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Can the Steelers run on the Ravens like they did on the Browns?

The Steelers run game came together and dominated in week 17, but can they do it again?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The story of Week 17 was Ben Roethlisberger winning the final home game of his career, and beating the Cleveland Browns one last time. The second big story was T.J. Watt recording 4 sacks, setting himself up to challenge the all-time single season sack record.

But maybe more importantly, the run game was dominant. The Steelers ran for 190 yards, their highest team total since October of 2017, when Le’Veon Bell was still playing for the Steelers. It’s been a while.

There are a lot of interesting observations to make on that run performance. First off, as Kevin Smith noted in his film room this week, the Steelers ran almost exclusively inside zone and inside zone based concepts all game. That’s not how they usually operate, using a lot more outside zone.

Another observation was the fact that Kendrick Green, who has struggled in his rookie season, was out of the game. I looked at J.C. Hassenauer in my own film room, showing how much he has grown since his rookie campaign in 2020, when his presence on the field was a death sentence for the offense.

Another thing that has been brought up is the new O-Line coach invited non-offensive lineman into the positional meetings this week, to get a more coordinated effort by letting the backs and tight ends have a better idea of how the offensive line is approaching the game.

I discussed that a bit with Michael Beck, my cohost on the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, deputy editor here at BTSC and a man who played center and now coaches offensive line for his alma-mater in Canada.

He brought up that a lot of the in-room work is development, showing bad form and areas to improve individually, things that would have no value to Najee Harris running the ball, but that having them in the room for scheme implementation makes a lot of sense.

Obviously, I can’t speak from a place of inside knowledge, but it seems like Adrian Klemm might have been more focused on individual development, while Chris Morgan seems more focused on getting the run game working as a well-integrated unit. That would make sense why Klemm might want to return to the college game, if he is more passionate about developing individual lineman’s ability, that’s a much bigger deal in college than in the NFL.

If we look at these factors and the Ravens game coming up, Chris Morgan is still line coach again, Kendrick Green will miss the Ravens game, so run inside zone and let Najee Harris feast again. But it isn’t that simple.

The Browns defense has faced the second most interior runs of any team in the NFL this season. The 3.8 yards per carry they allowed on those runs ranks them 14th in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens faced the fifth fewest inside runs this season while allowing the second fewest yards on those runs at 3.2 yards per carry allowed. Runs to the outside gained 4.8 yards per carry against the Ravens, and the Ravens have actually faced more outside runs than inside runs this year.

If the Steelers struggle to run inside zone against the Ravens, there might not be much recourse for them. Another thing we’ve discussed here at BTSC, is the personnel on the line. Kendrick Green was drafted to play center and one of the most attractive things about his game was his athleticism and blocking on the run. Great skills in an offense that likes to pull the center and wants to run outside zone.

The problem is, outside of Chukwwuma Okorafor, the rest of the line isn’t built for that kind of offense. And Kendrick Green hasn’t been very good at the inside zone blocking. When the Steelers were forced to start J.C. Hassenauer, they replaced Green’s athleticism with a player that isn’t well suited for pulling and outside zone. The team leaned on inside zone runs most likely because they lacked the personnel to do anything else. It worked because the line, the running back and the scheme all lined up to play to their strengths.

The problem is, that eliminated a lot of the offensive scheme, obviously a lot of run plays that weren’t working great, but it also eliminated a lot of things Matt Canada does that flow off of those plays that do work. You might not think that is a big deal, but consider that in the 248 games Ben Roethlisberger has thrown a pass, this past week he had the lowest yards per pass attempt. The lowest of his career.

Ben Roethlisberger has always been a quarterback that would randomly have a terrible statistical game, the 2004 playoff game against the Jets, Super Bowl XL, 2008 at Philadelphia, 2009 Cincinnati, 2012 Kansas City, 2016 at Cleveland, 2020 at Cincinnati, none of them had anywhere close to the 2.67 yards per pass attempt we saw against the Browns. Some of that could have been emotions, but we’re used to seeing Ben Roethlisberger play great in big, emotional games.

In week 17, the Steelers were forced to rely on inside zone runs to gain yards, and man did it work. But nothing else did. In week 18 against the Ravens tough interior run defense, the Steelers are going to need something else to work, something to compliment Najee Harris.

Unless, of course, the defense and interior run game dominate again, and really, if that happens and the Steelers win, I’ll be ecstatic, I just don’t think it’s at all likely.