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How the Steelers ran their way to success late in 2022

The Steelers rushing game continued to improve, in design and execution, as the 2022 season rolled on.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season has come to a screeching halt. Looking back on the season, there are a number of things which will need to be improved going forward while others need to maintain their effectiveness. One thing which fits into the latter category is the Steelers improved rushing attack the second half of the 2022 season. So what was the cause of the success? 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:

The Pittsburgh Steelers turning around their 2022 season had a lot to do with the reemergence of their rushing attack. While the statistics don’t tell anything specific with scheme (that will come from the film), they do point out an improved game plan particularly over the second half the season. Coming out of their bye week, the Steelers were averaging 94.9 rushing yards per game and ranked 27th in the NFL. By the time they finished the season, the Steelers were up to averaging 121.9 yards per game which was 16th in the NFL. Over those last nine games, the Steelers were averaging 146.4 yards per game which was 8th in the NFL when looking at every team’s final nine games.

With 2,073 yards on the season, the Steelers eclipsed the 2,000 yard mark for the first time since 2007. Granted the Steelers now have 17 games to do so, but it was also their most yards per game since the 2007 season.

Although the Steelers ran for significantly more yards in 2022, it was due in part to an increased commitment to the run as the Steelers reached 500 rushing attempts exactly on the season. Once again, this was the most they had seen since 2007. The Steelers 4.1 yards per attempt was the first they had gone over the 4-yard mark since 2018.

Now that we know the numbers, let’s look at the intricacies of the Steelers running game which added to success in the second half of 2022.

The Film Line:

The Steelers run game improved over the course of the season, but the best games were the last two, starting when the Steelers faced the Ravens and their run defense that ranked third in the NFL.

The Steelers would rush for 198 yards in Baltimore, the most the Ravens had given up in regulation since 2013. Those yards weren’t based on a few big runs either as the Steelers methodically carved up the Ravens defense with a varied ground attack. One of the best ways I can show it is the first four plays of the Steelers 3rd drive of the game.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 8:46

Kevin Dotson (#69) is the guard to the right side of the screen.

You can see the double teams on the defensive lineman, and you see Dotson work off helping Dan Moore Jr. to block Roquan Smith (LB#18), creating a nice lane for Harris to gain 5 yards on first down.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 8:11

Gunner Olszewski (#89) is the receiver to the left side of the screen.

Matt Canada follows Harris’ run with a jet sweep that gains 6 yards and a first down. You can see the Ravens don’t react fast enough to the sweep, the safety (#32) and linebacker (#6) to that side both react only after Olszewski has the ball, and it’s too late to stop the play from gaining solid yards.

Gunner Olszewski isn’t a great playmaker, there are several Steelers better at these sweeps than he is, Olszewski is smart about taking yards he does have and he’s a willing blocker, which as we talked about in the Connor Heyward Vertex last week, and is a big boost to these types of plays.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 7:40

Watch the offensive line on this play.

This play is from the outside zone family. Notice the offensive line moving laterally and James Daniel (right guard, #78) helping his tackle before moving to the block linebacker Roquan Smith. Also note center Mason Cole working to slow the nose tackle’s movement, and how that is what opens the hole. If you look at the lane Jaylen Warren runs through, he crosses the line of scrimmage outside the hash marks, outside of where Pat Freiermuth started the play.

The Steelers weren’t able to run these plays in 2021, and didn’t execute them well earlier this season. The ability to run plays from the inside zone family (double teams driving DL off the line then working to linebackers) and the outside zone family (forcing lineman to move laterally to open gaps) is a big reason behind the Steelers run game improvement.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 7:02

Jaylen Warren is the running back.

For the fourth run play to start the drive, the Steelers bring jet motion and this time Patrick Queen (#6) doesn’t wait to see if Steven Sims gets the ball before heading after him. The jet motion replaces Queen with the slot defender, Kyle Hamilton (#14, enters from right at snap). Hamilton is an easy block for Zach Gentry (#81) and even though Hamilton gets in on the tackle, Jaylen Warren gains 6 yards.

That’s four plays, four runs, 22 yards to start the drive. That possession ended with a field goal attempt after a 44-yard drive, 34 of those yards coming from six run plays.

That drive reminded me of the 2004 Steelers when that fantastic offensive line and backs Jerome Bettis and Deuce Staley would gain 4-6 yards almost every snap and simply march down the field drive after drive.

The Steelers don’t have the same talent on the offensive line, and as you can see on these four plays, they weren’t doing it with exceptional effort from the ball carriers. The strength of the Steelers run game is in the variety of threats they utilize and the number of threats defenses have to respect on any given play.

To dig farther into that, let’s move to Week 18 against the Cleveland Browns.

Steelers vs. Browns, 3rd quarter, 14:22

Jaylen Warren is the running back.

I love watching the defense on this play. They are pointing and moving all over before the snap, then as soon as the ball is snapped, they are all standing there watching to see what is going to happen. They don’t know where the ball is going, they have to wait and see, and that lets this funky looking play turn into a 22-yard gain.

Watch the edge rusher to the left, he is unblocked but takes himself out of the play because Warren and Pickett sell a run away from him. #42 is in the right spot, but Connor Heyward takes care of him, while the middle linebacker (#54) is easily reached by Chukwuma Okorafor (#76, OL farthest to left) as he waits to see where the ball is heading.

Steelers vs. Browns, 3rd quarter, 11:56

Gunner Olszewski is the receiver to the left side of the screen.

It isn’t just big gains that matter either. This is a jet sweep on 3rd and 1 that converts for a first down. Olszewski is heading outside when he notices #40 is wide enough that he can cut up field and get the only yard that really mattered on this play. You can see the Browns focus on stopping an inside run by Harris or Pickett, and even though they have the numbers to stop the jet sweep, there is still an opportunity for Olszewski to convert.

Manufacturing space in the run game is a big deal. Football is a game of inches, and the Steelers run scheme is creating inches and even feet of space for players to utilize. The Steelers don’t have the personnel to run power all game and dominate the line of scrimmage like they did in 2004, but by the end of the 2022 season they were getting similar results from their run game, even against really good run defenses.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 4:39

Derek Watt (#44) is the H-back to the left side of the screen.

I love this play. Watch the middle linebacker. The Steelers run the ball right where he starts the play, and yet when Derek Watt crosses the goal line that linebacker is nowhere around. Watching him vacate that spot right before Derek Watt enters it is fantastic.

I left this one a bit longer because after the score the body language and reactions of the defense say everything about this run game. There’s no one getting pointed at or yelled at for losing their assignment, they don’t know how to defend the run game they are facing.

The Point:

The Steelers are keeping the architects of this run game, Matt Canada and Pat Meyer, together for 2023. While Matt Canada’s passing schemes may not be the best, this kind of a rushing attack gives Kenny Pickett the same help the Steelers run game of the mid 2000’s gave a young Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers ran very simple passing concepts and threw the ball less than any other team in Roethlisberger’s first few seasons. The Steelers had a lot of success doing it too. Kenny Pickett isn’t Ben Roethlisberger and this Steelers team doesn’t have the same level of talent top to bottom that that team had, but you can see that they value giving Kenny Pickett a similar offense to start his career that they had for Ben Roethlisberger.

While looking at the rushing scheme over the last two games of the season shows the Steelers success, what it ultimately takes to run any system is the players executing on each snap. The Steelers run game woke up in the second half of 2022 as the players across all of the offense, not just the running backs and offensive line despite them being the most important, began executing the plays better individually and as a collective unit. With the designs confusing the defense and the players doing their assignments, the Steelers were able to top the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in 15 seasons.