The Pittsburgh Steelers faced off against the Cleveland Browns in week 6, and one of the leading stories of the game was the Steelers defense facing off against the #1 rushing offense in the NFL. With Ben Roethlisberger healthy and connecting with rookie Chase Claypool, many expected this game to be an offensive battle between the Browns run game and the Steelers passing game.
That isn’t how it worked out.
Establishing the run
The Cleveland Browns weren’t the #1 rushing team in their week 6 matchup with the Steelers, as the Steelers outrushed the Browns 129 yards and 3 touchdowns to 75 yards and no touchdowns. The Steelers didn’t get any big chunks of yardage on the ground, either. They did it with consistent runs behind really good blocking.
They really set the tone in the first half, when the game was close and the Browns defense was swarming to the ball.
Week 6, 1st quarter, 15:00. James Conner is the running back.
There’s been a lot of praise deservedly heaped on the right side of the Steelers line, Chukwuma Okorafor has been great, and Kevin Dotson has done a phenomenal job stepping in for David DeCastro. I have been pretty harsh on the left side of the offensive line, that in many cases has been the weak side of the Steelers line. That wasn’t the case against Cleveland. On this play Matt Feiler is driven inside, but the defensive tackle can’t shed his block, and it lets Conner cut back. Conner gains 5 yards behind a pulling Eric Ebron and a great second level block by Alejandro Villanueva.
Week 6, 1st quarter, 12:16. James Conner is the running back.
Watch Maurkice Pouncey on the defensive tackle on this play. He has help from Matt Feiler, but the tackle gets a great jump on the snap, and is driving between the two blockers. Feiler gives a push, but Pouncey turning #65 backwards, while he is anchoring against the push and keeping his feet moving.
That is phenomenal play by the Steelers Pro-Bowl center, and it allows Matt Feiler to get to the second level and clear a lane for Conner. This run gained only 3 yards, but Maurkice Pouncey and Matt Feiler earned those yards against a defense that got a good start on the play.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 14:05. James Conner is the running back.
Check out Maurkice Pouncey again on this run. He is there to help Matt Feiler secure the defensive tackle and then turns and easily shoves the middle linebacker out of the way. Maurkice Pouncey with two big shoves to clear the path for James Conner who shows off his open-field vision to gain 14 yards and kick-start the Steelers opening drive of the second half.
This film room is largely about the offensive line, but I can’t cover this run game without talking about James Conner. I made a film room this past offseason where I talked about James Conner’s reads and how they often led to him missing run lanes and lower effectiveness. Look at those three runs above, James Conner is showing more patience and making better use of his vision than he has in the past.
James Conner is a much better running back this year than he was in 2019, but he’s also a much better runner than he was in 2018. I predicted that the return of Ben Roethlisberger would mean good things for James Conner (pretty much everyone expected that), but this goes beyond having a better quarterback, and it goes beyond the offensive line playing better. James Conner is playing the best football of his career right now.
One last run play.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 10:34. James Conner is the running back, Eric Ebron is the TE to the right side of the screen.
You have to love Conner’s power on this run to put his head down and run through multiple defenders to get the touchdown. But this run is based on Eric Ebron delivering a block on 280 lb. defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn gets in on the tackle but Ebron stands him up and holds his ground to let Conner get outside.
That’s a far cry from the scouting report of Eric Ebron being someone who can’t block a linebacker. Sure Ebron isn’t going to drive a lineman backwards, or pancake him, he can’t even hold the block through the run, but he blocks the end, allowing the pulling Kevin Dotson and James Conner to both get outside without having to give ground.
This offensive line will draw comparisons to Mike Munchak’s offensive lines, but it is important to remember that against the Browns the Steelers had only Villanueva and Pouncey left from the Le’Veon Bell days of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and neither of them are in their prime anymore. Shaun Sarrett and the Steelers offensive lineman are building their own legacy, and so far it looks good.
Protecting the franchise quarterback
While the run game showed up in a big way, the passing game wasn’t as big in week 6, in large part because the score was lopsided and the run game was picking up yards. But the offensive line kept their quarterback clean most of the time, even against one of the NFL’s leading pass rushers in Myles Garrett.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 13:08. Myles Garrett is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.
The Steelers keep Myles Garrett in check with James Conner helping Chukwuma Okorafor, and Okorafor is doing well, driving Myles Garrett up the arc and outside while keeping himself in position to stop any counter-moves. Kevin Dotson continues to show that he is a phenomenal one on one blocker, and everyone else plays well.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 12:33. Myles Garrett is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.
Here the Browns send a LB up the middle in a blitz. The Steelers are sliding to Myles Garrett this time, so James Conner picks up the middle blitz, and does a great job. Larry Ogunjobi tries to drive Maurkice Pouncey into the pocket but Maurkice Pouncey is able to anchor enough to keep his quarterback safe, while Kevin Dotson assists Okorafor with Myles Garrett. Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva both handle their 1 on 1 assignments and Roethlisberger is able to throw the ball with no pressure and end the play on his feet.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 11:12. Eric Ebron is the tight end to the right side of the screen.
The Browns shift right before the snap and it puts Ebron in a tough spot as he now has no help from the offensive line as he is tasked with blocking Adrian Clayborn’s pass rush. Ebron isn’t an offensive lineman, and his hands show that. But he does well enough to make Clayborn run up the arc, where James Conner meets Clayborn when he turns the corner. Everyone else wins their blocks well enough that Maurkice Pouncey ends up with no one to block and Ben Roethlisberger can set his feet and throw a great pass downfield for a big play.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 7:03. Both sides of the defensive line run stunts.
The Steelers slide Pouncey to screen right, and that allows Feiler to not worry about switching and just drive the defensive tackle out of the play, because when Myles Garrett cuts inside he finds Maurkice Pouncey doing his best Richard Marx impression.
On the other side of the line Chukwuma Okorafor does a great job pushing the end into Dotson’s grasp and picking up the tackle looping outside, while James Conner is in great position to help the entire play, even though it isn’t needed.
Advanced stats from the week 6 matchup show 24 drop backs for Ben Roethlisberger with two pressures allowed and 7 blitzes from the Browns. That’s a really good day for the Steelers offensive line, and along with the 31 non-QB rushes for 127 yards (4.1 ypc) and 3 TDs it is clear that the Steelers offensive line was a driving force in their dominating win over their division rival.