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How the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense dethroned King Henry

A full team effort held the NFL’s leading rusher in check.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Henry entered the Week 7 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers leading the league in rushing with 588 yards in 5 games, an average of 117.6 yards per game. The Steelers entered the matchup allowing 66.2 rushing yards per game, the lowest in the NFL. Like the previous week when the Steelers faced the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, something had to give.

And like the Week 6 blowout of the Cleveland Browns, it wasn’t the Steelers run defense that broke.

The Steelers did a fantastic job swarming to the football, winning matchups and getting multiple tacklers to Derrick Henry all game, a true team effort that held the best running back in the NFL in check, and led the Steelers to another win.

It was evident from Henry’s first carry.

1st quarter, 5:10. Vince Williams is the inside linebacker to the left side of the screen.

Vince Williams reads this run and shoots the gap fast enough that the Titans center can’t peel off his double-team block on Cameron Heyward to block Williams, the best he can do is stick his leg out to try and trip Williams. One of the impressive things here, and in almost every play that follows is how quickly the Steelers swarm the run. Henry gains one yard, and by the time he hits the ground Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick are right there, in position to help if Henry is still upright.

2nd quarter, 11:36. Bud Dupree (#48) is in the middle of the line.

Bud Dupree blows up the center, driving him back, and he gets his right arm free to make the tackle. But Derrick Henry isn’t having it. Henry gives Dupree a stiff-arm and it’s up to Robert Spillane and Steven Nelson to bring down Henry for a 6 yard run.

Derrick Henry is not a back you can tackle with one man reliably, even one of the best run defenders in the NFL.

2nd quarter, 9:36. Bud Dupree is the edge defender to the right, T.J. Watt to the left.

Leaving T.J. Watt unblocked is a bad idea. Seriously people, it’s 2020, he’s been doing this for over 3 years now, don’t leave him unblocked.

T.J. Watt gets credit for the tackle, but look at his partner in destruction, Bud Dupree. Or, better yet, find the Titans guard to the left side of the screen and watch the block he tries to throw on Dupree. That’s fantastic football right there, Bud Dupree is the biggest dog on the field, I don’t care what the height and weight says, you aren’t winning that.

Man I love watching those two play football.

2nd quarter, 2:44. T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

Watt gave credit for this play to watching film of his brother J.J. Watt make the same play against the Titans earlier this season. It certainly paid off, as T.J. Watt had a great game, with a sack, a QB hit, a pass defended and three tackles for a loss.

I want you to notice how fast the Steelers get to the play side of the field on these outside runs, it is important if you are going to get multiple bodies on Derrick Henry. But the Titans know teams have to swarm Henry, and that’s why cutback runs often are big plays for them.

2nd quarter, 10:16. Vince Williams (#98) is the inside linebacker to the left side of the screen.

As the rest of his team is defending to the left side of the screen, Williams is following the tight end. When the tight end blocks Bud Dupree, Williams pinches to the line, seals the cutback lane and gets in on the tackle.

If you watch Cameron Heyward (#97. defensive end to the right of the screen) on the play, you can see that without Vince Williams’ heads up defense, Henry would have a lane to escape, with a blocked Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds the only defenders he would have to worry about.

From the wide angle view:

Vince Williams is the only player with a chance to make this play, and he makes it. Williams played a phenomenal game against the Titans. He was a major factor in holding Henry in check, and also took on the tougher coverage roles, including covering Henry and tight ends in play action.

2nd quarter, 12:13. Vince Williams is the linebacker in the middle of the play, starting on the hashmarks.

With Bush out, the Steelers are stuck using more vanilla concepts in coverage, and here the Titans are able to pull Vince Williams out of the box and into the slot, before he recovers to make the eventual tackle.

There’s something else to notice on this play. The Steelers are in their 3-4 set, but when the safety across from Minkah Fitzpatrick enters the screen, it is Cameron Sutton, not Terrell Edmunds, and Sutton does little more than watch the play, not even engaging his would-be blocker as Henry gains 14 yards, his second longest run of the game.

Mike Hilton comes in for Edmunds a good bit on these plays, I’ve covered it in previous film rooms. Cameron Sutton is not Mike Hilton, and he isn’t Terrell Edmunds. As bad as his effort is here (both Edmunds and Hilton would have met Henry by the time Fitzpatrick gets a hit on him, they do it a lot), Sutton corrected the problem and showed up in a lot of run defense plays, but even then, he isn’t Hilton or Edmunds in run defense.

2nd quarter, 2:00. Terrell Edmunds (#34) and Vince Williams (#98) are both to the left side of the screen.

The Titans win the key blocks on this run, the double team on Tuitt actually drives Tuitt backwards, T.J. Watt is sealed outside, and the Titans have a tight end and lineman coming through the hole to deal with Williams and Edmunds.

If you watch closely, when Edmunds approaches the hole he reaches out and taps Williams’ arm. Right after that Vince Williams commits to the inside half of the lane, hitting the blocker on his inside shoulder, keeping his right arm clean enough to get Henry’s legs and stop this run at 9 yards.

If Vince Williams doesn’t get Henry’s legs, the Steelers are hoping that Minkah Fitzpatrick can slow Henry down enough to let Bud Dupree catch him from behind. You can also see the respect for Henry’s cutbacks show up in how Bud Durpee and Cam Heyward defend this play, making sure they don’t allow a cutback before chasing the ball.

3rd quarter, 14:18. Terrell Edmunds is the slot defender, just outside the hashmarks.

This is a great use of personnel by the Steelers. Terrell Edmunds is up in Mike Hilton’s usual role with Cameron Sutton supporting him. Edmunds is a fantastic run blitzer, probably even better than Hilton (Hilton is a much better pass rusher than Edmunds) Edmunds gets to Henry one step after Henry got the football to hold the play to a one-yard gain.

3rd quarter, 7:25. Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle, Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

Tyson Alualu had another strong game for the Steelers, on this play he drives the center back fast enough that they overtake Ryan Tannehill and knock him over as he hands the ball off. Alualu’s presence in the backfield slows Henry and forces him to take a wider angle to the run lane, and that run lane is filled by Vince Williams and Alex Highsmith.

2nd quarter, 6:59. Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge to the left side of the screen.

This is a phenomenal play by the rookie outside linebacker. The Titans double team Chris Wormley, expecting the tight end coming across the formation to block Highsmith, similar to the play above where Vince Williams followed the tight end to seal what would have been a big cutback lane. Alex Highsmith has been paying attention, and he pinches that line, keeping his hands on the tight end’s back as he watches the play develop and the pulling tight end can’t block him, leaving him right in Henry’s path where he makes a great stop for no gain with help from Joe Haden.

Highsmith stops Henry’s momentum entirely, and he holds him while the rest of the team arrives. That’s a big time play from the rookie.

Lastly I want to show the last four runs from the Titans 4th quarter touchdown drive, and how the success the Titans did have running the ball came about.

4th quarter, 11:43. Henry Mondeaux (#99) is the defensive end to the right side of the screen.

Henry Mondeaux played a good bit in week 7, the Steelers ran their 3-4 set a lot, and needed extra bodies on the defensive line. The Titans exploit the least experienced player on the field for the Steelers and run right at him, with Henry slipping through a small crack next to Mondeaux for his longest gain of the game, 17 yards. Bud Dupree is the outside defender, he has to seal the edge, and he does getting his right arm free. Mondeaux has to hold the gap just inside of Dupree, and he is a half-second late getting his arm free and Henry gets through the hole with a head of steam.

4th quarter, 11:25. They run the same play a second time.

The Steelers were just gashed for a 17 yard run, and when the Titans run it back to back the Steelers over pursue to the play side, allowing Henry to cut back for a 6 yard gain, only falling short of the end zone due to a great effort from Joe Haden.

4th quarter, 10:46. Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the middle of the play.

A fantastic play by Robert Spillane, and a great play by T.J. Watt to get there and help bring Henry down for no gain. Unfortunately Spillane would leave the game after this play.

4th quarter, 10:15. Ulysees Gilbert III (#54) is the linebacker in the middle of the field, he moves to the left side right before the snap.

The Steelers show the Titans that nice open gap on the left side of the screen, only to close it right before the snap. But it doesn’t matter, Ulysees Gilbert III is a promising young linebacker, and really good in coverage, but he isn’t able to hold the line on this play, and the Titans plow through his gap for the touchdown.

The Titans attacked players who weren’t active before last week to finish a scoring drive and pull within 3 points. Earlier in the game it was Cameron Sutton watching the play that allowed a 14 yard gain. The Steelers shut down Derrick Henry with a full team effort, with all 11 players on the field at any given time. When even one of them faltered, Henry was able to gain yards. It is a testament to the players and the coaches that the Steelers held Derrick Henry in check as much as they did, and didn’t allow a single run longer than 17 yards.

As you can see in this film room, the Titans run game was a formidable weapon, and the Steelers defense answered the call and held it in check with a full team effort.