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The Steelers run defense problems may not be easy to fix

There are serious problems with the Steelers run defense, and hopefully they fixed them over the bye week.

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

While the Steelers managed to win the game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6, the third quarter domination by the Seattle Seahawks run game created a lot of questions about the Steelers’ defense. While they found a way to fix the problem later in the game, in this film room I am going to show how that particular solution isn’t a sustainable one.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 11:42

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen. Joe Schobert is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

This is early in the game. The Seahawks double team Cameron Heyward, and while he gets away from it to get in on the tackle, the double team gets Heyward out of the way enough to gain yards. Alex Highsmith does a great job winning to the inside, but an un-called hold keeps him from doing more. The defensive backs aren’t a big part of the play here, Cameron Sutton is facing a tight end and Terrell Edmunds is coming up from a deep zone assignment, he’s nothing more than a contain role.

While the big problem here is the uncalled holding, watch Joe Schobert. I wasn’t a fan of his play on this play, he approaches the line but seems content to follow the play instead of attacking it. I brought that up to K.T. Smith to get a second opinion, his reply:

He has to think less there and just react. If he blows the gap the moment it opens he either gets to the back in the backfield or forces him deeper.

That’s how the Steelers defense works. They are built to be aggressive, force the offense into bad spots and let their athletic players get to the ball and finish the play. The Steelers defense is best when it is attacking and forcing the action, not watching and chasing.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 8:04

Chris Wormley (#95) is the defensive tackle, and Joe Schobert (#93) is the linebacker to the right side of the screen.

To follow up on that first film, compare a few players here. First, Cameron Heyward doing his thing, has the guard at arms length and defending his entire side of the play. Look at how he wins his positioning, watch his feet and his lean, he is attacking the gap, and controlling it. Look at Alex Highsmith give ground initially, but fight through the block to get back into his spot. Look at Devin Bush (LB in the middle) run to the play side and engage the center with a good shove. Because of that he’s able to get right back off the block to head back toward the cut back.

Now compare that to Chris Wormley and Joe Schobert on the other side of the play. Wormley easily gets driven out of position, opening up the cutback lane, and Joe Schobert lets the tight end get both hands on him as he appears, to me at least, to be more concerned with getting to a spot than attacking the block.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 6:37

Chris Wormley is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen.

Watch Devin Bush on this play. He breaks on this play immediately, attacking his gap and shooting through it. Bush forces the cutback.

The problem is Chris Wormley is driven completely out of the play and a huge cutback lane is open for the runner. Terrell Edmunds reads the flow and gets over to cover that gap, but the gap is big enough that Alex Collins can cut inside of him, following the blockers that beat Wormley. At the moment Collins cuts the second time Terrell Edmunds is defending the entire middle of the field, the entire space between the hashmarks. Sure it would be great if Edmunds made the play, but any NFL starting back should be able to beat a safety when they have that much space.

The Seahawks and Steelers ended the first quarter in a 0-0 stalemate. In the second quarter the Seahawks didn’t call a single run play. They technically had one run for a loss, but that was the kneel down to end the half.

Coming out for the second half, it was clear someone on the Seahawks had been paying attention in the first quarter.

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

Chris Wormley (#95) and Joe Schobert (#93) are to the left side of the screen.

Chris Wormley loses badly at the point of attack, Joe Schobert is swallowed up and moved by the center and it’s a nice hole and another matchup with Terrell Edmunds in space.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 11:53

Chris Wormley (#95) and Joe Schobert (#93) are to the left side of the screen.

Wormley loses this one even worse and Joe Schobert seems like he is trying to avoid being touched by the tight end. Compare to Devin Bush, who meets his blocker, gives up very little ground, and gets off that block to help make the tackle.

Lastly, notice T.J. Watt, you can look at the other plays as well, T.J. Watt is rushing the passer first and foremost. The Steelers have T.J. Watt go for the quarterback, he’s not a main run defender. It makes sense because he’s that good at it, and it isn’t like there are a bunch of other guys getting to the QB right now.

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

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen.

Cameron Heyward is driving to help close off the gap that keeps getting opened up across from him. Devin Bush is coming to support that gap as well. That opens up another big cutback lane for the Seahawks runner. Again, watch Joe Schobert on this play. He just accepts the block while the runner is still coming toward him.

After that first touchdown drive when the Seahawks ran on nine of ten plays, the Steelers made an adjustment, they went all in against the run.

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

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.

Isaiahh Loudermilk makes the play here, and it would be easy to just say Loudermilk was the solution, but Loudermilk isn’t the one wrecking the offense. T.J. Watt heads inside, splitting two lineman to put himself right in the path of the runner, forcing the run outside where Isaiahh Loudermilk is unblocked because Watt took out his blocker.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 3:32

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.

After a play action pass to a wide open tight end put the Seahawks near the goal line we get this play. Again T.J. Watt single-handedly destroys his side of the offensive line, and Chris Wormley and Cameron Heyward are able to make the tackle after Schobert and Watt miss him in the backfield.

Great. Problem solved, just have T.J. Watt be the Steelers primary run defender.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 3:06

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.


T.J. Watt going right for the quarterback normally makes plays like this foolhardy for the offense. But at this point of the game, Watt is all in on run defense, and this RPO beats Watt while a not-illegal pick route frees up the tight end for the score.

The Steelers were faced with a dilemma, get destroyed by the run game, or take T.J. Watt’s pass rush out of the equation and hope Geno Smith couldn’t take advantage.

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

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

They chose to stuff the run.

With a few secondary adjustments the Steelers were able to slow down the Seahawks passing, and it took to the last drive of the game for the Seahawks to get their passing game going enough to get another field goal.

In overtime the Steelers turned T.J. Watt loose and the Seahawks went away from the run again. T.J. Watt’s 2 sacks and a forced fumble set the Steelers up for the win after he nearly single-handedly thwarted the Seahawks run game for almost an entire half.

Looking to the Browns

The Steelers were able to gamble and not get beat by Geno Smith in Week 6, but the troubles they had facing a middle of the road run game will be in the Cleveland Browns minds as the Steelers travel to face the No. 1 rushing attack in both yards per game and yards per carry.

Furthermore, Kevin Stefanski has an offense that leans heavily on play action and attacking teams that are selling out to defend the run. T.J. Watt’s great games against Cleveland have happened when the team can slow the Browns rushing attack without forcing T.J. Watt to go all in on run defense. Because then he’s in position to make plays when the Browns run play action.

If the Steelers can get more aggressive run defense from their entire front seven, they may be able to hold their own against the Browns.

If T.J. Watt has to play the role of the run-stuffing defensive tackle, expect Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield to do a better job than the Seahawks did taking advantage of it.