The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling into the final quarter. Going 3-1 in their last four games, the Steelers got the win in Atlanta despite giving up 146 rushing yards with 118 coming in the second half. Did the Falcons find a vulnerability in the Steelers seventh-ranked run defense, or was it a testament to Atlanta’s running game? 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:
In Week 13, the Pittsburgh Steelers surrendered 146 rushing yards, which was the most they had given up since Week 3 to the Cleveland Browns and the second-most yards surrendered on the season. The Falcons rushed for 146 yards on 28 rushing attempts with a 5.2 yards per carry average. While this was the second-most yards the Steeler surrendered this season, it should be noted that this was below the Falcons 160.0 yards per game average they had coming into Week 13 which was ranked fourth in the NFL. In fact, this was the fourth-lowest rushing output the Falcons have had in their 13 games of the 2022 season.
In giving up these yards, one way in which it is better to look at the statistics is how successful the Falcons were when running in particular directions. For this, I am breaking down rushing plays to be either up the middle (over the guards or center), to the left side (over the left tackle or beyond), or to the right side (over the right tackle and beyond). These runs have been broken into exactly where they went according to Pro Football Reference (PFR).
The Falcons saw the least amount of rushing attempts by far up the middle. Only rushing the ball three times in the game, the Falcons gained 16 yards for a 5.3 yards per attempt average. Up the middle, the Falcons had an 11 yard long rush and achieved first downs on two of the three rushes for a 67% rate. When rushing the middle, the Falcons averaged 7.3 yards to go on these attempts and the primary run stopper was Terrell Edmunds credited with two tackles.
When it came to running on the left side, the Falcons rushed 10 times for 47 yards and a 4.7 yard per attempt average. The Falcons had a long run of 7 yards which they achieved twice. They rushed for five first downs which was a 50% rate. When rushing to the left side, the Falcons averaged 6.2 yards to go and the leading stopper for the Steelers was Larry Ogunjobi with three tackles.
Rushing to the right is where the Falcons had the most success with one little caveat. Going to the right side, the Falcons had 15 carries for 83 yards and a 5.5 yards per attempt average. The Falcons had a long run of 22 yards and another run of 20 yards going to the right side. What is interesting is the Falcons only achieved two first downs running to the right side, a 13% rate, and it was on the two runs of 20 yards or more. Part of this reason is the Falcons had an average of 9.1 yards to go on the rushing attempts to the right side as 10 of the 15 attempts were on first down. Miles Jack led the way with four tackles on runs to the right side.
So what is most interesting about the rushing attempts to the right side is, other than the two big runs, the Steelers gave up yardage but were consistently tackling the Falcons short of the first down marker regardless of the down or distance. Over half of the yardage from the Falcons running to the right side were gained on two plays. If taking those plays out of the equation, they would have only averaged 3.2 yards per carry to the right side with no first downs.
Although these numbers tell an interesting story, what really brings things into perspective is checking out the film.
The Film Line:
As Dave stated, the Steelers giving up 146 yards was actually below average for the Falcons, and there’s a good reason for their run success, as they execute their run schemes at a very high level.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 2nd quarter, 13:27
Watch the Falcons’ offensive line.
Every single block is won here. T.J. Watt is driven outside and released at the exact moment he can’t make the play anymore. Larry Ogunjobi is walled off by the double team, and the tackle is able to work past him and wall off Devin Bush from the play as well. Tyson Alualu and Cameron Heyward are slowed just enough to keep them out of the play, and the wingback coming in motion is ready to help block T.J. Watt if needed, and then works to Terrell Edmunds.
The back gains 20 yards on this run, and is brought down by the first real tackle attempt he faces, because the blocking is just that good.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 2:57
Watch the Falcons’ offensive line.
This one is fantastic. Any offensive line coach could post this video with a #goals on their social media. Right tackle removes T.J. Watt from the play, driving him outside and backwards. The right guard crosses Ogunjobi’s face quickly, and slows him down enough for the center to take over, then works up and gets a push on Myles Jack that ruins his angle to reach the back. The left guard isn’t impressive here, but he slows down Alualu enough, while the left tackle works up to find Devin Bush. Every lineman hits their marks and does enough to let Patterson get to full speed unimpeded, and he turns the corner for 22 yards.
One last clip showing off Atlanta’s execution (I could do so many more).
Steelers vs. Falcons, 4th quarter, 8:55
Watch the Falcons’ offensive line.
On their seventh drive of the game, the Falcons line was really getting rolling, and you can see it here. Tyson Alualu gets thrown to the ground, the combo block on Montravious Adams couldn’t really go any better, and the tackle is made by the Steelers free safety after a 6-yard gain.
That’s the matchup you dream of as a run game coordinator, the first player meeting your back is the other team’s free safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s quickness to read the play and get into the lane is the difference between a 6-yard gain and potentially a lot more. He was that guy a lot in this game, flying in to make tackles at the second level when everyone else was blocked. Those plays account for more value than his game-sealing interception. Fitzpatrick kept the Steelers in the game long enough that he could win it for them at the end.
Compounding the issue of stopping the run against a team with this level of execution was some not-great days from some of the Steelers best run defenders.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 14:38
Cameron Heyward is the defensive end to the left side of the screen.
#66 (Colby Gossett) is a backup guard. He gets the best of Cameron Heyward on this play, and a run that goes right at the Steelers captain gains 6 yards. This doesn’t happen often, but Gossett played a great game against the Steelers, winning multiple matchups with Heyward and his backups.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 4:14
Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.
If Highsmith is able to hold off being pushed back even two fewer yards this run goes nowhere. Highsmith wins the outside leverage, but can’t set the edge as he’s being driven backwards. This week was one of the worst from Highsmith in run defense I’ve seen, he’s usually a phenomenal run defender. Throughout the game you could see Highsmith limping a bit after plays, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t have his usual power when playing through some kind of leg issue, but it really hurt the Steelers run defense to not have him at full strength against such a good run blocking team. With both Heyward and Highsmith struggling the Falcons found consistent gains rushing to their left, against players who in the three previous games had given up a total of 25 yards combined on runs to the left.
Outside of the two 20+ yard runs, the Steelers were keeping the Falcons run game contained enough that one penalty or a negative play was enough to stall a drive.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 2nd quarter, 10:52
Larry Ogunjobi (#99) is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen.
Ogunjobi wins this block and wrecks the play in the backfield. He is able to do so because T.J. Watt wins his matchup and forces the back inside where Ogunjobi is waiting.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 6:55
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is lined up over the receiver to the left.
A great burst through a tiny gap gives Minkah Fitzpatrick a shot at the runner’s ankles, and he is great at bringing down runners like this.
Both of these plays led the Falcons to pass the ball on the immediately following plays and their drive ended without another first down. The same happened with two offensive penalties. When the Steelers forced the Falcons to throw the ball, drives failed.
Notice both of these plays were in the 2nd quarter. In the third and fourth quarters the Steelers defenders were starting to get bullied more, and plays like these didn’t happen. But it wasn’t for a lack of being aggressive.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 4:46
Watch the flow of the offensive line and the defense.
The Falcons have only two players helping block for Mariota on this play, but the defense is fully committed to stuffing the run play they see first here, and that’s how plays like this work.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 3:35
T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.
Look at how hard all the Steelers defenders flow to the play side. This leaves only Terrell Edmunds and T.J. Watt to hold the backside of the run against a cut back. Edmunds is outside, and Watt gets driven way out of his lane, leaving a beautiful cut back opportunity for the runner. Watt was holding his ribs a lot in this game, the ribs he gets pushed on for this play. It’s an understandable limitation, and Watt made a good number of plays in this game, but a few times, when he got caught in those ribs, he wasn’t able to power through.
Steelers vs. Falcons, 3rd quarter, 1:47.
Montravious Adams (#57) is the nose tackle.
The Steelers get the job done here. The problem is the steps they took to get this result involved a pretty blatant case of defensive holding from Adams. Adams hangs on the center’s arm and it allows Devin Bush to shoot through the gap and turn the back right towards Chris Wormley and Myles Jack. This is the result you want from your nose tackle, when the defensive line can eat a double team, the linebackers can flow free and make plays. You just have to do it legally, and the Steelers lineman weren’t able to do that often in Week 13.
The Falcons brought a great run game into this matchup, and the Steelers had some of their best run defenders playing below 100%. That’s not a good combination. Once you start pushing to make plays a smart team will exploit it. The Falcons did a good job of that in the second half, and if they had a few more drives in this game, the result very well could have been different.
The Steelers move on from Week 13 to face the Ravens. We have to hope the Steelers will be healthier this week and their best run defenders will be able to consistently win their matchups and disrupt the scheme of the offense. If not, the Steelers offense will need to eat clock like they did in Week 13 to keep them off the field.