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Steelers Vertex: Did the run game show signs of life in Week 15?

After seeing a non-existent rushing attack in recent weeks, the Steelers had better sucess in a game where they couldn’t use it to their advantage.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Another week and a third straight loss. It’s difficult to find a silver lining anywhere in this game, but with so much emphasis on improving their rushing attack it’s time to see if the Steelers made a step in the right direction.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is looking at the Steelers run game in their loss to the Bengals. Not being able to count on rushing the ball effectively when needed, the Steelers saw some improvements in a game where they couldn’t use the ground game to their advantage. So is this still one of the Steelers mounting concerns on offense, or will the run game be a little closer to adequate in the coming weeks?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.


The Stats Line:

After starting the season strong, the Steelers running game had all but fallen off the map. After the first three weeks of the 2020 season, the Steelers were ranked 10th in the NFL with 139.7 yards per game. By the time they entered Week 15, the Steelers had fallen to 31st in the league with an average of 89.1 yards per game. After three consecutive games of rushing totals in the 40-yard range in Weeks 8 through 10, the Steelers bounced back with a 106-yard performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11. But the 3 games leading up to Week 15 found the Steelers averaging 45.3 yards per game.

Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15, the Steelers ran the ball for 86 yards on 23 official attempts. Two of those attempts came at the hand of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the form of a fumbled snap for 0 yards and a kneel down for -1 yard. When removing those two plays, the Steelers averaged 4.14 yards per carry against the Bengals. If removing the -6-yard run by Chase Claypool, the Steelers running backs had 93 yards on 20 attempts for a 4.65 yards per carry average.

With only one rushing attempt each from Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland, it was Benny Snell who carried the ball 18 times for 84 yards. Snell’s 4.67 yards per carry was the 7th best for the Steelers in 2020 of any player who had 5 attempts in the game, and was only the second time the Steelers had a player average 4.5 yards per carry since Week 5. Snell’s 29-yard run in the 3rd quarter was the 4th longest run of the season for the Steelers and the longest run since Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

What is interesting is the Steelers did NOT commit to the run early in Week 15. The Steelers had 6 offensive possessions in the first quarter on Monday night, and in those possessions the Steelers only ran the ball twice not including the Roethlisberger fumble. The Steelers rushed for 7 yards on those two those 2 attempts. Running 13 offensive plays in the first quarter, the Steelers only ran the ball on 15.3% of the time. To put this percentage in perspective, the next lowest percentage of running plays the Steelers had in 2020 in the first quarter was 30.8% in Week 12 against the Baltimore Ravens with 4 rushes in 13 plays. Going into Week 15, the Steelers had run the ball 41.0% of offensive plays in the first quarter.

So even though the Steelers did not commit to running the ball early against the Bengals, they still ran the ball more effectively than they had in 6 of the last 7 games. What is disappointing is the Steelers ran better in a game where they weren’t in a situation where they could use the running game to their advantage as they were down multiple scores early on. In fact, the Steelers were down 10 points before they even had their third rushing attempt of the game. As a result, the Steelers only had 3 drives out of the 15 in the game where they had more than one rushing attempt.

So why were the Steelers able to run the ball better on Monday night? Were the Bengals content with giving up yards on the ground once they got the lead? Was there a difference in the scheme or blocking? Was it the fact Benny Snell got double-digit carries which allowed him to get on a roll? I guess we’ll need to check the tape...


The Film Line:

The Steelers ran the ball better in Week 15, while the passing game fell apart. Both fit together. If you saw my film room from Tuesday and read Kevin Smith’s fantastic analysis of the offense from Wednesday you know two other pieces of the puzzle.

Let’s put all the information about the Week 15 offense on the table.

  1. Ben Roethlisberger played absolutely terrible.
  2. The run game was better.
  3. The Steelers used almost exclusively 11 personnel.
  4. The Steelers used more motion than they had in previous weeks.

All of that is the result of the mentality the Steelers entered Week 15 with, and frankly, it was the right mentality, even if the results were abysmal. Let’s get to the film.

1st quarter, 14:54. Benny Snell is the running back.

The first run of the game gains 2 yards. The key on this play is the jet motion and the cornerback to the left side of the screen. I’ve shown before that opponents defend the sweep by having the corner fill the run lane on their side instead of following the sweep while the far side end and safety or linebacker crash the sweep. The Bengals follow suit, but David DeCastro wins a run block and Snell still gets 2 yards.

1st quarter, 4:31. Anthony McFarland is the running back.

Here the jet motion is from the slot, and you see again, the corner comes in to fill a run lane. The Steelers stretch this play, the corner hustles to get back outside and McFarland cuts upfield for 5 yards. Notice the safeties, the tight end motion swaps the safety roles, the jet motion sends Jessie Bates back and only Carl Lawson is defending the jet sweep. The Steelers saw this and ran a sweep later in the game, Lawson tackled Chase Claypool for a 6 yard loss on that play. The jet sweep wasn’t boosting the run game at all, it hindered it, and yet the run game improved. So what caused the improvement?

The answer is something Steelers’ fans have been calling for the Steelers to run more of for several years now.

2nd quarter, 9:09. Eric Ebron is the tight end to the top of the screen.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a play-action pass. It’s incomplete, as most of them were, but the Steelers heavily invested in play action in Week 15. You can see Ben lock onto Eric Ebron on this play and miss the right read (McFarland in the flat). Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t really get into his progression after play action, he’s not comfortable and doesn’t read the play well, and the results show it.

The Steelers ran play action from under center a few times, ran it out of their normal shotgun, often in the form of their pseudo-RPO’s, and they even ran pistol formation a decent bit in this game keeping Roethlisberger out from under center and leaving more flexibility for runs.

3rd quarter, 9:52. Benny Snell is the running back.

There’s a rare feat, the Steelers run for 2 yards when they need 2 yards to gain the first down.

The Steelers ran 13 plays in the first quarter, and while only 3 of those plays were runs (with one not getting past the snap) they also ran play action on 5 of their passes, meaning 8 of the Steelers first 13 plays were either runs or play action. They kept that trend up for the entire first half, not going away from it until the third quarter. In the third quarter the Steelers balanced 10 passes with 6 runs and scored 10 points. The Steelers ran play action once (incomplete) and also threw twice to running backs in the third quarter. That’s 9 out of 16 plays that either ended up with the running back getting the ball or a pass with play action.

The Steelers know the offense isn’t working, and they know that in order for this offense to compete in the playoffs, Ben Roethlisberger has to get comfortable running play action and utilizing some of Matt Canada’s schemes that aid the run game. So they focused on 11 personnel, running a lot of different concepts out of that personnel set to try and get this offense working. The run game improved, and yet Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily because of the Steelers commitment to fixing this offense.


The Point:

The Steelers forced play action into this offense despite the day Ben Roethliaberger was having. The play action helped the Steelers run game and freed up receivers multiple times. The problem was the Steelers quarterback again showed that he doesn’t do well with play action.

The Steelers know they can’t go into the playoffs and have any hopes of competing with the offense they were running. They need to run the ball and be less predictable when they pass. Play action is a big part of that. The Steelers showed they are willing to lose games, and even the division title to try and turn this team into the Super Bowl contender they looked like before teams solved the tricks they were employing to get around Ben Roethlisberger running concepts he isn’t good at.

The goal isn’t 13-3, it isn’t a 23rd division title. The goal is a seventh Super Bowl. If the Steelers are going to fail, they will fail with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, while doing everything they can to make this team a Super Bowl team.