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Outside runs and why they matter to the Steelers offense

Matt Canada needs to get the outside run game going to get the most out of the Steelers offense.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve covered inside zone runs and split zone runs in previous articles this offseason, but one of the main things the Steelers will be looking to do is run outside more, and more effectively.

Football Outsiders tracks frequency of directional runs, and the numbers show how predictable the Steelers offense became over the course of the 2021 season.

Here’s where the Steelers ranked in their directional running.

Left end: 28th

Left Tackle: 21st

Middle: 5th

Right Tackle: 23rd

Right end: 26th

The Steelers were one of the most likely teams to run between the tackles, and one of the least likely to run outside. If you are running really well between the tackles, that would be perfectly fine. The 2004 Steelers ranked 6th that season in inside run rate, and first in the effectiveness of those runs. If you can ram it down their throat and they can’t stop you? That’s winning football.

But in 2021 the Steelers ranked 28th in the NFL at inside run effectiveness. That’s not winning football, that’s just not being good. Let’s take a look at the Steelers outside run game and why it struggled.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 2nd quarter, 9:08

This is a good outside run from early in the Steelers season, well before they were forced to give up on these runs. This isn’t outside zone, it’s a power scheme. There’s a couple things that stand out to me on this play.

First, watch the play-side defensive end. That’s Maxx Crosby, he is a very good defensive end who had a heck of a season in 2021. On this play he is blocked by JuJu Smith-Schuster. Read that again, watch the play, let that soak in. Also watch center Kendrick Green on this run, and how he gets to the middle linebacker and slows him down with a sneaky hold (pulls the linebacker’s arm down) that doesn’t get caught.

That’s the kind of things the Steelers needed to go right for them to get decent yards on an outside run. It didn’t happen a lot.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1st quarter, 14:23

This was a more common result. Watch Kendrick Green again for this one. His target this time is No. 24 Johnathan Abram. Kendrick Green is fast, but not fast enough and even lunging can’t get hands on his target, and Harris is bottled up for a very short gain.

Every other offensive lineman hits their blocks. This play fails because Kendrick Green’s blocking target wasn’t realistic. In these situations, you need communication before the snap to realize this play isn’t going to work and either alter the blocking or change the play. With a rookie center that wasn’t happening, and this is the result.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 12:56

This is what the Steelers looked like when they tried to run outside zone plays. I can’t even be sure this is a true outside zone play, because whatever nuance of zone they are aiming for here, they don’t pull it off. The combo block from Trai Turner and Kendrick Green starts off fine, but Green can’t get control of the outside arm of the defender and when Najee Harris sees that arm free, he has to turn the run inside, where there is nothing at all. So, he heads backside, where he takes a clothesline shot and fights for a few yards.

Being able to run outside is important, that inside running tendency tells teams they can stack the box, and with those defenders, they can take away slants and crossing routes that the Steelers loved to throw. The opposing team had the comfort of knowing the Steelers were bad at attacking the outside parts of the field in the run game and the pass game. So they loaded the box, stuffed the inside run and forced Ben Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly.

One of the best ways to thwart that is running the ball outside effectively. Make the defense widen their alignments and think laterally more, make them pay for getting too aggressive attacking the middle of the line.

But outside runs are also important for Matt Canada’s offense because of what he runs off of the threat of outside runs.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1st quarter, 12:22

Watch the linebackers here. They don’t bite on the outside run fake, they wait to see what is coming because there is no reason to jump on that run fake. Combine that with Ben Roethlisberger’s limited mobility and he has to throw the ball quickly, the Raiders have the jet sweep man covered and the Steelers only gain a couple yards.

Now watch Diontae Johnson (enters from screen left directly after the snap). If that linebacker bites harder on the outside run fake or Ben Roethlisberger can buy a second more with his legs Johnson is open and this play is a good gain. If those linebackers jump the outside run threat and you have a mobile quarterback, this play is going to be very hard for the defense to cover.

It’s not hard to show the value a credible outside run game adds to this offense. It’s not hard to see how the lack of one negatively impacted the Steelers offense in 2021. The Steelers see it too. This offseason the Steelers hired an offensive line coach who teaches outside zone and has had success with outside zone heavy rushing attacks throughout his career, and added two offensive lineman who come from outside zone heavy offenses to the roster. They also talked about quarterback mobility being a priority and added two quarterbacks with good mobility to compete for the starting job. The competition between Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green at left guard will likely be decided by how well Dotson can learn to execute outside zone blocking, which is one of Green’s strengths. Outside of mobility and outside zone blocking technique, I can’t see how Green can win that job. The Steelers are serious about fixing the outside run game for the 2022 season.

Hopefully they pull it off and we get to see a Steelers run game that can attack the entire field.