Monday night’s 26-14 win over the Cleveland Browns was primarily about one thing: the final game for Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field. In that sense, it was an ending fitting of a Hollywood production, with Big Ben taking a knee on the final snap, followed by a victory lap with the fans and then hugs from his children as the national television cameras faded to black. I’ve watched many Steelers games in my time as a fan, which clocks in at 45 years and counting. Monday night resonated with me like few others.
While Roethlisberger’s finale was the most dramatic plot line of the evening, the story on the field centered on the success of Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. Najee Harris ran for a career-high 188 yards on 28 attempts, eclipsing 1,000 yards on the season and breaking Franco Harris’s franchise mark for most rushing yards by a rookie. Harris ran behind an offensive line that, for one of the few times this season, controlled the line of scrimmage. Their dominance allowed the rookie back to showcase his considerable skills and to give Steelers’ fans a glimpse of how good he can be when provided proper support.
Here’s a closer look at Harris’s big night, and at how the Steelers run game dominated the Browns.
Pittsburgh entered the contest ranked 29th in the league with an average of just 87.9 rushing yards per game. Much of their ineffectiveness had to do with a rebuilt offensive line that never established itself as the physical unit the Steelers talked about becoming last off-season. New line coach Adrian Klemm failed in his stated mission to reshape them as a hard-nosed group that would win in the trenches. When Klemm announced last week that he was departing for the University of Oregon after the season, head coach Mike Tomlin relieved him of his duties immediately.
Maybe Klemm’s departure stung the men up front. Maybe they took it personally that their position coach abandoned them. Or, maybe Klemm’s replacement, former assistant Chris Morgan, motivated them in a manner Klemm could not. The Steelers didn’t change their scheme for Cleveland. If anything, they simplified it. They ran inside zone and its variants — mid-zone, split zone and duo — and little else. There was no outside zone, very few gap concepts and no jet sweeps. Even the pre-snap motions Matt Canada favors were kept to a minimum. The Steelers simply lined up, fired off of at the snap and knocked Cleveland off the football.
The following inside zone run on Pittsburgh’s second drive set the tone for how the evening would transpire. Inside zone utilizes a combo scheme in the A and B-gaps, where a guard and tackle, for example, start with a double-team on a defensive lineman before one chips off to block the near linebacker. In the photo below, the rectangles indicate the double-teams the Steelers had on this particular play:
If there was one noticeable difference with the line, from a technique perspective, it was that they did a much better job with their double-teams than they had under Klemm. Perhaps this was a point of emphasis from Morgan. Perhaps Morgan, as many line coaches do, stressed movement at the first level over simply covering up defenders. While Klemm talked a lot about physicality, the play on the field showed a lack of instruction. Whether by commission or omission, the Steelers were quick to abandon their double-teams on inside zone runs as they attempted to cover up linebackers. Often, this resulted in miscommunication, blown assignments and penetration, leaving no room for Harris to operate.
Monday night, under Morgan, we saw much more of this:
Notice how long center J.C. Hassenauer and guard John Leglue, on the left, and guard Trai Turner and tackle Chuks Okorafor, on the right, stayed on their double-teams. They pushed their doubles into the laps of the linebackers, which is textbook from an execution standpoint. A good rule for the player chipping to the backer on inside zone is this: don’t leave the double until you can get to the backer in one step. By that rule, Leglue was actually a hair early when he left. Still, it was wonderful to see the Steelers knock an opposing defense off of the football, allowing Harris to pick his way for eight yards.
Cleveland countered Pittsburgh’s early rushing success by doing what so many opponents have this season — they loaded the box to gain a numbers advantage at the point of attack. Here, it was safety Grant Delpit, who spent much of the evening in a de facto linebacker role.
Watch how aggressively Delpit (22) came from his alignment at the 50 yard-line to insert himself as an extra run-fitter. The Steelers could not account for him in their 11 personnel grouping, as they lacked an interior body to block him. This meant Harris would have to “BYOB,” which stands for “be your own blocker.” He did just that, running through Delpit, then fighting past two more Cleveland defenders to pick up five hard-earned yards. It was that kind of night for the big rookie, who ran physically and with purpose from the outset:
Sometimes, Harris didn’t need to “BYOB” even when Cleveland dropped a safety. Take this play, where the line surge was so good that Delpit, aligned just inside the “10” at the top of the screen, was blocked without actually being blocked. Leglue and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. drove Tommy Togiai (93) six yards off the ball before Leglue pancaked him. Hassenauer, who played well in place of struggling rookie Kendrick Green, recognized the slant from 1-tech Jordan Elliott (96) and, rather than chasing him and opening up the A-gap, passed him off to Turner and climbed to the near backer. The surge of bodies prevented Delpit from finding a path to Harris, who ran untouched to the second-level before pushing the pile for additional yards:
When the Steelers did mix things up, it was mostly with split-zone concepts. Split-zone creates a cross-read for the linebackers by varying the flow of the blockers. Here, the line blocked zone to the right while tight end Zach Gentry blocked back to his left, eventually wrapping up to seal the linebacker. The split-flow, which delayed the ability of the backer to diagnose the play, was complimented by an effective wrinkle on the back-side edge, where the Steelers “blocked” Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (28) by having receiver Ray Ray McCloud run a speed-out from his compressed alignment. This widened Owusu-Koramoah just enough to delay his ability to close on the run. By the time he did, Harris was into the hole for another nice gain:
Here’s another split-flow run, this time supplementing Gentry’s action with jet motion from James Washington (13). This is mid-zone, which hits a gap wider than inside zone, and requires more of a horizontal stretch of the defense. To expand the Cleveland defenders, the scheme called for Pittsburgh’s line to block left while both Gentry and Washington went right. That created a lot of movement for the backers to process, the effect of which was evident.
Watch how Owusu-Koremoah, lined up as the inside backer to the left of the defense, was removed from the box by Washington’s motion. The split-flow literally split the backers, with Owusu-Koremoah flowing in one direction and Jacob Phillips (50) flowing in the other. Harris ran right between them, cut past Delpit, then finished the run by squaring his shoulders and dragging defenders for extra yards:
The Steelers did a nice job neutralizing Owusu-Koremoah, who is arguably Cleveland’s best run defender. Owusu-Koremoah finished with seven tackles but made no splash plays and was largely a non-factor. The split-zone concepts helped in that regard. So, too, did the physical play of the Pittsburgh offense.
While all of the technical stuff is nice, two runs from the contest stood out for aesthetic reasons. The first was a 30-yard gain by Harris that set up a 3rd quarter field goal. Harris started the run by making two unblocked tacklers (one of whom Chase Claypool whiffed on) miss in the hole. He finished it by doing his best Vance McDonald impersonation, burying safety M.J. Stewart (36) with a wicked stiff-arm:
The other is the run that essentially ended the contest. It was a 3rd and 2 split-zone carry from Cleveland’s 37-yard line with 1:00 remaining and the Steelers ahead, 19-14. In need of a 1st down to run out the clock, Harris squeezed through a seam created by a nice kick-out block from fullback Derek Watt (44) and took it to the house, putting an exclamation mark on his big night and guaranteeing a satisfying finish to Roethlisberger’s Heinz Field career:
While Harris’s final run was spectacular, it was a 1st down carry two plays earlier that spoke volumes about Pittsburgh’s run success on the night. With everyone in the stadium anticipating a run, and the Steelers in a compressed formation, and the Browns with a wall of defenders stacked at the line of scrimmage, Harris stutter-stepped, found a seam and made five yards:
It wasn’t a sexy run. But it was significant. The Steelers got five yards on a play where everyone knew they were running the football. That’s something they haven’t been able to do in a long time.
One game does not create a new reality, of course. No matter what happens next week at Baltimore, there is much to do to fix the rushing attack. The reconstruction of the line must continue, with significant investments in both the draft and free agency a requisite. A new line coach must be hired as well, preferably someone whose strengths compliment the vision Matt Canada (presuming he is retained) has for his post-Roethlisberger offense. Someone who can teach the outside zone play would be ideal, seeing as it’s a staple of contemporary NFL offenses and was central to Canada’s schemes as a college coordinator. The work is just beginning.
For one night, though, the Steelers managed to impose their will up front and run the ball with purpose. And that, from a football perspective, is about as sexy as it gets.