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Split Zone: One of the bright spots of the Steelers 2021 run game

One part of Matt Canada’s offense already worked well in 2021, it could be even better in 2022.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I wanted to take some time this offseason to show some plays the Steelers ran last season, and are likely to use in 2022, and dig a little deeper into what they are and why they work.

I covered the inside zone run game in my first article, largely because I wanted to contrast that run blocking scheme with one of the more common, and one of the most effective run plays the Steelers used in 2021, the split zone run.

Steelers vs. Bills, third quarter, 15:00

To people unfamiliar with these run schemes, that probably looks like a hot mess of blockers running all over the place. To better understand the idea behind a split zone run, take a look at this play pre-snap, and how the blocks would line up if the Steelers were blocking this play exactly like the two plays we showcased in the inside zone article.

That makes sense, the blockers take the guy right across from them, with double teams working to the linebackers. Now compare that to how they block this play with a split zone scheme.

Yeah. . . that’s a bit different. Let’s start looking at the offensive lineman, starting with Chukwuma Okorafor (second from the left in the picture). Okorafor is going to start by blocking the defensive tackle in front of him, but only for a split second until Kendrick Green gets to him, then Okorafor will switch off and block the defensive end. That end is the farthest from the run lane, and Okorafor only has to get in his way.

Kendrick Green will come from center to hit that defensive tackle, and in the clip you can see the nastiness Green brings as he not only blocks his man, he tries to fold him in half and bury him in the grass. Green hitting the tackle in the side is a great angle to win first contact, and that’s the entire point of this play design.

One of the hardest blocks is on Kevin Dotson (to the right of the center on screen). He needs to move that defensive tackle out of the way, and he doesn’t have any help. That just happens to be Dotson’s forte, and he does a great job. You can see the difference in Dotson and Green well here, one has nastiness, the other has the power to move people. Dotson moves his man, then lets him go while Green is smashing his man into the grass.

Dan Moore Jr. (farthest to right) is going to go hunting for the middle linebacker. He has to find him and block him however he can. The running back can adjust to how that block turns out, as long as that linebacker is blocked. Moore Jr. does a fine job as Edmunds reacts to the pull from Trai Turner and gets sealed outside of the run lane for his effort.

Not to those pullers. Trai Turner (left of center) is coming to find the edge defender on the opposite side of the play. All he has to do is keep that guy from getting to the middle of the line and Harris’s run lane. He does his job well.

That leaves the linebacker to the right side of the screen, and Pat Freiermuth (farthest to left on screen) to deal with him. Freiermuth does in week 1 what he would be most known for in the early part of the season, find his target and block him into the dirt.

You may have noticed that if you draw a line from Najee Harris straight up field, every defender is blocked at an angle that puts their blocker between the defender and the run lane. This whole scheme is based on that idea. If you can execute the movement well every blocker gets a favorable blocking angle and leverage advantage. While the offensive line struggled in a lot of their technique, this scheme was one of the bright spots of the run game, and a high percentage of the Steelers better runs were from split zone, especially before Kevin Dotson was injured. This scheme worked in line with Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green’s strengths and the Steelers used it really well when those two were in the game.

If Dotson wins the left guard battle you can expect a lot of split zone runs this season as James Daniels and Mason Cole are also good fits for this run scheme, and the Steelers returning lineman have showed they can execute this play at a higher level than many others.

The last thing I want to point out is how the defenders react to the movement on this play. #49 Tremaine Edmunds reads Trai Turner pulling and follows him, #91 Ed Oliver sees Kendrick Green heading to screen left and takes a step that way and #94 Vernon Butler engages Okorafor normally and is not prepared to get hit by Green. One of the problems defending this split zone is a lot of the action is what you would expect from plays that are going in a different direction. If the opponent is looking for a split zone run, they are going to be vulnerable to other run plays.

Split Zone is a great complimentary run scheme to power, gap, and zone runs because it is hard to read all of the runs correctly when you can run the full gambit of them. Split zone in particular paid off in 2021, even when the Steelers struggled to run outside zone and weren’t great on several other run schemes. If Pat Meyer, the upgrades on the offensive line and Matt Canada can get the other run schemes working, split zone will be even harder to defend.