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Identifying the Steelers ability to shut down the run against the Panthers

The Steelers did some various things schematically to lock down Carolina’s rushing attack.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling into the final three games. After struggling against the run for through six quarters in Week 13 and 14, the Steelers came back with their most dominant performance against the run. So what was different against the Panther? 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:

It was only two weeks ago we covered where the Steelers may have shown some vulnerability in stopping the run against the Atlanta Falcons. The very next week against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers gave up a season-high 215 rushing yards. While it seemed like the Steelers were falling into the same end-of-season collapse in stopping the run that they saw in 2021, Week 15 seem to put a bit of a stop to that run.

Allowing only 21 rushing yards on 16 attempts, the Pittsburgh Steelers had their second game of 2022 in which they held their opponent to under 30 yards rushing. The previous game was holding the New Orleans Saints to 29 yards in Week 10. This was quite the feat as there have only been six games in the NFL in 2022 where a team has rushed for less than 30 yards. Of the six games, the Steelers defense have been responsible for two of them.

When looking at Steelers history, this was the 25th game since the 1970 merger where the Pittsburgh Steelers held an opponent to under 30 yards rushing. While 25 seems like a lot, this is the 53rd season in which they had the opportunity to do so. The 2022 season marks the fourth time the Steelers have held an opponent to under 30 yards rushing in a game twice in the same season with the other years being 2004, 2009, and 2020.

Looking specifically at this game, the Steelers held the Panthers running backs in check early and often. D’Onta Foreman, the teams leading rusher on the season, had 10 carries on the day but for only 9 yards for a 0.9 yards per carry average. The other Panthers running back, Chuba Hubbard, carried the ball four times for 10 yards for a 2.5 yard average per carry. To round everything out, Sam Darnold also rushed two times for 2 yards for a 1.0 yards per carry average.

Interesting enough, the two games in which the Steelers have held their opponent to under 30 yards rushing were when the Steelers did not have Myles Jack play a defensive snap. While there are multiple ways this could be taken, I have a feeling it has to do more with schematics and what the Steelers decided to do to stop the run without Jack in the game that it does his ability to help the Steelers run defense. But to know for sure, we’re going to have to check the film.

The Film Line:

Facing one of the NFL’s better running teams down their leading tackler and their best run stopping linebackers in Myles Jack, the Steelers had to step up.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 15:00

T.J. Watt (#90) is lined up off the line between the hash marks

The Steelers start the game with their 3-4 personnel on the field, but aligned in a 4-man front look with T.J. Watt lined up behind the line. It’s Watt that follows the jet motion, and he does a good job of covering the sweep while also attacking a blocker. It’s a great design as Watt is in position to make the tackle if the Panthers ran the sweep, and he ends up still occupying a blocker. This means the Steelers lost zero run defenders to the sweep.

The blocker that moves to intercept T.J. Watt has to leave a double team on Montravius Adams. With Adams’ outside arm free, the runner changes course to run inside of Adams where Larry Ogunjobi mops up the play.

Aligning like this isn’t uncommon for the Steelers. They like Cameron Heyward as an edge setter in these run-likely situations, and Watt executes this play so well it destroys any chance of gaining yards.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 14:25

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker to the right that follows the motion, Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the other side

On the second play the Panthers put in a three receiver set and get the Steelers into nickel defense. They run another motion but they run against it instead of running behind it like the first play. This time the Steelers send Devin Bush with the motion. Terrell Edmunds moves from his box safety alignment to a linebacker look, but Robert Spillane doesn’t move to where Bush was. Instead Spillane moves up to the “A” gap and attacks the space between the guard and center.

The Panthers look like they are going to combo block Cameron Heyward (just left of the gap Spillane moves into). Spillane changes that and with solo blocks and Alex Highsmith (Edge to left) pinching the lane, no one gets to Terrell Edmunds and he does what he does best, run to the ball carrier for the tackle.

At the snap the Steelers have five players on the line, and only one lined up as a linebacker. Terrell Edmunds is essentially the middle linebacker in a 5-1 front. Edmunds is a hyper-athletic undersized linebacker already, this was a great use of him.

The Panthers started the game with two runs that gained a combined two yards. You can see the Steelers came out aggressive and attacked the run plays and it paid off.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 5:09

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker in between the hash marks

The Panthers come back with a heavy personnel set, and the Steelers throw out a 4-4 alignment with only one cornerback. If you watch the right side of the screen, the player coming on screen late is Terrell Edmunds. Edmunds not only played linebacker for the Steelers, he was also their outside corner against these heavy sets. Essentially the Steelers took Levi Wallace off the field for a fourth defensive lineman, on this play it was DeMarvin Leal. That’s a big boost to your run defense.

The Steelers also took out Devin Bush and put Mark Robinson in. That was most of Robinson’s usage in this game, when the Steelers went 4-4, they put Robinson in for Bush.

You can see Robinson attack the run immediately, and if it wasn’t for Larry Ogunjobi beating his man to make the tackle, it likely would have been Robinson getting to the ball first.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 4:25

Devin Bush (#55) is lined up between the hash marks, and approaches the line with the motion.

Again motion sends a player up to the line. The Steelers were constantly daring the Panthers to pass with jet motion. Devin Bush makes the play here after fighting off a block, and while he deserves credit for the effort here, the lineman successfully moves Bush to the right. The problem is the Panthers do a terrible job accounting for Larry Ogunjobi and he pushes the play farther to the right, and T.J. Watt shuts down the outside run. Take a look as there’s literally nowhere for the back to go at this point. The best option is run at Devin Bush and hope for the best.

The Steelers approach to the Panthers run game in the first half was to attack the A gap with an extra player to break up combo blocks. That and Larry Ogunjobi destroying everyone he faced broke the Panthers early rushing attack.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 15:00

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the left side of the screen

The Panthers switch things up, using a quarterback option to nullify T.J. Watt and block flowing to the A gap attack to move Ogunjobi out of the run lane. It works well, and earns the running back a 1-on-1 matchup with Terrell Edmunds, who holds this run to a 3-yard gain.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 7:40

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker to the left of the hash marks

With the Panthers ready to deal with the attacks on the A gap, the Steelers switch it up and send Terrell Edmunds at the B gap. The center is ready to deal with Robert Spillane coming at the A gap on the right side of the screen, and with Terrell Edmunds occupying the guard to the left, no one is blocking Devin Bush. Bush fills the lane and helps finish the tackle.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 1:27

Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen

The Panthers are trying to get a numbers advantage somehow, and this time they pull two linemen and get to the second level. With those pulls, however, there is no one to even slow down Alex Highsmith and he runs down the play from the backside. Also notice that Larry Ogunjobi again wins his block. He had a great game in run defense.

The second half the Panthers really had no answers, running 6 times for 7 yards, but they also only had two drives with opportunities to run the ball, their third possession coming with 1:04 left on the clock down 11 points.

But there is one play from the second half that I need to cover.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 4th quarter, 7:52

Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen

That’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that Alex Highsmith gets to the ball here, and not only did he get to the runner, he forced a fumble. Two weeks ago the Steelers run defense struggled against the Falcons because their best players were losing matchups, Alex Highsmith included.

This game was a very different story, the scheme was aggressive and Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt and especially Larry Ogunjobi showed up for the Steelers.

The Point:

When you look at the stats from the game, Sam Darnold actually had a good game with a touchdown and 225 yards on 23 passes (9.8 ypa). But as strange as it is to say, it was part of Pittsburgh’s plan. The Steelers gambled that if they aggressively attacked the run, the Panthers couldn’t beat them passing the ball. They were right.

But even with the strategy and schematics to sell out against the run, it took the “Jimmy and Joes” to make plays. With players such as Larry Ogunjobi, Terrell Edmunds, Alex Highsmith, and others winning matchups and coming through to get the job done, the Panthers simply couldn’t run the ball and had no choice but to put the ball in the air.