The Steelers have become one of the more dominant rushing teams of late and it’s giving fans vibes that harken back to the Chuck Noll era. So crank up some classic rock and let’s see if we can figure out the why and “The Who” that are giving the ground game its juice.
When football morphs into rugby, follow the big guys
Our first clip is the first quarter power scrum that netted 20 yards by the time the Bengals were able to tackle Najee Harris after he followed the “Eminence Front” of Steeler blockers. The play takes so long that slowing the clip down made the file too big to put in the article. Will there be two more clips of the play to show more detail? “You Better, You Bet”.
This play prompted a classic post from commenting legend Homer J.
OT- Broderick Jones
BroJo’s blocking on Najee’s power run up the middle was awesome. He is literally pushing defensive linemen backwards for several yards with Naj running directly behind him, And then he clears the linemen out of the way and Najee emerges from the scrum behind him to daylight for even more yardage. This was vintage Steeler porn, the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite a while. It may have been only one play, but it’s been a long time since anyone saw anything like it from the Steeler offensive line.
Homer summed it up pretty well. On this play, Jones (No. 77) will be blocking defensive tackle B.J. Hill. Here is the first half of the play from the end zone view.
Now for the second half of the play where Jones emerges from the front of the scrum on the right side of the screen as he disengages from Hill (No. 92) after giving him an 8-yard ride on the “Magic Bus”.
It’s becoming quite obvious why general manager Omar Khan decided to trade up in the first round to pick Jones. For Pete’s sake, in the six games he has played, the Steelers have averaged 149 yards rushing compared to 71 in the five games he watched from the sidelines.
Time to flip the album over. Hitting on a first-rounder is nice, but as a draft progresses, it should get harder to find talent. Was Khan a one-hit wonder? Taking Joey Porter Jr in the second round has proven Khan to have at least one follow-up. Before Week 9 Porter asked head coach Mike Tomlin if he, as a rookie with one start to his name, could follow Titan receiver DeAndre Hopkins the entire game. Tomlin felt Porter Jr, or “The Seeker’, was up to the task. In the four games since then, Porter has strapped down the All-Pro Hopkins and two Pro Bowlers in Ja’marr Chase and Amari Cooper. In their games against the Steelers the trio combined for 12 catches, 175 yards and no TDs. For contrast, in Week 3, before Porter had cracked the starting lineup, Raider All-Pro Davante Adams would roast the Steelers for 13 catches, 173 yards, and 2 TDs—in a single game. Porter is becoming a lock-down corner that might be able to cover receivers to the Moon and back.
Khan’s next pick was defensive tackle Keeanu Benton. Benton has done for the rush defense what Jones has done for the rush offense. In the four games that he has played the majority of snaps, the Steelers have allowed only 86 rushing yards compared to 137 when he was just a “Substitute”. Whenever Cam Heyward decides to call it a career on the interior DL, it appears the Steelers can tell opposing offenses to “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
Fourth-round outside linebacker Nick Herbig has played just 91 defensive snaps but has produced a pair of sacks to go with two tackles for loss. He might be the most impactful player on the team on a per-snap basis. Did Khan hit the charts again in the fourth round? Roger that!
There are several other new Steelers that were brought in to “Join Together” in the band.
In his first NFL game undrafted tight end Rodney Williams made a game-saving play when he blew up an apparent Raven touchdown return of a Gunner Olszewski fumble. Williams didn’t even cost a draft pick. I’d call that a “Bargain”.
Wide receiver Calvin Austin smoked the Raiders for a 72-yard touchdown in just his third game on a play where it seemed he and Kenny Pickett were “Getting in Tune”.
Defensive back Darius Rush broke up a possible game-winning touchdown, nearly intercepting the pass, against the Titans in his first NFL action. On that play apparently the football was love and as the four Englanders told us, “Love Ain’t For Keeping”.
Safety Trenton Thompson got his first interception in only his fourth career game. (Third with the Steelers; he played 12 special teams snaps in a game for the Giants last year.) He really put the pigskin and the Bengals in the “Squeeze Box” on that play. The pick shut down a promising Bengal drive and led to the only Steeler touchdown of the game.
“I Can’t Explain” how Khan was able to bring in so much talent but he did a tremendous job of finding guys who have been key parts of the 7-4 start to the season. So BTSC, what do you think of the job Khan has done so far? “It’s Hard” to argue that he hasn’t cranked out enough hits.
Oh wait, do you think the needle skipped over a big portion of the rookie album? Do you think I didn’t use enough clips for a Film Room article? I tried to pull a fast one, but I know you’re saying you’ve been tricked before but you “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. So let’s check out Darnell Washington.
Darnell Washington: Equal Opportunity Destroyer
Many fans were expecting the Steelers to utilize the 6’7, 264-pound tight end in the passing game during Pat Freiermuth’s 5-game absence. That didn’t exactly happen, but after only one catch in his first seven games, Washington has one in each of the last four. It’s nice to see him start getting the ball even at this low rate. But running routes isn’t what has made Washington “The Ox” of this offense. If it’s possible, he’s deceptively strong for a man his size.
This first clip is Washington going up against Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson. At 6’5, the 270-pound Hendrickson’s size is similar to Washington’s. He has been in the league for seven years and a starter for the past four, a decided experience edge over the rookie. This play is the most I saw Washington get pushed all game. Washington starts at the left of the screen and struggles to direct Hendrickson inside to the hash marks, but the Bengal DE won’t be within 5 yards of touching the ball carrier.
Another play matched up with Hendrickson shows Washington to the left of the offensive line. He will run his man toward the sideline and seal him off as Jaylen Warren runs through the big hole. At the end of the clip, while looking away to see that the play has passed them by, Washington receives a two-handed frustration shove to his chest that bothers him not at all.
You may think I’m showing the same play over-and-over (I’m sure it felt that way for Hendrickson), but all day long when tasked with sealing defensive ends, Washington would provide the same basic result—a hole where running backs could “See For Miles”.
Having Washington seal to the outside was working so well it was a component of dozens of plays. This clip looks a lot like the previous one, but happened one snap earlier. James Daniels will pull from his right guard position in this variation.
This next play has Washington on the right of the screen, again sealing Hendrickson from the running back. Apologies to any of the Hendrickson family that found this article.
One more time with Hendrickson. Washington is on the left side of the screen and again will seal his assignment to the outside creating a lane for Najee Harris. Another Bengal waits in the hole and Harris goes elsewhere, but Hendrickson was removed from the tackling equation by Washington. The rookie tight end could probably be justified after these plays if he asked aloud to the Bengal defenders Who’s Next?
Next, we will look at another experienced defensive end and see how five-year starter Sam Hubbard at 6’5, 265 would fare. This clip is one that made me feel bad for Hubbard, except that he’s a Bengal, so not really. All game long Washington has been embarrassing defensive ends, but this play starts with Hubbard set up with a clean line of sight to the backfield, until big DW motions over. Washington will get his left hand under Hubbard’s right shoulder and chuck him to the ground.
Had Hubbard asked Washington “Who Are You” a reasonable reply in this hypothetical would be that Washington is “Baba O’Riley” as he enjoys banishing players to the “D-End Wasteland”.
Maybe size isn’t the best way to confront Mount Washington. We now take a look at how smaller and quicker Bengals would do.
Former Steeler Mike Hilton will attack from his slot corner position at the bottom of the offensive line. At 5’9, 184 he surely will run right past Washington to disrupt the play. Nope, Hilton is swallowed into his massive frame and laid to the ground 4 yards behind the action.
Next up is linebacker Germaine Pratt at 6’3, 250. A tweener size-wise from what we have seen so far. Washington is to the left on the screen and will let up moments before driving Pratt into Row 14 as Najee Harris scores the go-ahead touchdown.
The official threw a flag for holding on Washington during this play but the head referee would announce there was no penalty and the touchdown would stand. It seemed like the Steelers got a huge break here but since Washington was driving Pratt along the same path the entire play, the holding rules appear not to have been violated.
Per NFL.com, a holding penalty should be called if the blocker
Use(s) his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body. Material restrictions include but are not limited to:
grabbing or tackling an opponent;
hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or
pulling him to the ground.
Now time for a safety to get a crack. 6’1 206-pound rookie Jordan Battle was taken in the draft two picks after Washington. On the right side of the screen, Battle will get driven out toward the sideline allowing Najee Harris a huge lane for a 25-yard gain.
I hope you enjoyed the bonus tracks and liner notes as much as I enjoyed watching Washington provide block after block all game long. While some may see the offensive stats against the Bengals as an outlier, Darnell Washington’s blocking appears to be a cornerstone for the Steeler run game for years to come.