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Fixing the Steelers Run Game, Part 2: Marrying scheme to personnel

Taking a deeper look into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game, and how to fix it.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Running the ball and playing great defense remains a proven formula for winning football games, especially in January. The Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers each demonstrated this over the weekend, rolling up big playoff wins by pounding their opponents with the run game.

San Francisco out-rushed Minnesota 186-21 while Tennessee hammered a tough Baltimore run defense for 217 yards on the ground. The run game created advantages for each team that are essential in single-elimination contests: San Francisco possessed the ball for a staggering 38:27 (to 21:33 for the Vikings) while Tennessee was able to minimize risk and win the turnover battle at +3.

Neither the 49ers nor Titans are loaded with star talent on offense. Yet their ability to run the ball has put each team one win from the Super Bowl. Conversely, the Steelers rushing attack has languished near the bottom of the league the last two seasons, both of which have seen them miss the playoffs. It’s doubtful they can build a run game on par with San Francisco’s or Tennessee’s by next fall. But, given the state of their defense and the pending return of their Hall of Fame quarterback, a merely competent one would likely make them serious playoff contenders. This series examines how the Steelers might rebuild their flagging rushing attack.

Last week, in part one, we looked at why the team should bid a respectful farewell to veteran guard Ramon Foster. This week, we’ll examine the importance of marrying their run scheme to their personnel.

One thing both the 49ers and Titans do well in their run game is scheme to the strengths of their players. The Titans, led by first-round draft picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, have invested heavily in physical linemen who get off the football and move people (all five Tennessee OL were taken in the fourth round or higher). Toting the rock behind that line is another first round pick, human battering-ram Derrick Henry, who led the league in rushing this season and became the first player in NFL history to rush for 180+ yards on three consecutive weeks when he rolled up 195 against Baltimore. Tennessee’s investment in the run game is paying off nicely.

The thing that makes their rushing attack so effective isn’t just that they have drafted good players. It’s how their scheme plays to the strengths of that personnel. Tennessee has built their attack around maulers up front and a physical back. They play power football because that’s what their players do best.

Below we see an example of Tennessee’s power run game. In this 11 personnel grouping, the Titans have bunched receivers AJ Brown (11) and Corey Davis (84) to the left of the formation with tight end Jonnu Smith (81). Brown (6’0-226) and Davis (6’3-210) are big, physical receivers built to handle in-line blocking duties. This allows the Titans to go to a heavy look if they desire without having to bring in linemen or extra tight ends. Here, Tennessee gets Baltimore to play an over front to the bunch then runs an outside zone play away from it, taking advantage of the bubble in the B-gap between the right guard and right tackle:

The thing that makes this play work isn’t simply a good scheme. It’s how well the Tennessee OL gets off the ball and how physical they are at the point of attack. Watch left guard Roger Saffold (76) and Lewan (77), the left tackle. Saffold climbs to the second level and jolts the linebacker, knocking him across the football. Meanwhile, Lewan runs out of his stance to overtake the defensive tackle in the gap to his right, driving him five yards down-field and sealing him off. Henry squares up in the hole and charges straight ahead.

This is a downhill run play that takes advantage of the athleticism and physicality of the Tennessee front and the fact that Henry is a nightmare to tackle (the Titans were third in the league in Open Field Yards, meaning once Henry got to the second level it was difficult getting him to the ground). The Titans live on concepts like this one, running the ball between the tackles, pushing people off the ball and getting Henry vertical. They don’t pull linemen to the edge or run much sweep. They know who they are and how they want to play.

The Steelers, unfortunately, are in a state of flux when it comes to the identity of their rushing attack. Their offensive line was constructed first and foremost to protect Ben Roethlisberger and beyond that to create seams and creases for the hunt-and-peck running style of Le’Veon Bell. Bell’s patience and willingness to wait for a hole to emerge required linemen to cover up defenders and move them horizontally. The Steelers also ran a lot of pin-and-pull sweep with Bell, getting him out in space when defenses crowded the box. Their linemen were effective pass setting and pulling. But they were not built like Tennessee’s. They did not push defenses off the ball.

With Bell gone, and with James Conner and, presumably, Benny Snell taking his place, the team now faces a dilemma in the run game. Conner and Snell are power backs better suited for Tennessee’s vertical run game than for the horizontal one used in Pittsburgh. Both would thrive behind a line that pushed people off the ball and allowed them to make one cut and get square. A scheme like San Francisco’s, with a punishing fullback like Kyle Juszczyk and a great blocking tight end like George Kittle, would also suit them well.

Here’s an example of both Conner and Snell at their best. First, we see Conner on a tackle trap play. It’s a simple scheme: the Steelers block down on the play-side and pull back-side tackle Matt Feiler to kick the edge. Conner makes one cut, runs inside the kick-out block and gets vertical. It’s a different blocking scheme but, stylistically, the run looks very similar to the one by Henry above.

Now here’s Benny Snell. This is a zone lead concept out of a heavy formation with six offensive linemen, a tight end and receiver James Washington (13) lined up in the backfield as a de facto fullback. The Steelers zone block to the right while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) turns out the edge defender and Washington leads up on the inserted safety (36). Snell follows Washington’s lead block, squeezes through a seam and gets up-field for a nice gain.

The Steelers did try to play power football at times in 2019. We saw a lot of jumbo sets like the one above featuring tackle Zach Banner and one or two of their tight ends. The problem with sets like these is the more linemen you put on the field, the more defenders you attract to the box. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers had the fifth highest percentage of run plays in the league where the back was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage. The injury to Roethlisberger, whose ability to pick apart single-high coverage pretty much eliminated the threat of an eight-man run box, as well as fullback Rosie Nix, whose absence necessitated the use of players like Washington to fill his role, were largely responsible for having so many runs stuffed at the line. Another factor, however, was their inability to push defenses off of the ball regardless of how many offensive linemen they employed. Quite frankly, as we see in the GIF below, they just weren’t physical enough up front to do so:

This is one-back Power, the ultimate vertical run concept. You get a double team on the play-side and a pulling lineman serving as a lead blocker who the back can follow into the hole. But center Maurkice Pouncey (53) gets driven two yards into the backfield by San Francisco’s defensive tackle, resulting in James Conner tripping over Pouncey. Even if Pouncey had held his ground, tight end Vance McDonald gets driven back as well, sealing the hole into which Conner was to run. Plain and simple: you can’t be a vertical run team with power backs when your line doesn’t move people off of the football.

When you watch the Steelers linemen in these GIFs, even on the successful plays shown above, you see a lot of positional blocking. This means the linemen are trying to gain body position on the defender and shield them from the back. Watch David DeCastro (66) in the clip above, or Villanueva on Benny Snell’s run. They do not fire off of the football and try to displace defenders vertically the way Tennessee’s linemen do. Rather, they are trying to gain horizontal leverage and turn them. It is a style better suited for a Le’Veon Bell-type back than for Conner and Snell.

Where Pouncey and DeCastro (and to a lesser extent, Villanueva) excel as run blockers is when they can pull and get out in space. This worked well with Bell and would be great if the Steelers had a back like San Francisco’s Matt Brieda. They don’t. Conner is decent on sweep plays but lacks the burst to be dangerous while Snell is simply too slow to turn the corner. Kerith Whyte can get to the edge but is ineffective between the tackles. With a line built for one style of play and backs who are suited for another, how are the Steelers to rectify the situation? Seemingly, they either have to invest heavily in physical linemen who get off the ball so that Conner and Snell can have some space to run between the tackles. Or they have to find backs who run more like Bell did in order to compliment what the current line does best.

Or, perhaps, they could do a little of both.

One idea would be to acquire, through free agency or the draft, a back who can run both inside and outside and who can benefit from the ability of the Steelers linemen to play in space. A popular choice here at BTSC, and a player we are destined to hear a lot about in the coming months, is Clemson’s Travis Etienne.

Etienne is not huge at 5’10-210 but he is powerfully built. He can run inside, run outside, can catch the football and is a willing blocker. He is great on draw and screen plays, which the Steelers often utilize. I could put up a dozen GIFs of him excelling in all of these situations. Or you could just watch this. If it doesn’t get you excited about what a back like Etienne could do for Pittsburgh’s offense, you might want to check your pulse.

Etienne is currently being projected as a high to mid-second round pick, although his value could increase with a strong showing in the national championship game on Monday night and throughout the pre-draft process. The Steelers may have to go up to get him which, given their limited draft capital, may not be something they can do. They may also value other positions, such as edge rusher (if they cannot retain Bud Dupree), offensive lineman or tight end, over adding another back since they already have Conner, Snell, Whyte and Jaylen Samuels. Conner, however, has been unable to stay healthy while Snell (inside runner) and Whyte (outside runner) are one-trick ponies. Combine that with the fact they haven’t been able to carve out a consistent role for Samuels and the effectiveness of the current rotation is limited. A back like Etienne would solve that problem.

The other area the Steelers could address to bolster the run game is tight end. With Nick Vannett a candidate to walk in free agency and Vance McDonald both an injury risk and a mediocre blocker, adding a true blocking tight end to pair with McDonald is essential. This way, the Steelers could run seven-man blocking surfaces from their two tight end sets with the threat of another receiver on the field to keep defenses honest instead of bringing in a sixth lineman and pulling safeties into the box. I have not researched the available tight ends in the draft or free agency yet so I will refer to this piece by Drop The Hammer for reference rather than making a recommendation.

As for Vannett, it wouldn’t be terrible if the Steelers brought him back. Vannett is just 26 and, though his stats weren’t great (13 catches on 17 targets for 128 yards), he acquitted himself decently in the run game after being acquired for a 5th round pick in October. Vannett has said he would like to return to Pittsburgh, but what the Steelers do with Dupree and how much Vannett can command on the open market will likely be the determining factor. Randy Fichtner has not made much use of a fullback in his two years as offensive coordinator so, in lieu of that, a veteran like Vannett who could at least line up in that role (as opposed to James Washington) would be beneficial.

Finally, as for the line, upgrading for depth (at a minimum) and to replace Ramon Foster (ideally) is imperative. The Steelers spent 1st round picks in 2010 and 2012 on Pouncey and DeCastro, respectively. Since then, they have largely shopped the bargain racks for offensive linemen. The only OL they’ve taken in the 3rd round or higher since that 2012 draft has been Chuks Okorafor in 2018. In fact, the Steelers have selected 57 players in the draft since 2013 and only FOUR of them have been offensive linemen (Derwin Gray, Okorafor, Jerald Hawkins and Wesley Johnson). By contrast, they’ve taken twelve defensive backs, eleven linebackers and nine defensive linemen in that same period. Fixing the defense has taken time and resources. The price has been neglecting the offensive line.

The Steelers would benefit from adding a more physical presence at guard to assist Pouncey. Pouncey can be overpowered by some of the bigger one-techs in the league. A stronger, younger version of Foster who could help Pouncey push the nose on inside zone plays and who can pull and get out in space is preferable. Last week, I talked about how New Orleans’ free agent Andrus Peat would be ideal in this regard. But Peat will be too expensive for Pittsburgh. Buffalo’s Quinton Spain is a more affordable option. The Steelers could also look to the draft, where they might add a player like Oregon’s Shane Lemieux with their second round pick. Whatever they do, they need to focus on marrying the skills of their linemen to the strengths of their backs. They can’t enter 2020 with a line adept at one thing and backs who excel at another.

Next week, in the final installment in this series, we will look at how the run game is likely to benefit from the return of Ben Roethlisberger.