Shutting down a team’s ability to run has been the hallmark of Steelers defenses for decades. It’s a common goal for all teams, but the Steelers’ squad has had a special knack for it, year in and year out, along with a small group of other teams like the Baltimore Ravens. It forces opponents to rely mostly on the pass, making the offense more predictable. This is what is meant by “making a team one-dimensional.”
Sometimes, you just get lucky. Sometimes, you play a team with a weak running game to begin with.
Then there are times when technique and instinct allow a handful of players to simply take over a game on the defensive side, and that has a galvanizing effect on the rest of the defense.
After getting gashed by Miami running back Jay Ajayi in Week 6 for 204 yards, which triggered a four-game losing streak, the Steelers went back to some fundamentals, as well as some long-proven faces, and a new, aggressive run-defense was born.
Fool them once, Ajayi? Shame on you. Fool them twice?
That, most decidedly, didn’t come to fruition. And the Steelers shut down Ajayi by playing solid, fundamental football, with some instinctive plays sprinkled in.
1st Quarter, 10:53 Remaining, 1st & 10
Maybe it was a lucky confluence of design, execution, and the right defensive play at the right time. Maybe it was just an instinctual pre-snap adjustment for defensive end L.T. Walton. Whatever precipitated it, the key to this play is the single, lateral step by Walton just before the ball is snapped. That 18-inch adjustment completely changed the way left tackle Branden Albert had to block Walton, and you can see by how he struggles to turn Walton back to the offensive right that the goal was originally to get to Walton’s outside shoulder and drive him toward the center of the field, so Ajayi could run off the tackle’s outside shoulder.
That didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.
Instead, Albert was forced to take a few lateral steps of his own, which allowed Walton a chance to drive straight ahead. This gave Walton a significant leverage advantage. If you were to watch the play one frame at a time, you would see there is a brief moment when both of Albert’s feet are off the ground, and Walton is driving him backward.
The ultimate result here is that Ajayi had to run several yards further outside than the play design would have dictated, forcing him to run closer to James Harrison than would be desirable (let’s face it: running in the same county as Harrison is rarely considered “desirable”). Harrison is able to shed the blocker and reach out with one arm to wrap up Ajayi, ending the play.
1st Quarter, 6:42 Remaining, 1st & 10
If you want to see what the left tackle was supposed to do in the first play, you can see him execute it perfectly here. In fact, this is pretty much just a slight variation on the previous play, keeping tight end Dion Sims on the right side of the formation instead of being alongside fellow tight end Marqueis Gray. This puts Gray closer to the center, and does the same to Harrison on the other side of the ball.
Unlike in the first play, where Harrison immediately crashed down on Gray, he moves laterally with the play. This draws Gray further left, but also allows Harrison to get solid positioning to Gray’s outside shoulder, where he firmly plants his feet to set the edge. This would have forced Ajayi back inside, but Ryan Shazier immediately filled the running lane and was completely unblocked. This caused Ajayi to bounce the run way outside, and actually made him retreat a little further into the backfield. Because Harrison was able to easily shed Gray, he was able to turn and run laterally with Ajayi, preventing him from turning upfield before running out of bounds.
3rd Quarter, 14:20 Remaining, 2nd & 3
One of the biggest issues for the Steelers during their four-game losing streak — one voiced by several players — was that everyone on defense was too concerned with whether or not the people around them were going to execute properly. This led guys to try to be the hero, but usually meant they were out of position. This play is a great example of what happens when you do your job, trust your teammates, and assume the defensive play is sufficient to stop the offense.
Three players make this one happen: Walton, Harrison and Shazier. Walton gets a strong push into the backfield despite an initial double-team. Meanwhile, Shazier attacks from the left and is able to use quickness and leverage to get inside of Albert. Shazier and Walton getting penetration into the backfield from opposite sides effectively boxed Ajayi into the center lane, because both the cutback and outside lanes were closed off.
Meanwhile, Harrison is out doing what Harrison does, never letting Sims get any kind of a meaningful block. Harrison literally kept Sims at arm’s length, using only his right hand to keep the tight end at bay while leaving his play-side arm free. He’s able to move laterally and, once Ajayi was stuck in a box, he was able to close the top of the box and make the tackle.
In the end, Ajayi netted just 33 yards on 16 carries, a far cry from the more than 200 yards he picked up in the first meeting between the teams. And it all came down to all of the parts working in unison, exactly as the plays were drawn up.