron starts this play on the right, and runs outside Dupree.

This is a phenomenal play by Barron. He’s taking on the Bengals left tackle here. He has the edge, and when Bud Dupree and Minkah Fitzpatrick force Mixon outside Barron is able to control the tackle’s block enough to keep Mixon trapped and Devin Bush clean. A 4+ second run that nets 0 yards because Barron is able to fight the LT and hold his ground long enough for the play to be made.


Filling Run Lanes

While sealing the edge is important, inside line backers are more frequently asked to fill run lanes between the tackles, where they frequently take on interior offensive lineman.

Mark Barron starts the play right near the left hash mark, between Cameron Heyward (97) and Tyson Alualu (94).

Barron is faced with taking on the Bengals RG, and he does well. He shows a lot of fight here and the RG isn’t able to get him fully out of the hole and ends up having to hold Barron to keep him from getting in on the tackle. Against this kind of zone run all Barron has to do is stay in that hole long enough to disrupt the timing of the play, and he does that. Heyward, Alualu, Watt and Bud Dupree all do better at their jobs, but Barron holds his own and Mixon can’t escape.

It doesn’t always go that well.

Barron is the MLB on this play.

Hargrave gets sealed outside and Barron commits just a little bit too far to the right. He doesn’t have the power or size to move the tackle back, and Mixon is through the hole for a 14 yard run, his longest of the game.

Barron is able to hold his own, but not clearly win battles with lineman in these situations. On this play Hargrave also is unable to clog the hole and Mixon gets free. Barron can play his part, he does a good job of getting to his spot and holding it, but in run fills like this he isn’t a player who can make things easier for others, he doesn’t have that kind of size or power.

In this next play you can see the importance of being in the right spot and filling your lane.

Mark Barron is the ILB to the left, Vince Williams the ILB to the right.

Here the defense has the run to the offense’s right sealed off, but Mixon is able to escape by reversing to his left and gain 9 yards.

Take a look at the play right before Mixon cuts back.

At this point the play should be dead. Barron is in position to fill the gap between Watt and Hargrave, Williams the gap between Hargrave and Heyward, Heyward and Dupree are in the path of any cutback.

But if you watch at the play, Vince Williams cuts through the same gap that Barron has covered, Heyward and Dupree get too far up-field and Mixon is able to get past all three. Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds limit the run to 9 yards, but it should have been a minimal gain if any. If you look at Devin Bush in the second play in this film room you can see a much better way for Williams to play this situation. If Williams sticks behind Hargrave he can help Barron with a tackle while still covering the other side of Hargrave as well. If Heyward isn’t moving to fill that gap, then Mixon has nowhere to go. Instead, you can see Heyward step up to fill the lane to Hargrave’s right and Mixon is able to cut behind.


Tackling

Mark Barron misses too many tackles, that’s another complaint I hear about him. And I agree, because one tackle missed is too many. But if you look at the stats, Mark Barron misses fewer tackles than you might think. Barron is the No. 3 tackler on the Steelers, behind Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds and he has 5 missed tackles credited to him, giving him a miss rate of 8.1%, which is only slightly below Terrell Edmunds’ 7.9%, better than T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush. Barron, like Edmunds has a few misses that stand out, but he also makes tackles that stand out, or at least should stand out.

Mark Barron is the defender on the far right of the screen to start the play.

Here Mark Barron doesn’t just hold the edge, he sheds the TE’s block and gets Mixon for a 3 yard loss. This play was negated by Bush’s hands to the face penalty, but that doesn’t take away from the play Mark Barron made here, getting to Mixon and holding on for the tackle.

It’s one thing to grab a RBs leg, another to meet them in a hole and stop their momentum.

Mark Barron is on the left hash mark, Devin Bush is to the right, between Heyward and Dupree.

Here Devin Bush comes in and takes on up the pulling TE, forcing Mixon inside right at Mark Barron. Barron stands Mixon up, stopping his momentum before Bush and Edmunds join him to finish the tackle.

Great stuff by Barron here, and a great play by Bush to blow up the run and force it to Barron. The TE was flagged for holding Bush on this play, so it’s another tackle that officially didn’t happen for Mark Barron. It stood out to me several times in this game that Barron and Bush appear to be playing off each other very well now.


The Alternative

It is clear in the play above, and in many others, that Devin Bush is better than Mark Barron in run defense by a good margin. Bush is quickly becoming a star and Barron is not, so why is Barron on the field, why not use Vince Williams more?

Vince Williams is in the middle, on the “B”, Devin Bush is to the right of him on screen.

This is one of the three snaps Mark Barron wasn’t on the field in Cincinnati. Williams comes right up to the lineman and engages him, and then cannot get off the block to get into the run lane.

Here it is in slow motion:

Again Williams is on the “B”. You can see him engage and then fail to get off the block in time to make a play. This play went for 11 yards on a 1st and 15, the next play Mixon would run for 9 yards and Tomlin would sub Williams out and Barron back in.

I’m not going to argue that Mark Barron could do better than Vince Williams in this situation. I will argue that Devin Bush wouldn’t have gotten stuck on that block and very likely this is a short gain if Bush is in that spot instead of Williams. With Barron out, Bush is covering the TE because Vince Williams is an actual liability in coverage. If Mark Barron is on the field for this play, he would be covering the TE, and Bush would be making the play on Mixon.

That’s why Barron is on the field in nickle more than Williams. Because Mark Barron takes the man and zone assignments that would pull Devin Bush away from the spot where he can do the most damage.

Mixon had 4 runs of 9 or more yards, two that went for 9 yards, to go with an 11 and a 14 yard run. Mark Barron was on the field for two of those runs, Devin Bush was on the field for two of those runs, Vince Williams was on the field for all four of those runs. Outside of those 4 runs Mixon gained 36 yards on 14 carries.

I know this film room doesn’t address why Mark Barron is on the field in dime defense instead of Devin Bush, part two will be about Mark Barron on passing plays.

Mark Barron is a solid run defender, who is able to seal the edge, hold his own against lesser lineman, and a pretty solid tackler. He also brings good speed to the ball. But his biggest positive in run defense is that he takes on the tougher assignments and lets Devin Bush fly to the football.