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The roller coaster ride that was the Steelers’ run defense in Week 18

The Steelers gave up several big runs on Sunday, but also had a number of stops.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have really struggled against the run during the 2021 NFL season. Although the Steelers were in the top ten in rush defense going into their bye in Week 7, they finished the season ranked 32nd against the run. In Week 18, it was the most yards they surrendered on the ground all season. So what went wrong with the Steelers rush defense in Baltimore? This 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:

The Pittsburgh Steelers had yet another game in which they gave up more than 200 yards rushing, their fourth of the season. As Geoffrey outlined in his From The Cutting Room Floor podcast, there were three games this season where the Steelers gave up more than 200 yards rushing and held their opponent to under 17 points which was only the third time this happened in NFL history.

But with the Steelers run defense against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 18, the distribution of rushing yards was slightly different. It was not that the Steelers were giving up a big chunk of yards on every rush, instead they gave up several runs for big yards while also having plenty of runs where they held for minimal damage.

To explain better, of the 36 running attempts against the Steelers by the Ravens in Week 18, eight of them went for 10 or more yards. Interestingly, all eight of these runs were on first down. In looking at the other end of the spectrum of yards gained, 14 of the runs were for a 2 yard gain or less. So while the Steelers did give up a lot of yardage on big plays, it’s not that the majority of runs were going for five or more yards. To be more specific, the longest runs the Steelers gave up that did not gain 10 yards were two separate 8-yard rushes by quarterback Tyler Huntley and two 6-yard gains by Latavius Murray, both of which were on second down and more than 6 yards, meaning they were not first down conversions.

To break down the yards surrendered even more, the Ravens had 22 of their 36 rushes on first down. Of those first down attempts, eight of them went for 10 yards or more, six of them went for either 3 or 4 yards, and eight of them went for 2 yards or less. So other than the eight big runs, the Steelers actually had success on first down rushing attempts.

When it came to second down, the Ravens rushed the ball seven times in which three of those attempts gained between 6 and 8 yards, three gained exactly 4 yards, and one play went for 0 yards which was the aborted play in which T.J. Watt ended up not being credited with a sack.

On third down, the Steelers surrendered one rush of 8 yards, one rush of 3 yards, one rush of 2 yards, one rush of 1 yard, and two rushes for no gain.

What it really boils down to with the Steelers was those eight plays surrender of 10 yards or more. In all, they gave up at 177 rushing yards in those plays for an average of 22.1 yards per carry. On the other 28 carries, the Steelers held the Ravens to 72 yards for an average of 2.6 yards per carry. So really, it was feast or famine when it came to defending the run against the Ravens.

So what caused this discrepancy? Why were the Ravens able to bust out eight great running plays, all on first down, but not really do too much damage the rest of the game? That’s definitely something where we need to check the film

The Film Line:

The discrepancy in the Steelers ability to stop the run varied even from one play to the next.

Steelers v Ravens, 1st quarter, 1:34.

Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the top of the screen, Cameron Heyward is the defensive lineman to his side.

This is Alejandro Villanueva getting the best of Cameron Heyward. Seriously, one on one, Villanueva wins. It’s a key win because Alex Highsmith is the unblockeed end on this play and the Steelers have him account for the quarterback. Robert Spillane is running with Mark Andrews, and understandably he isn’t reading run at all, he’s only concerned with Andrews. You can see Joe Schobert (LB in middle of the field with black sleeves) pinch up to the middle of the line, and just like that there’s no one to protect the edge unless Cameron Heyward can bail out his team, and with Villanueva getting a rare win on the Steelers captain, it’s a big gain.

That first down brought up another first down, so the Ravens ran the ball again.

Steelers v Ravens, 1st quarter, 1:02.

T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.

T.J. Watt wins his battle and wrecks the play. Big surprise right? These two runs show what Dave was talking about in the stats part, it’s feast or famine with this defense. There’s a reason for it too. Look at how quickly all the defenders are either committed to coverage or right at the line of scrimmage. This team doesn’t have the luxury of multiple waves of run defense, they can’t win double teams on lineman not named Cameron Heyward, so the linebackers have to come up to the ball, if they don’t, they tend to get blocked anyway.

Steelers v Ravens, 3rd quarter, 13:14.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the middle of the Ravens logo.

See what I mean? Henry Mondeaux is fighting here, but he isn’t winning a double team, he’s not that guy, and the line ends up right in Robert Spillane’s face. By the time Spillane works to the hole, he’s too late to make a play. Alex Highsmith pursues the play after it gets past him to make the tackle, but it’s ten yards on first down. The other defensive tackle is Isaiahh Loudermilk, and you can see him doing a much better job of holding the line against a single blocker. You can also see Devin Bush charge up into the line. The Steelers push their linebackers up because you’d rather have them break up the double team closer to the line of scrimmage, than just wait for the pile to meet them.

The Steelers are doing what they can with a patchwork and exposed defensive line. That means jamming the line of scrimmage with bodies and hoping the backs don’t get through to the second level, because the second level in 2021 is Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Steelers v Ravens, 3rd quarter, 12:38.

The Ravens touchdown run.

Let’s start with the line. Isaiahh Loudermilk is the defensive tackle to the right. He and Derrek Tuszka both get moved laterally to make the hole wider. Loudermilk has been good this season against the run, but even he loses to double teams a good bit. Devin Bush comes outside, behind Tuszka, ready to attack this run if it is going inside or outside Tuszka, and he does a good job taking on the lineman to narrow the run lane, but with as wide as the hole is, it doesn’t matter. Spillane shows why the Steelers need their backers to get closer to the line quickly, he still gets blocked, but he’s not reducing the run lane at all.

This also shows how Minkah Fitzpatrick is limited because of his role in run defense. Fitzpatrick bites on the outside run possibility and is out of position. Minkah Fitzpatrick IS the second level of the Steelers defense, because the defensive line isn’t keeping the linebackers out of the first level (AKA “clean”).

Steelers v Ravens, 3rd quarter, 14:55.

Cameron Heyward is second from the bottom on the line.

This is more like what Steelers fans are used to seeing. Alejandro Villanueva and Mark Andrews (#89) are working a combo block on Cameron Heyward. Heyward destroys Villanueva, Andrews is worried about getting off the block quickly, because this time Spillane is getting up to the line quick, and Heyward greets the running back for a loss.

Steelers v Ravens, 3rd quarter, 7:35.

Cameron Heyward, Montravious Adams and Chris Wormley are the defensive line, left to right.

First off, Montravius Adams shows everyone how to drop your knee and hold your ground against a double team. He’s standing in the spot he starts in as the camera leaves him behind. That allows Cameron Heyward to flow down the line behind him, and if Murray had gone forward into what looks like a hole in the middle of the field, he would have found out for himself. Chris Wormley, like most of the Steelers defensive lineman isn’t good against double teams, but here he shows he can handle a 1v1, shedding his blocker and making the tackle.

Lastly Joe Schobert makes a great play on this run defense, taking out the first of two pulling blockers, creating a log jam at the line of scrimmage that Latavius Murray just jumps into.

The Point:

An important thing to consider in talking about the Steelers feast or famine run defense is the Steelers 3rd down defense in long yardage situations. The Steelers are one of the best defenses in the NFL in third and long situations. For example, the 22 yard run from the first clip was followed by the second clip, a 5-yard loss. That possession ended with an incomplete pass and the Ravens punted on 4th down. Giving up a big run that wasn’t a touchdown only hurt the Steelers field position because they got a loss that let them end a drive on a later first down.

As much as it would be nice to simply pinpoint one thing the Steelers could do to cut down on the big runs and they would disappear, it’s not always that simple. What does seem to be the common theme on successful stops is players winning either 1v1 battles defeating double teams at the line of scrimmage. So as much as scheme or play calling could be theorized to be the culprit, the only fix which the Steelers have found at this time is just the defensive front outplaying their opponent each and every play.