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Is using running backs in the passing game the Achilles’ heel for the Steelers?

The Chiefs were successful at getting running backs involved in their passing attack against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a humiliating loss to the number one seeded Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday. In a game where the offense couldn’t score and the defense couldn’t get stops, it seemed as if nothing was going the Steelers’ way. The Steelers did have a slight improvement in stopping the run as the Chiefs averaged 3.6 yards per carry. But where the Kansas City running backs made a bigger difference was in the Chiefs’ passing 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:

In Week 16, the Steelers gave up more passing yards to running backs then they had the entire 2021 NFL season. Between three different running backs, they caught a total of seven receptions on seven targets for 95 yards. Clyde Edwards-Helaire had one reception for 4 yards while running back Darrel Williams had three receptions for 30 yards. This was not the most damage done as running back Derrick Gore had three receptions for 61 yards.

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers giving up yardage to running backs in the passing game, this was only the second time all season in which the opponent had a double digit yards per target. The Chiefs managed 13.6 yards per target when hooking up with their running backs in the passing game which was slightly better than the Green Bay Packers in Week 4 where they averaged 13.4 yards per target as they gain 67 yards on four completions of five targets.

Derrick Gore’s 61 receiving yards against the Steelers was the second-most they surrendered to anyone running back this season. The only other player to have more receiving yards as a running back against the Steelers was Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 12 where he had 65 receiving yards on six receptions and two receiving touchdowns. Ekeler‘s two touchdowns are the only receiving scores the Steelers have given up to running backs this season. Interesting enough, Ekeler was the only running back to have any receiving yards for Los Angeles against the Steelers.

So exactly what did Kansas City do to use the running backs successfully in the passing game against the Steelers? Is this something else other teams will exploit? Was there a big advantage by doing so? Geoffrey, you’re up.

The Film Line:

Steelers v Chiefs, 1st quarter, 1:48.

Robert Spillane is the linebacker to the middle of the screen, Arthur Maulet is the nickel back.

The Steelers are concerned early in the game with the Chiefs speed on short crossing routes, so they use switches like on this play to give their defenders some help against that speed. But Arthur Maulet is slow to pass off his receiver and get outside to cover the running back. Part of the problem here is that speed is going to be rough for Spillane if the receiver turns their route vertical once it is passed off to him, and you can see the receiver working to get vertical as the ball is being thrown to the wide-open back.

The Steelers are getting physical with both slot targets, but the pass off to Spillane is the problem. The Steelers showed throughout this game that they didn’t trust Spillane or Schobert to run with the Chiefs running backs, and that created problems the Steelers really struggled to answer.

Steelers v Chiefs, 1st quarter, 7:45.

Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

The Steelers are running a cover-2 based scheme, a defense the Chiefs have struggled with this season. But on this play after Spillane carries the deep route to the middle of the field, the Chiefs leak Darrel Williams out into the middle of the field. Arthur Maulet needs to adjust quickly to this threat, covering more inside to fill the void Spillane left. He is slow to get there and the Chiefs get a first down.

The Steelers would take Maulet out of the nickel package and replace him with Tre Norwood as Norwood is better at switches and zone coverage than Maulet.

Steelers v Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 3:07.

Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, Tre Norwood is the nickel corner just above him.

Check out Tre Norwood’s navigation of his zone responsibilities. This is where Norwood shines, and is frankly the only thing he does right now at a good NFL level. That’s not bad for a rookie, especially one drafted in the 7th round, and with the Steelers running more zone and the Chiefs attacking Arthur Maulet the Steelers leaned on the rookie to step into the nickel job and fix the problem.

The problem on this play is Patrick Mahomes. When Mahomes scrambles, Joe Haden rightly steps up to prevent Mahomes from just running for a first down. Haden was covering running back Derrick Gore, and Gore goes deep as soon as Haden leaves him. That puts Minkah Fitzpatrick in the tough spot of getting over to cover Gore. Watch Fitzpatrick through the play as he constantly moves to address the most dangerous threat he can see. See how he moves and shifts his angles to be ready to jump whatever threat he is seeing. Now look at how he attacks when Mahomes starts to run. He goes straight at the receiver Tre Norwood is covering. Why? Because the Steelers nickel is one of the most aggressive roles in their defense. Fitzpatrick is expecting Norwood to go after Mahomes and Haden to stay on his man. Norwood isn’t the usual nickel and he doesn’t, Haden adjusts and covers Mahomes, and Fitzptrick is out of position to swap to Haden’s man. The Chiefs gain 50 yards.

This play does a good job showing how active Minkah Fitzpatrick is ready to help any number of players, and it shows how just a few steps the wrong way by a safety can take him completely out of the play.

Steelers v Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 5:03.

Tre Norwood is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

You can see here how concerned the Steelers are with the combination of the Chiefs speed at wide receiver and the arm talent of Patrick Mahomes. After the play action fake the defense is moving as fast as they can to get back and cover deeper routes. Tre Norwood does a good job reacting to the dump off and gets to the back in position to hold this to a 3-4 yard gain. Norwood isn’t a great tackler, he’s not the guy you want taking on backs in the open field, and it shows here when Gore jukes him then runs through him to gain 8 yards on first down. There’s a huge difference between 2nd and 7 and 2nd and 2.

Steelers v Chiefs, 4th quarter, 14:21.

Joe Haden is the corner to the bottom of the screen, Arthur Maulet is the slot defender right above him.

The Steelers went back to Maulet and the Chiefs went right back at him. The Chiefs run a quick fake screen, and while Terrell Edmunds has #85 locked down, Arthur Maulet is being aggressive to the screen and his man is wide open downfield. While most of the time is was running backs exploiting the Steelers, it wasn’t exclusive.

The Point:

So why was this a problem for the Steelers and will other teams attack them the same way?

First off, for all the struggles Devin Bush has had dealing with blockers this season, he’s been a really good coverage linebacker. When he’s out, the Steelers can’t run as much man defense because both Schobert and Spillane aren’t athletic enough to cover the better receiving backs and tight ends in the NFL. That means running more zone defense to put Spillane and Schobert in situations they can better handle. Facing the Chiefs speed was also a big factor, and the Steelers really needed to run a lot of zone in this game for both reasons.

Maulet has been fine as a nickel back, and Norwood as a dime back. Dime back is a more zone-oriented, less physical job, while the nickel back job is essentially a mix of corner and linebacker. When the Steelers were playing much more zone in nickel than usual, it put Maulet out of his element, and when they put Norwood in that role, the Chiefs attacked his lack of aggressiveness and physicality.

That’s why the Steelers have been rotating Maulet out in dime for Norwood, to let both play to their strengths. The Steelers don’t have a slot defender that is good at both like they did in Mike Hilton. Hilton could handle any defense the Steelers called in their nickel package and he also was a fantastic blitzer and run defender. The Steelers don’t have one of those guys right now, and facing the Chiefs speed without Devin Bush, it became a serious problem.

For this to continue to be a problem teams would need to push the Steelers into more zone in nickel defense, and I don’t see Cleveland or Baltimore pulling that off. If Devin Bush is able to return that will help as well.