The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Falling on the road to the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers managed to have more success in the run game, even if that success is not taking the league by storm. So what was different in the running game in Week 4? This is the topic of this week’s 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:
First off, it’s important to identify the factor in why the Steelers run game was deemed more successful in Week 4. Was it because they rushed for more yards? It was not. The Steelers rushed for 62 yards in Week 4 and they had 75 yards rushing in Week 1. The difference is the Steelers had 21 rushing attempts when they faced the Buffalo Bills versus 16 against the Green Bay Packers. For this reason, the Steelers had their most yards per attempt of the 2021 season of 3.88 versus 3.57 in Week 1.
It should also be noted in the game against Buffalo the Steelers had three kneel downs which cost them three rushing yards on three attempts. But another note would be the Steelers gained one-third of their yards on an end around play to Chase Claypool. So while the Steelers had more yards against the Bills, it was not the conventional running game which was finding success. For example, Najee Harris only rushed for 45 yards on 16 attempts.
Another aspect of the Steelers improved running game, which was mentioned by Mike Tomlin in his press conference, was the Steelers did not have many negative plays. Coming into Week 4, Najee Harris had eight plays in which he had zero or negative rushing yards. In Week 4, Harris only had one play where he didn’t gain yardage which was a play in the second quarter on second and 10 when he was thrown for a 2-yard loss. Otherwise, Harris gained positive yardage on every carry.
One last aspect of the running game was Harris received two third-down rushing attempts against the Packers and converted them both. On the Steelers opening drive, Harris was given the ball on third and one and gained 2 yards for the first down. In the fourth quarter, on a third and three, Harris rushed for 4 yards and a first down.
Harris only had two third-down rushes before Week 4. In the third quarter of Week 1 against the Bills, Harris gained 2 yards on the third and one. His other attempt came just before halftime against the Bengals on third and 10 where the Steelers tried to run out the clock by handing the ball off to Harris for a 2-yard gain.
So what was different about the running game against the Packers? Was it merely the quality of opponent? The Green Bay Packers are 12th in the league in rushing defense while the Steelers other opponents were 4th (Buffalo), 9th (Cincinnati), and 23rd (Las Vegas). Based on this information, it seems the quality of opponent is inconclusive.
So what was the reason for the improved run game for the Steelers on Sunday? This will come down to looking at the film.
The Film Line:
There are a lot of elements that make up a successful run game, but the main three are the offensive line, the run scheme, and the runner himself. We already know Najee Harris is a fantastic back, I’m not going to go into detail on that, this film room is going to look at the scheme and the blockers to see what was different this time that let the run game get off to a good start.
Steelers v Packers, 1st quarter, 14:32
Watch the right side guard, #69, Kevin Dotson and the center, #53 Kendrick Green.
Green has struggled keeping low and winning leverage battles in his first few games as a pro, this time he doesn’t dominate his opponent, but he’s holding his own 1v1. If you look to the left you see Trai Turner losing a little ground but getting his player out of the run lane. But the beautiful part of this run for me is Kevin Dotson driving linemen from both teams outside then turning back to seal the run lane he just created. We haven’t seen Dotson being the absolute beast he was last season a lot so far this year, but it showed up on this play. Also notice the job both tight ends (farthest two to the left side of the screen) do in blocking. Zach Gentry slows down the defensive end enough to take him out of the play, and Pat Freiermuth comes across the formation to seal the backside, helping Dan Moore Jr. who has been consistently in over his head as a rookie forced to start.
It’s good to see the blocking improve, but I also need to point out how Matt Canada’s scheme helped this play work. Gentry’s block on the edge, #52, is aided by the jet sweep motion, which causes the edge defender to pause before attacking the run, giving Gentry time to get in position and shortening the time he needs to block. Also notice Harris runs right to where the DB #23 was standing, but the sweep took that DB out of that lane. When you add in the pre-snap motion, it’s even better.
Look at the middle linebacker hop back 2 yards right before Smith-Schuster reverses course into the jet motion. Matt Canada’s run scheme spotted the run blockers a full step from the middle linebacker, a half-second delay from the edge defender and cleared room for Najee to run into. Notice the safety and corner to the top move as Smith-Schuster motions, when he turns and goes into jet motion the safety doesn’t move back, and the corner moves outside. Football is a game of inches, and you can see here the goal of a lot of Matt Canada’s motion, a little delay from one defender, a yard out of position for another, and yet another starting the play moving away from the runner. An inch here and an inch there and the window of success for the play opens a bit more, giving the blockers a slightly easier job.
Compared to last season, when defenses often reacted to the play before the snap, seeing defenders move even an inch the wrong way is a nice thing.
Steelers v Packers, 1st quarter, 12:21.
Watch the middle of the line.
Man, it feels like we’ve waited a long time to see that again. The blocking isn’t perfect, but seeing the defense get pushed off the line of scrimmage and the Steelers lining up in a power set and picking up a first down with a run right up the middle? Man, that felt good to see. Seeing Kendrick Green handle his man 1v1 (not easy for a center in this kind of situation) is big. He’s improving and a game like this will hopefully do a lot for his confidence.
Steelers v Packers, 1st quarter, 11:41.
Dan Moore Jr. is second from the bottom on the line.
Dan Moore Jr. hasn’t been good so far this season, but there are bright spots, and he does a great job here steering his man into the middle to open a lane for Najee Harris. Love the scheme here to have Gentry step out to block the linebacker with JuJu Smith-Schuster coming inside to lead block for Harris. Lastly, the run by Najee is fantastic. He runs right up the middle and slips outside at the last second. Look at the middle linebacker approach the run, he has no chance of cutting this run off earlier, because he’s moving laterally to the point of contact. Good scheme, good blocking, smart running leads to a solid gain even with the middle linebacker making a really good tackle on Harris.
Steelers v Packers, 1st quarter, 4:10.
Watch the guard and tight end to the bottom of the screen.
A four-yard gain on first down is a win, but the fun part is how they did it. Look at the right tackle come up to block the middle linebacker, look at the left guard come across with a trap block on the edge defender to his right, see the tight end from the backside function as the lead blocker. See Najee Harris start this play with a step to his left, before running right.
This is THE Steelers counter trap run. This play goes back to Chuck Noll, and variations of it abound in Steelers history since. Jerome Bettis ran it, Willie Parker ran it, LeVeon Bell was fantastic on these runs, and here we see Matt Canada using it with Najee Harris. With all the awful play we’ve seen so far, I can’t tell you how much hope this play injects into my heart. Seeing a Steelers running back gain 4 yards on first down off counter trap. . . that’s a small slice of Steelers gold on a gloomy day.
Steelers v Packers, 2nd quarter, 13:22.
Najee Harris is the running back.
#52 for Green Bay slips through the line, from Najee Harris’ reaction I’m pretty confident that wasn’t by design. Doesn’t matter though, Harris is able to get past him and gain yards. While they let one defender through, all the rest are moving backward, and that lets Harris power into traffic for another 4 yard gain on first down
Steelers v Packers, 2nd quarter, 10:55.
Count the blockers and defenders in the box.
That’s 5 offensive lineman and Derek Watt versus 7 defenders in the box. The result? Najee Harris runs right into the middle of the line for an 8-yard gain. My favorite part is Derek Watt realizing he can’t reach the end in time to keep him from collapsing the line so he just dives at him, getting enough of him with his hands to accomplish his assignment. No style points here, just offensive lineman bullying the defense and Najee Harris taking that small opening for a great gain on first down. While we’ve talked a good bit about the run game facing +1 defenders in the box like this, when an offensive line is rolling it doesn't really matter. The last time we consistently saw run blocking like this Willie Parker was thinking about leading the NFL in rushing.
The run game was successful against Green Bay. It wasn’t great, but it was good, and at this point, after the last three seasons, I’ll take it. The best part is games like this help the offensive line build cohesion and confidence, hopefully they can string together some more games like this one, and hopefully the rest of the offense can step up and do something more that they did in week 4.
While the offense sputtered against the Packers, the run game, especially on first down runs was setting the team up for success. Najee Harris ran nine times on first down, gaining 33 yards on 8 of the runs (4.1 yards per rush) with 5 going for 4+ yards. The ninth run was a 1-yard touchdown. If the run game can continue to produce on first down and not put the Steelers behind the sticks like in Week 3, it will be much easier to sustain drives for the offense and keep the defense resting on the sidelines.