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Examining the Steelers Run Game, Part One: What went wrong in 2020?

The Pittsburgh Steelers were dead last in running the football in 2020. So, what went wrong? We break it down...

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first of two articles that will study the Steelers’ run game. This one looks at what went wrong in 2020 while its companion considers how new coordinator Matt Canada and the pieces acquired via the recently completed NFL draft might change things in 2021.

To begin, let’s quickly revisit the numbers from last season. For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing at just over 84 yards per game. They were also last in yards per attempt (3.6), last in DVOA and 28th in rushing touchdowns (12).

The culprits were plentiful. A poor scheme. Poor line play. Poor execution. The lack of an impact running back. And a passing game that didn’t deter defenses from loading the box to stop the run. All of these conspired to produce Pittsburgh’s worse rushing attack in decades.

To get a better idea of the effects of these shortcomings, I’ve broken down the Steelers’ 27-17 loss to Cincinnati in Week 15. This is a good game to evaluate because it occurred later in the season when defenses had adjusted to Pittsburgh’s initial game-plan. It also featured Benny Snell Jr. at running back rather than James Conner, giving it higher relevance since Conner is no longer on the roster.

The Steelers ran the ball 21 times for 87 yards against Cincinnati for an average of just over four yards per carry. While that number is respectable, it’s also deceiving. 55 of those yards came on 3 carries, which means the Steelers garnered just 32 yards on the remaining 18 runs. The Steelers also got 33 yards on 4 draw plays, 3 of which occurred in long-yardage situations where the Bengals were in soft runs shells. In other words, cheap rushing yards.

The Steelers were unable to run their zone plays against Cincinnati. They ran all three varieties of zone — inside, mid and outside — and accumulated 8 yards on 7 total runs. They ran a guard trap concept well (4-39) but, as we shall see, succeeded at times despite themselves. They ran no counter-gap or power plays and they were ineffective running to the edge.

Here are the areas in which the Steelers struggled most notably:

SCHEME

In his remarks on why the Steelers made a switch at the coordinator position following the 2020 season, head coach Mike Tomlin offered some vague comments about problems with the scheme under former OC Randy Fichtner. We can see some of those problems in the game against Cincinnati.

Here’s a prime example. Often, the Steelers called run plays in situations where they were outnumbered in the box. That’s the case here, as Cincinnati has seven box defenders against just six Pittsburgh blockers (the 6th and 7th defenders are stacked together at the far left of the photo below):

Teams that run a lot of read-options and RPOs can get away with being -1 because they leave one of these box defenders unblocked to be read by the quarterback. The Steelers, under Ben Roethlisberger, do not employ many of these schemes. Instead, they rely on a wide receiver to insert himself into the box post-snap to block the extra man. This is a tough ask and often, as we see in the clip below, unsuccessful.

You can see Juju Smith-Schuster enter the frame late at the bottom left. He is trying to block the safety (21) but has a near-impossible angle given how tight the safety is to the line of scrimmage. Unsurprisingly, the safety makes the tackle for a short gain.

Here’s a similar play later in the game, with essentially the same result. Watch the safety lined up on the hash to the top of the screen at the 40 yard line. Just before the snap, he gets a running start and inserts himself into the box. Smith-Schuster, lined up in the left slot, is again unable to block him.

This is a 2nd and 6 play, where the Steelers can run or pass, so the aggressiveness of the safety tells us a few things. First, that Cincinnati had a pretty good idea this would be a run (likely a game-plan tendency). Second, they knew Smith-Schuster was responsible for blocking the safety, which meant, if they could get the safety down quickly, he would be unblocked. And third, that even if this wasn’t a run, they were comfortable being 1-high against the pass. This was a product of a Pittsburgh passing game that had grown stale and predictable, a subject we will cover in the next article

Here’s one more example. This is guard trap run into another 6-on-7 box. The blocking on the play should look like this:

Notice how the safety (24) is unblocked in the diagram. This causes a problem for left tackle Alejandro Villanueva as he chips off his double team with guard J.C. Hassenauer:

Villanueva has two second-level players to block. His rule says he should block the backside backer. But the safety shows first. Who should he take? Technically, Villanueva blocks the right defender. However, an adjustment should have been made to account for the safety. Fortunately for the Steelers, the safety fails to tackle Snell and he escapes for a nice gain. The call put the line in a difficult spot again, however, by providing no built-in solution for the +1 defender.

Later, the Steelers revisited this concept against a similar look from Cincinnati. This time, Villanueva blocked the near backer while Roethlisberger offered a half-hearted yet effective ball fake that held the backside backer. Snell hit the seam cleanly for a big gain:

The simple threat of an RPO was enough to cause the backer to take a false step, which made him late to react to the run. It makes you wonder, why couldn’t the Steelers add these wrinkles more often? That’s another question we’ll tackle in Part Two.

EXECUTION

While the scheme was untenable at times last season, the execution was equally so. The Steelers routinely missed assignments, displayed poor technique and got beat at the point of attack.

Let’s start with the latter. Much of the failure with execution involved Steelers’ linemen losing in one-on-one situations. Maurkice Pouncey was a great center for most of his 11 year career in Pittsburgh. But Pouncey knew his best football was behind him when he made the decision to retire after the season. Plays like the one below, where Pouncey gets driven into the path of the running back, were indicative of his struggles against some of the league’s more physical 1-techs:

Pouncey was not alone. Below we see the Steelers run outside zone, a play they’ll feature under Canada. Outside zone relies on a horizontal stretch of the defense to create a seam through which the back can run. Here, there is no seam and the play is ineffective.

The problems are spread from tackle to tackle. Right tackle Chuks Okorafor has to reach the outside shoulder of the edge defender or, if he can’t, ride him to the sideline. Okorafor does manage to get some horizontal movement but he also gets pushed into the backfield, which seals the edge. On the backside, Villanueva gets beat across his face by the 3-tech, who runs down Benny Snell from behind.

In each instance, poor technique contributes to failure. In the first clip, Pouncey gets beat to contact and gives up his chest. That’s a cardinal sin for an offensive lineman and usually winds up with him losing ground. In the second clip, Okorafor also gives up inside leverage and is pushed back. Villanueva, meanwhile, takes a bad first step. Watch how his right foot gains no width, making it impossible to get into position to control the 3-tech. He needs to get flatter with that first step so he can lock out the defender with his right arm.

As for missed assignments, watch this:

This is a mid-zone play where tight end Vance McDonald comes across the formation to either kick out the backside end or climb to the backside linebacker. It’s hard to know how the Steelers want the backside blocked here. How they don’t want it blocked is for both McDonald and Okorafor to take the edge defender while no one touches the backside backer. He blows the hole and stuffs Snell for a loss (this was 3rd and 1, by the way, and led to a punt). Either Okorafor has to take the backer and McDonald the end or vice versa. One of the two screwed up, and it cost the Steelers a possession.

With line play, sometimes the flaws are obvious, like a player being overmatched. We saw some of that in Pittsburgh last season. More often, the problems are subtle. Poor communication, like we see in the clip above. Or poor technique, like in some of those other clips. These are usually factors of coaching, which the Steelers hope to have remedied by replacing Shawn Sarrett with Adrian Klemm. Klemm has talked a lot about making the Steelers more physical up front. For the unit to progress , he’ll need to improve their execution as well.

THE RUNNING BACK SITUATION

In the following clip, focus on Benny Snell:

This is a mid-zone run to the right. It hits where it should, in the playside B-gap. Hassenauer, the left guard, gets beat across his face, allowing the backside DT to get an arm on Snell. Watch what happens to Snell on contact, though. The moment he’s touched, his legs go dead and he falls to the ground.

One arm from a lunging defender should not bring down a 225 pound back. The reason running backs spend so much time in the blaster, a machine with padded arms that simulates situations like this, is so they will “run through the smoke” at the line of scrimmage. Backs have to churn their legs to break through this type of contact. This was not going to be a big play but, had Snell accelerated rather than stopped moving, he could have made another few yards.

Snell ran pretty well in the Cincinnati game. Still, we’ve seen enough plays from him like the one above to know this was not an anomaly. Snell has limited speed and is not much of an outside threat. Therefore, he has to make his money running between the tackles. Many times last season, the Steelers were unable to do so. This is one of the factors that led them to select Najee Harris in the first round of the draft. A more complete running back who can make yards inside and out will be a huge asset.

SUMMARY

The Cincinnati game served as a microcosm of the woes the Steelers experienced with their rushing attack throughout the season. There were glaring issues with scheme and execution, deficiencies at running back and the residual effect of their limited passing game. In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at how these problems may be remedied in 2021.