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The problem, and solution, for the Steelers run defense woes against the Lions

There were only three drives in the game where the Steelers couldn’t stop the run.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Actually, it wasn’t a loss. But across Steelers’ Nation, including within the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, it feels like a loss. One of the biggest factors was surrendering 229 yards on the ground. So what happened to where the Steelers couldn’t stop the run in the middle portion of the game? That is the subject 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:

When it comes to defending the run, the game could be broken down into four quarters with the overtime period counting along with the fourth-quarter stats. The Steelers only surrendered 20 yards on the ground in the first quarter, and they also only surrendered 20 yards on the ground in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was the 94 yards in the second quarter at 95 yards in the third quarter which ultimately did them in. When it came to the third-quarter rushing, it really came down to the opening possession of the quarter and that was it as 85 of their 95 rushing yards in the quarter were on that drive.

I have to admit that Geoffrey had already sent me a number of stats that he compiled based on breaking down the film and what formation the Lions were using. I just have to make sure I give the credit where it is due before spilling out the numbers. The Detroit Lions went to a jumbo package to run the ball and did it very effectively. What allowed them to do this was first having the return of offensive tackle Taylor Decker who played his first game of the 2021 season. With his return, the Lions had Matt Nelson, the tackle who filled in for Decker through the first eight games, coming off the bench to play in their jumbo formation for 18 snaps. After Nelson was injured in the game, tackle Will Holden added another 10 snaps in the Lions jumbo package. It was the utilization of these players which led to these rushing numbers.

According to Geoffrey, through the second quarter and the first drive of the third quarter, the Lions ran their jumbo package on 13 plays where they gained 171 yards and scored two touchdowns. Averaging 13.2 yards per play, this package was destroying the Steelers defense. During that same time, the lions ran 17 plays that weren’t runs out of jumbo formation in which they only gain 39 yards which comes to an average of 2.3 yards per play. So, by the numbers, the formation had everything to do with the Lions’ success.

Exactly what were the Lions doing out of their jumbo package which caught the Steelers off guard? Also, what did the Steelers do to combat this formation in order to shut down the run for the remainder of the game? After all, the final 37 minutes of the game the Lions only managed 30 rushing yards. Now that Geoffrey has done so much work helping with the stats, it’s time for him to show us the film.

The Film Line:

The Lions recognized early in the second quarter that their jumbo package was working against the Steelers, and literally nothing else was having any success.

That realization appears to have hit home on their third use of the formation.

Steelers v Lions, 2nd quarter, 12:51.
Taylor Decker (#68) is the left tackle, fourth from the left side of the screen.

The Lions had an extra lineman and two tight ends added to the left side of the line. If you look at the Steelers defensive line, they are lined up normally, with Isaiahh Loudermilk matched up with Taylor Decker. Taylor Decker’s first game of the season was a good one, and it started with a win on the Steelers second best run defending lineman.

The key here though is #67, Matt Nelson, who had been starting, playing as the extra lineman. He gives a shove to keep Alex Highsmith from pushing the tight end blocking him into the run lane, then gives a bump to keep Isaiahh Loudermilk contained.

Now take a second to count the numbers. With 8 blockers the Lions have a hat on all of the Steelers front seven with Nelson free to help secure the lane. It’s Jermar Jefferson versus the defensive backs, and he delivers with a touchdown.

The next drive the Lions would run out of this jumbo set on 6 of their first 8 plays, gaining 57 yards on those 6 runs.

Steelers v Lions, 2nd quarter, 0:38.

Taylor Decker (#68) is the left tackle, fourth from the top of the screen.

The Steelers tighten the box, and they bring Terrell Edmunds up on the strong side, dropping Cameron Sutton deep like a safety. Edmunds gets double teamed by the tight ends, Matt Nelson blocks Joe Schobert and Cameron Sutton is the first player to even attempt a tackle on D’Andre Swift.

Look at the defense. Cameron Heyward is on the weak side. This has been a common strategy for the Steelers, you run to where the Steelers have numbers, or to the weak side where Cameron Heyward is waiting. The problem here is the Lions version of this formation has more people on the strong side than the Steelers are used to, and they don’t get enough bodies to the strong side. With 8 blockers, only 3 defenders aren’t facing a dedicated blocker. On this play it is Cameron Heyward, Cameron Sutton and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the only way this defense works is if Alex Highsmith beats Taylor Decker, and it doesn’t happen here.

Steelers v Lions, 2nd quarter, 0:38.

Terrell Edmunds is lined up just behind T.J. Watt.

The Lions followed the above run with three plays not in their jumbo set and settled for a field goal. This one is close to that set, with an extra lineman but only one tight end and two receivers. You can see the Steelers starting to figure out the formation though. Look at the top with Highsmith dropping and Heyward heading outside against Decker. Look at Terrell Edmunds shooting a gap to force the blocks to be made in the backfield. The Steelers started turning up the aggression on this second drive, loading the box and blitzing into the outside gaps.

After halftime the Steelers would try this defense again.

Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 14:51.

Taylor Decker is fourth from the bottom of the screen. Not easy to find, but he’s matched up with Cameron Heyward.

Again Decker is the key to this run, and he continues his fantastic day against the Steelers by taking on and beating Cameron Heyward 1v1. With Heyward out of the way, it’s extra tackle Matt Nelson on Schobert and blocking tight end Brock Wright on Terrell Edmunds to spring the run. The Steelers lose both of those mismatches, and even their latest adaptation, replacing the strong side corner with safety Miles Killebrew doesn’t work. Minkah Fitzpatrick tries to tackle Swift high, but Swift is a self-respecting running back, he isn’t going to go down to a safety like that.

We saw a lot of sloppy tackling in Week 10, and we saw a lot of tackle attempts like Terrell Edmunds here, a blocked man getting all of one hand on the runner.

Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 12:19.

Henry Mondeaux (#99) is the defensive end to the left side of the screen.

It wasn’t just missing tackles though. Even with the Steelers adjustments to this point, they were still losing the 1v1 matches and giving up big gains. Henry Mondeaux gets sealed inside. Terrell Edmunds bursts through the gap to force the run inside, but with Mondeaux blocked, there’s just enough room for the back to squeeze through, some missed tackles and Minkah Fitzpatrick only a few plays after he left the field with an injury not being able to make a sharp cut and it’s another touchdown.

Detroit attacked the Steelers weakness in their defensive line depth and their lack of inside linebackers that can take on guards. The NFL doesn’t have a lot of Vince Williams clones running around out there anymore. The only player they really had to worry about in run defense was Cameron Heyward.

Congratulations if you made it this far. It wasn’t fun. But that was it, that was the last of the bad plays. Now we get to look at how the Steelers solved the Lions strategy.

Steelers v Lions, 4th quarter, 9:18.

Cameron Heyward is 2nd from the bottom on the line, Alex Highsmith is farthest to the top.

Cameron Heyward is now lined up on the strong side, outside of the tackle. See how Taco Charlton drops and then attacks inside Heyward. The Steelers moved Cameron Heyward outside and made him the edge defender, then attacked with numbers inside of him. Heyward draws multiple blockers and the other lineman hold their own finally, and it’s a tackle for a loss from the backside pursuit.

Steelers v Lions, 4th quarter, 4:27.

Same set up as the last one.

With Cameron Heyward locking down the strong side, the Lions tried rushing to the weak side. But they can’t get a body on Terrell Edmunds, and it’s a 2v1 with Edmunds and Highsmith against Taylor Decker. They win that and it’s another loss.

The Steelers admitted they took too long reacting to the formation and solving it, but that’s largely because the formation was hitting them at their weakest point, their defensive line depth. Finding the right way to leverage Cameron Heyward so they weren’t relying on anyone else to win a 1v1 with a lineman to stop the run isn’t an easy adjustment to make. Cameron Heyward can’t be everywhere, and Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiahh Loudermilk weren’t winning 1v1 reliably.

There is one last thing I need to cover.

The previous play, pre-snap.

The broadcast didn’t catch it very often, but the Lions were motioning lineman around a lot, and with the Steelers adapting their defense on the fly they didn’t always adjust to the Lions flipping the strong side right. One player out of position even a little bit made the job of stopping the Lions power run game significantly harder. Once they got it down, though, the Lions offense was done.

The Point:

For the majority of the time, the Pittsburgh Steelers actually shut down the Detroit Lions run game. Unfortunately, it’s the 20-minute time period in which they didn’t which was all the difference in the game as the Lions scored all of their 16 points during the time it took the Steelers to figure things out.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin alluded to the fact head coach Dan Campbell was calling the plays which was not what they expected. That showed up in the Lions going all-in on their jumbo set, power-run game. Before Week 10, the Lions had used an extra lineman 33 times in 8 games. Against the Steelers they used an extra lineman 28 times. They also increased their tight end usage by around 20 snaps. Perhaps this was the wrinkle that gave the Lions just enough of an opportunity to stay in this game. If nothing else, Coach Campbell stuck with what was working for as long as he could. Of course, nothing else the Lions tried worked at all.