The Pittsburgh Steelers looked to have an improved running game at the midpoint of the 2021 season. Unfortunately, things didn’t come together in the second half of the year. One key loss to the Steelers running game was the injury to Kevin Dotson in Week 10 which kept him out for the remainder of the year. How much did Dotson affect the Steelers rushing attack? 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 saw a slight improvement to their rushing attack in 2021. Coming in at 32nd in the NFL in 2020 with 84.4 yards per game, the Steelers improved up to 29th in the league with 93.1 yards per game (The average per game must be utilized because of the NFL going from a 16-game season to the 17 we saw in 2021).
As for how the running game broke down over the season, it paints a whole different picture. There was a decisive difference in the Steelers running attack once guard Kevin Dotson was lost due to injury during the Steelers Week 10 game against the Detroit Lions. There was also a rough portion of the season to start as the Steelers were adjusting to four new players as starters, two of which were rookies.
Through the first four weeks of the season the Steelers averaged 3.35 yards per carry which then went up to 3.94 yards per carry for Week 5 through Week 10. Once Dotson was no longer in the starting lineup in Week 11, the Steelers saw a decrease back to 3.35 yards per game over the next four games only to see a large jump the final three weeks of the season to 4.64 yards per carry.
Although the Steelers did have some games at the end of the season where they had a solid rushing total, particularly against Kansas City in Week 16, the effectiveness of the running game was not as it seemed. Against the Chiefs in their regular-season matchup, the Steelers did not successfully run the football until late in the game when the contest was well out of hand. For example, the Steelers had no rushing yards in the first quarter, 29 rushing yards in the second quarter, 37 rushing yards in the third quarter, and had 64 rushing yards, almost half of the 130 total rushing yards for the game, in the fourth quarter which began with a 30-3 score in favor of the Chiefs.
To understand a little bit more the effectiveness of the running game with and without Kevin Dotson, one of the best places to look is to how the Steelers established the run in the game, particularly in the first half. For the first four games of the season, the Steelers only averaged 9.5 carries per game in the first half and averaged only 3.1 yards per carry. It should be noticed that the Steelers first half yards per carry increased each game through the first quarter of the season as it started at 0.9 yards per attempt. The Steelers really hit their stride in the running game in Week 5, and looking at the numbers through Week 10, they averaged 16 carries per game in the first half and 4.3 yards per carry. Once Dotson was lost for the season, the Steelers went back to averaging only 9.6 carries per game in the first half and averaged 3.2 yards per carry. If taking out the excellent rushing performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, that number over the same span would have been as low as 2.8 yards per carry.
Once the Steelers got the running game growing in Week 5, it appeared as if things were heading in the right direction. Over that six-week span, the Steelers were averaging 126.2 yards per game which had them eighth in the NFL. But once Dotson was injured, things started to fall apart.
So what did Kevin Dotson bring to the Steelers running game which was so badly missed? Let’s check the film.
The Film Line:
The numbers do a great job of showing the impact Kevin Dotson had, and the film backs it up.
Steelers v Raiders, 2nd quarter, 8:09.
Kevin Dotson is the left guard, right behind the field goal post.
This is what the good runs early in the Steelers season looked like— Najee Harris gaining yards because a few blocks landed. Dotson, Pat Freiermuth (#88) and Trai Turner (#51, RG) all win their blocks, while the rookie lineman, Dan Moore Jr. (#65 left of Dotson) doesn’t even seem to understand his job and Kendrick Green (#53, Center) can barely keep penetration from the backside defensive tackle from getting to Najee Harris. With two rookies starting, there were a lot of early mistakes, Dotson was the best lineman, and the only competent puller on the line.
Steelers v Broncos, 1st quarter, 14:56.
Kevin Dotson is on the line, third from the bottom
As Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. improved, the run game significantly improved. Watch the defensive tackle to Dotson’s side (#96, second from bottom), he is trying to keep Dotson from getting to the second level. He delivers a hit that doesn’t even slow Dotson down, grabbing Dotson doesn’t stop him from getting to the linebacker either and it’s a five yard gain on first down. You can see Green and Moore Jr. both look better here, but you can also see that Dotson and right guard Trai Turner (RG #51) dominating in the run game is making their jobs a lot easier.
Steelers v Bears, 1st quarter, 9:46.
Kevin Dotson is the left guard, right behind the field goal post.
This is when the line was probably at its best all season. On this play Dan Moore Jr. is on the left side of the screen in an unbalanced line, with Zach Gentry lined up at Dan Moore Jr.’s usual spot. The initial view of this play may look like Dotson gets driven to the ground, but look more closely. Dotson hooks the defensive tackle’s arm and goes down, essentially tackling his man but making it look like the defender pushed him down. His work means Kendrick Green doesn’t need to help Dotson, and he turns and helps block the linebacker right as Najee Harris scoots past. The rookie center looked pretty good when the talent around him gave him a lighter work load and thus an easier learning curve.
The Steelers line bullied the Bears interior and as they jammed the box Matt Canada made them pay with 37 rushing yards on 6 carries from receivers. Ben Roethlisberger threw 30 times for 205 yards and 2 TDs for one of his more efficient games of the season.
All that would change when Kevin Dotson went down the next week against Detroit.
Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 4:32.
J.C. Hassenauer (#60) is the left guard.
Kendrick Green is doing an alright job here, he stands his man up and doesn’t give up penetration, but he isn’t driving him back or controlling him. Meanwhile J.C. Hassenauer is doing the same with his man, and even with a little help from Dan Moore Jr. the defensive tackle discards Hassenauer and clogs the run lane.
Steelers fans lamented that the Steelers went away from the run despite having great success early in the game, but the truth was Dotson was gone, and the run blocking wasn’t good enough in the second half with Hassenauer and Haeg at the guard spots. Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. went from having Dotson clear the way for them and make their jobs easier, to being tasked with being the leaders on the line, and they weren’t ready for that.
Steelers v Chargers, 2nd quarter, 11:28.
J.C. Hassenauer is the left guard, third from the bottom.
Ouch. The defensive tackle splits Hassenauer and Green easily, Hassenauer ends up on his back and Green is left grasping at straws. Najee Harris somehow manages to get to the line of scrimmage on this play, juking a defender as he receives the ball and dragging more to prevent a loss on the play. Joe Haeg would split time with Hassenauer at left guard in this game, and the Steelers would turn to B.J. Finney the next week in their blowout loss to the Bengals as none of them could do much to help.
In Week 13 the Steelers turned to practice squad player John Leglue, and their fortunes improved. Leglue was able to hold his own, but he didn’t work the best with Kendrick Green. With Leglue receiving the easier jobs and more help Green was in over his head.
The Steelers would find a one-game pot of gold when they lost Kendrick Green in Week 16, and turned to J.C. Hassenauer to start Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns.
Steelers v Browns, 2nd quarter, 8:09.
John Leglue is the left guard, third from the bottom.
The Browns were caught off guard by the Steelers inside zone heavy, interior run focused offense, or maybe they were just the Browns being the Browns. But Leglue and Hassenauer were playing to their strengths in a simple scheme using tons of combo blocks and they helped Najee Harris run all over the Browns to lead the Steelers to a sweep of Cleveland, get Ben Roethlisberger a win in his final home game, and keep playoff hopes alive.
The next week in Baltimore and against Kansas City in the playoffs the interior run game was not a surprise, and the success wasn’t there.
Aside from one glorious game against the Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers run game was heavily dependent on Kevin Dotson to be good. It was the case in 2020, and again in 2021. While Kendrick Green clearly needs to improve or be replaced, it should stand out to Steelers fans that he didn’t look as bad in the weeks before Kevin Dotson’s injury.
Whatever the Steelers plans for the 2022 season, for the sake of the Steelers run game, you have to hope a healthy Kevin Dotson plays s a big part in that season.