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How the Steelers slowed down the NFL’s top rushing offense

After struggling against the run recently, the Steelers out-rushed the Browns on Sunday.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers just won their third-straight game and did so by keeping the NFL’s top rushing attack to under 100 yards in the game. But how did they do it? That’s 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:

The Pittsburgh Steelers saw improved results in defending the run in Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns. In the Steelers previous two games, they had given up a combined 5.56 yards per rushing attempt (Y/A) in their two victories over the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Individually, the Broncos averaged 5.89 Y/A with the Seahawks averaging 5.33 Y/A. Against the Browns, the Steelers managed 4.17 Y/A on the day. It was also the first time in four games in which the Steelers held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing for the game.

While the numbers might not jump out of the page with the Steelers holding the Browns to 96 rushing yards on 23 attempts, what stands out more is comparing the Steelers opponent to how they have been rushing the ball coming into the game. Looking at strictly their last three games, the Steelers allowed 5.89 Y/A against the Broncos who were averaging 4.41 Y/A coming into the game. Likewise, the Seattle Seahawks were only averaging 4.20 Y/A when they were able to run for 5.33 Y/A against the Steelers. Granted, different opponents can allow different things and the quality of their opponents are not taken into consideration, but in both of those games the Steelers allowed teams to rush more than a yard better on average than they had been on the season.

This was not the case against the Cleveland Browns. Coming into the game leading the NFL in rushing with 1,289 yards, the Browns were averaging 5.16 Y/A and had 14 rushing touchdowns in eight games. Although the Steelers did give up a touchdown on the ground, they held the Browns to 4.17 Y/A, almost exactly a yard less per carry than what they had been averaging.

So what did the Steelers do to keep the Browns under 100 yards rushing for only the second time in 2021? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

In the Seattle Seahawks game the Steelers were primarily concerned with containing the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks had success running the ball because the initial defensive focus of the Steelers was on preventing big pass plays.

Against the Browns they came out with a very different mindset, and the entire team was in run defense mode.

Steelers v Browns, 1st quarter, 12:21.

Terrell Edmunds is second from the bottom of the screen.

This is only a few plays into the game, and Cameron Heyward is already being rotated off the field. The defensive end to the play side is Henry Mondeaux, and while Mondeaux isn’t a great run defender, you can see he holds his position well enough here to shrink the run lane for Nick Chubb. Both Joe Schobert and Devin Bush flow to the ball nicely here, and while both are blocked, it is closer to the play, and they also help limit the opportunity for Nick Chubb. T.J. Watt is also blocked.

That’s the great thing about this play to me, the Steelers aren’t beating blockers, and yet Nick Chubb is met at the line of scrimmage with little chance to make a play of it. Defenders getting to the right place quickly and holding their ground against blockers is enough to hold this run play in check. Great work from Terrell Edmunds to hit Nick Chubb hard enough to cancel his forward momentum, and even taking that hit from Chubb, he holds on to bring him down. But even if Chubb beats the tackle, both Joe Haden and Joe Schobert are there to finish the job. This is good team defense.

Steelers v Browns, 1st quarter, 9:36.

Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.

The three people I pointed at the most in Week 6 were Chris Wormley, Joe Schobert and Devin Bush. Those three played much better in Week 8. Wormley gets driven off the line, but only after he turns to pursue the run. He holds his ground much better than the week before. Joe Schobert is getting hands on blockers, meeting them at the block more physically than against Seattle and shedding blockers. It’s not his strength, and he’ll never be confused for Vince Williams, but this is good effort. The effort of those two helps keep Devin Bush free to run in and make the tackle. He’s still not as fast as he was pre-injury, but he reads the play and meets Nick Chubb just past the line of scrimmage and gives him no extra yards.

Solid work from the entire team in the run game, but that doesn’t mean no one stood out above the others.

Steelers v Browns, 1st quarter, 0:08.

Cameron Heyward is the defensive end, second from the top on the line.

It’s easy to take for granted Cameron Heyward dominating, because his average level of play is dominant. It’s just Cameron Heyward doing Cameron Heyward things. Things like running down the back while holding a Pro-Bowl guard off of him with one hand and crashing through other players to make the tackle and prevent the third down conversion.

Heyward makes this look routine. It’s incredible. But he wasn’t done yet.

Steelers v Browns, 2nd quarter, 15:00.

Cameron Heyward is the defensive end, farthest to the bottom on the line.

The Browns come out with 4 offensive lineman to the offense’s left. The Steelers counter with a 4-man front that lines up Cameron Heyward on the edge to that side. Heyward knows that Chubb is likely coming to his side, so he just takes the extra lineman and drives him into the backfield and crashes that lineman into the pulling guard almost where the ball is snapped. Cameron Heyward puts his blocker right into the middle of the play before Chubb even gets the football.

As a result the pulling guard has to step around Heyward’s handiwork, and he is met there by Joe Schobert who does a great job attacking the blocking in the backfield. Schobert and Bush force Chubb to flatten his run and the play is over. Haden, Bush, and T.J. Watt are all there to mop up what Heyward started.

But my favorite part? Cameron Heyward getting up and sprinting back to the play to get in on the pile of Steelers on top of Nick Chubb. Heyward is relentless.

Steelers v Browns, 2nd quarter, 9:18.

Isaiahh Loudermilk is the defensive end, second from the top on the line. Cameron Heyward is second from the bottom.

Isaiahh Loudermilk only played 15 snaps in Week 8, but he stood out in run defense again. Here Loudermilk is facing off against Wyatt Teller, one of the best run blocking guards in the NFL. Teller is moving Loudermilk, but not very much and not very fast. Loudermilk and edge rusher Taco Charlton don’t give up the outside lane and slow the blocking enough that when Chubb cuts back he runs right into Cameron Heyward who again uses one arm to control a lineman while chasing down the play. With a little help from the other side of the line, that leads to a tackle for the Steelers captain.

The Point:

In Week 6 the Steelers run defense positives were almost exclusively T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. In Week 8, Cameron Heyward continued to dominate while his team mates improved their play enough that the Steelers contained the Browns dominant rushing attack without needing T.J. Watt to focus solely on run defense.

Heading into their Week 9 Monday Night matchup with the Chicago Bears, the Steelers face another team that needs to establish the run to get their offense rolling. Hopefully the Steelers defense is ready and able to repeat the job they did against Cleveland.