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What happened to the Steelers run defense in the third quarter?

After halftime, the Seahawks run game exploded as they took advantage of the Steelers personnel.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

After dominating the game defensively in the first half in Week 6, the Steelers found themselves unable to stop the run in the third quarter. Exactly what did Seattle do to get rolling, and why could the Steelers not fix the problem? That is the topic for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.


The Stats Line:

Pittsburgh Steelers took a fantastic first-half defensive performance and turned it into a third-quarter nightmare. In the first half of their Week 6 game against the Seattle Seahawks, the Steelers only allowed three first downs, one of six third-down conversion, and a total of 21 plays. They held the Seahawks to 18 rushing yards and 47 net passing yards. In all, the Seahawks only averaged 3.1 yards per play and had no points on the board going into the intermission.

In the third-quarter, it was a whole different story. Allowing almost as many plays as they did in the first half, the Seahawks ran 20 offensive plays in the third quarter which consisted of 15 rushing attempts and five passing attempts. Although Geno Smith had four completions on five attempts for 65 yards and a touchdown with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, it was really the running game which did the Steelers defense in. On the 15 rushing attempts, the Seahawks ran for 110 yards in the third quarter with a 7.3 yard average and one rushing touchdown. Running back Alex Collins had 13 of the carries for 79 yards while DeeJay Dallas had one rush for 5 yards and Travis Homer had one rush for 26 yards.

The third-quarter saw the Seahawks have 11 first downs and only reached third down on one occasion in the quarter which was converted. They gained a total of 175 net yards which equated to 8.8 yards per play. Worst of all, the Seahawks put up 14 points in the quarter.

As for the Steelers defense, they did not have a pass defensed, quarterback hit, or any notable statistic other than 23 total tackles consisting of 19 solo tackles and six assists.

So what was Seattle’s game plan coming out of the half? What did they see to exploit on the Steelers defense? The stats back up that there was a big change, now all we need to do is check the film.


The Film Line:

There are the numbers, now let’s see how things look on film.

Steelers v Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 14:22.

Chris Wormley (#95) is the left defensive end.

This is a simple run play known as duo. The offense double teams all three of the Steelers defensive lineman, then works off those blocks to the linebackers. The Seahawks win every block and Minkah Fitzpatrick is the first Steeler to the ball. Look how far Chris Wormley gets driven back on this play. The linebackers have little chance on a play like this. Devin Bush has two gaps open, he takes the inside one hoping T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick can limit the gain. This play caught the Steelers off guard, but it also exposed a weakness in their defense. One they would keep attacking.

Steelers v Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 13:46.

Isaiah Buggs (#96) is the nose tackle, Joe Schobert (#93) is the linebacker behind him.

Wormley gets driven outside, Isaiah Buggs does well, but can’t close the hole. Joe Schobert is washed out of the play and with Devin Bush losing track of the ball, there’s a lot of space for Alex Collins to run in.

Joe Schobert followed his best game of the season with a bit of regression. He’s not a bad run defender, but his strength is in coverage. When he’s lined up behind Chris Wormley and Isaiah Buggs, that weakness is compounded and can become a problem.

Steelers v Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 11:16.

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen. Devin Bush is the linebacker behind him.

The right side is getting chewed up, and both Cameron Heyward and Devin Bush are expecting a run to that side. Their rush to help opens up a cutback lane for Alex Collins to run through for another first down. Notice Joe Schobert (toward the top of screen, right behind the first down line) get bullied a bit by the tight end. The third quarter was not a good one for Joe Schobert.

Steelers v Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 5:35.

Isaiahh Loudermilk is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen. T.J. Watt is lined up outside him.

The next drive for the Seahawks, the Steelers subbed out Wormley for rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk. He made his presence felt right away in run defense, but he wasn’t the star of this play, that goes to T.J. Watt getting penetration against a double team, forcing the run outside where Loudermilk and Alex Highsmith stopped the play. Loudermilk does a good job here staying on the line of scrimmage as we see a rare instance of Cameron Heyward getting driven backward. The combination of some stouter run defense from Loudermilk, and the edge rushers dedicating more effort to run defense paid off against the run game.

But just like focusing on defending the pass opens up the run, the inverse is also true.

Steelers v Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 4:20.

Gerald Everett (#81) is the tight end to the left side of the screen, he’s in-line.

You can’t say with certainty whose man Everett was, but it’s safe to assume that someone was supposed to cover him. The run game has the complete focus of the defensive front and no one picks up the tight end. Neither Cameron Sutton or Minkah Fitzpatrick can bring him down, and the Seahawks are set up for their 2nd straight touchdown drive to start the second half.

If you look at the path the Steelers rushers take on this play, you can see this is a run blitz. The Steelers are actually blitzing to the running back, not the quarterback. That buys a fraction of a second for Geno Smith to get the ball out, and the linebackers biting hard on the run fake make it an easy toss and catch.

In the 4th quarter the run defense would do well.

Steelers v Seahawks, 4th quarter, 7:29.

T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

T.J. Watt is reading run the whole way here, a far cry from his usual role of rush the QB first. But that is the focus the Steelers were forced to put into stopping Seattle’s run game. Also take time to appreciate Cameron Heyward (second from left #97) holding his ground with one-arm. This run to the left is doomed even if T.J. Watt doesn’t run it down that fast.

Steelers v Seahawks, 4th quarter, 6:53.

Isaiahh Loudermilk is the defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen.

Loudermilk loses the initial positioning battle with the Seahawks right guard, but is able to fight back into the play to set up this T.J. Watt tackle for a loss.


The Point:

Isaiahh Loudermilk helped the Steelers run defense a lot, but the bigger change was T.J. Watt switching to a run-first philosophy instead of prioritizing getting to the quarterback. In overtime the Steelers would set Watt loose after the quarterback again, to great results, but in the third quarter, Watt had to switch focus to the run game.

Isaiah Loudermilk looks great in this film room, but while he’s a better run defender than Chris Wormley or Henry Mondeaux, he isn’t a dominant one, and he brings almost nothing to the pass rush. And that is the real problem with the Steelers defensive line right now.

The Steelers have an all-world defensive tackle in Cameron Heyward, but past that the defensive line is not well-rounded. Chris Wormley and Henry Mondeaux are better as pass rushers, Isaiah Buggs and Isaiahh Loudermilk as run stuffers. Late in the 4th quarter, the Seahawks threw a lot more when Buggs or Loudermilk were in, and they ran at Chris Wormley when he came back in. Sadly, that is what you get when Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu are both out.