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What went right, and what went wrong, with the Steelers run game vs. the Jets

Looking at the Steelers run game in Week 16.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

While much of the focus on the Steelers offense has rightfully been on the QB play in week 16, the Steelers run game deserves a good amount of blame as well. And while it’s easy enough to say the run game didn’t do well enough, it’s much better to understand why, and to be able to form an educated opinion on what can be done to fix it.

So for this week’s film room we are going to dig into the run game a bit more and look at some of the problems the Steelers have been having lately.

Play Design

After the game against the Bills I brought up how the Bills used extra DBs really well in defending the run, and that the Steelers were unable to adjust for it well enough. So to start this film room we’ll look at the numbers game and how so much of the run game is simply accounting for the defenders in the way of the run.

2nd and 5, 7:42 1st quarter.

This was James Conner’s biggest gain of the game, and it is a nice, straightforward example of running at the numbers.

This run is to the offense left, and I numbered the defenders to the play side of Conner in order of importance. You can see in the play that Ramon Foster does a great job of chipping the DT and setting Maurkice Pouncey up for success, while his second target, LB James Burgess (#58) sets up in the primary lane, forcing Conner to bounce the run outside. Foster is able to make the block there and while Burgess forces Conner outside he isn’t able to stop the run, and with the other blocks being made Conner is in the open field. Conner’s acceleration and a good block from Diontae Johnson turn it into 15 yards.

The key here is the Steelers got four blockers on the four defenders in the box to the play side.

In the next play the Steelers fail to win the numbers game.

1st and 10, 7:19 first quarter. (the next play)

Here Benny Snell Jr. fails to get back to the line of scrimmage, and the reason is James Burgess (#58), the MLB, is unblocked, takes a good angle and makes a solid tackle.

The fault isn’t Snell’s, or any offensive lineman’s. Look at how the play design ends up accounting for the numbers.

The play design and defensive alignment combine to task Zach Banner with blocking the MLB. That’s not a feasible assignment, no one is making that block. This play is dead before the snap. Someone has to notice this situation and make an adjustment. No one does, and Benny Snell has no chance. If you watch Vance McDonald on the play, it looks like he thought Nick Vannett was not going to be blocking the outside LB (labelled 2 in the image above) and it is possible Vannett should have blocked Burgess, with McDonald picking up the play side LB and CB Bless Austin (#31, labelled 6 in the picture) being left unblocked.

Often you can simply look at the pre-snap alignment and count defenders and blockers to the play side and know if a run that direction will work, but there are ways to change the numbers post-snap and block defenders that initially it doesn’t appear they can.

1st and 10, 2:53 third quarter.

Here Benny Snell picks up 6 yards running to the right, when pre-snap the Jets have 4 defenders to 3 Steeler blockers in that direction.

The Steelers pull both David DeCastro and Pouncey, and doing so allows them to block both the LBs with lineman who are well behind them at the snap. Pulling is a staple in power run schemes because it allows the offense to essentially change the alignment of blockers and defenders after the snap. It also shows Pouncey is still a very good pulling center, which has been a valuable part of his game his entire career. The Steelers have been running a lot more power schemes than they did early in the season. With a struggling passing game it is easy for defenses to overload a zone scheme by bringing extra defenders into the box. A power scheme allows the offense to create a numbers advantage in one part of the field even when the numbers aren’t favorable pre-snap.

But even the right scheme requires execution, and mistakes have plagued the Steelers run game in recent weeks.

1st and 10, 4:03, first period.

As soon as Pouncey makes it to James Burgess (MLB, #58), the Steelers have the numbers to block the play for a solid gain. But Zack Banner doesn’t block Jamal Adams, he goes to block Burgess as well, and Adams is unblocked. If Banner blocks Adams, Snell would get to the 20 yard line before facing a tackler, instead Snell fights to gain 1 yard. With better execution and communication the Steelers offensive line would be good enough to still be the catalyst of the offense.

The last part of a run game is the running back, and while the Steelers started with 4 RBs this season, it’s one that didn’t start the season on the team that is flashing some real potential.

This chart compares the 5 RBs the Steelers have given at least 20 carries this season, and the percentage of their runs that gain different yardage.

(Scroll right to see the rest)

Kerrith Whyte has been a very good running back in limited usage for the Steelers, and while it seems like a small sample error that so few of his runs gain less than 2 yards, the film backs up what the stats say. While it is a small sample, Kerrith Whyte’s film shows a runner who does a great job of turning runs north and south and that helps him gain yards and rarely get stuffed.

Look at these Kerrith Whyte runs.

1st and 10, 1:28, third quarter

Jamal Adams does a great job of getting to DeCastro and cutting his block. That blows up the outside run, but Whyte isn’t fazed. He consistently keeps his eyes up early in runs, and when he sees the closing hole between McDonald and Foster he drives for a 3 yard gain.

1st and 10, 3:42 second quarter.

On this run James Burgess(#58) is able to get around the block of Allejandro Villanueva and with #46 meeting DeCastro’s pull has the angle to shut down an outside run. If Whyte keeps his angle, or tries to bounce the run outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s block he would be lucky to gain any yards at all, but Whyte is able to turn the run up-field and even though he slips on the cut the play gains 4 yards.

Compare to this run from James Conner.

As soon as James Conner gets the ball he is racing to the lane, he doesn’t give himself a chance to change direction and Burgess meets him for a 1 yard loss. There wasn’t a great option on this run, but there were better ones. Conner is a talented runner, but he consistently bounces runs outside that don’t need to bounce outside, and he almost never turns an outside run vertical early. If the line is able to give him easy lanes and shots at DBs Conner is deadly, but when the play isn’t working Conner doesn’t turn up-field and salvage what he can, he runs to the sideline.

In an offense with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger paying QB, James Conner’s boom or bust run style works fine, but when the Steelers need consistent gains on first down and can’t afford negative plays in the run game, James Conner isn’t a good fit. That stands out this year where the Steelers have a 2-6 record when Conner leads the team in rushing, and a 6-1 record when anyone else leads the team in rushing.