“Smash mouth football, Pittsburgh style.”
Jerome Bettis defiantly said those words as he sat on the sideline. He had just run over Brian Urlacher of the Bears to score the game-clinching TD in a crucial game at Heinz Field. The win over the Chicago Bears began the 2005 Steelers 5-game winning streak to end their regular season, and propel them on a Super Bowl run. The Bears had the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Urlacher was the leader of that defense, and considered the best LB in the league. So how do you defeat a tough, physical, defense? You meet force with force.
That’s what the Steelers did on Sunday. They were heading into Baltimore, a place where they hadn’t won since 2012. Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t won there since 2010. The Ravens had their typical imposing defense waiting.
The Steelers first possession defined exactly how the game would be played. Since they began with the ball on their own 3-yard line, it’s no surprise the Steelers started with 2 consecutive running plays. It was 8 plays in that told us everything we needed to know about the Steelers approach in Week 4.
A sack of Ben Roethlisberger had the offense facing a 2nd and 18. Instead of lining up with their predominant personnel grouping of 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR (11 personnel), and throwing a short or screen pass, or even a draw play, this is what we saw:
The Steelers brought B.J. Finney in as an extra OL (I hesitate to say TE, since Finney was not aligned as an eligible receiver). They also put Rosie Nix in as FB in an I-formation. And the Steelers ran my favorite play: the counter.
Villanueva chips on the DT, then picks off Mosely (No. 57) on the second level. Finney and McDonald down block on Zadarius Smith (No. 90) and Kamale Correa (No. 51). Decastro pulls and takes out “first color” (Weddle). Nix is right behind and cleans up Jimmy Smith (No. 22). It really shouldn’t look this easy. Finney and McDonald washed their side down so far, you could drive a truck through there. James Conner simply had to run to daylight.
The Steelers ran the counter from 22 personnel (as done here) 4 times on Sunday. Le’Veon Bell’s 21-yard run on their 4th quarter TD drive was one of them. They also ran it from 12 (2 TE) 2 times, 13, 23, and 11 once each. In total, the Steelers ran the counter 9 times for 66-yards, and 1 TD.
Tunch Ilkin of Steelers.com did a Chalk Talk segment on Bell’s big run on the counter. During it, Tunch mentioned how defenders grow weary of getting “earholed” on counters. Down blocks put the blockers in advantageous positions to hit the defensive players on the side. The DL in particular begin bracing for those down blocks at the snap. That’s when you hit them with an inside zone run.
That’s exactly what the Steelers did. Bell’s 21-yard run on the counter gave the Steelers a 1st down at the Ravens 15-yard line.
Then they ran this:
This is a “split zone” run. In split zone, the O-lineman zone block for an inside run. The TE pulls across the formation to seal off any back side pursuit. The back side defender here (No. 48, Patrick Onwuasor) takes too deep of an angle to even be in the play, however. We see a nice double team by Decastro and Pouncey on NT Michael Pierce. Foster stalemates Carl Davis (No. 94), while Finney and Hubbard do fine work at the point of attack. Bell recognizes the hole immediately, and you can see his acceleration through it.
Balancing the power action of the counters with the more quick-hitting aspect of inside zones helped the Steelers run game dominate vs the Ravens.
The last run we will look at is an example of beautiful design and near flawless execution. This came on the 1st Steelers drive of the game, 2nd and 8 from the Baltimore 28:
The first thing to take note of is the number of Ravens defenders in the box. We see seven. The Steelers, being in 11 personnel, have only 6 blockers. Normally, this is a situation where the QB would check out of the run, into a pass. Running the ball with a numbers disadvantage is not a recipe for success.
The Steelers effectively eliminate the Ravens man advantage by leaving Tyus Bowser (labelled as “1” in the GIF) unblocked. Villanueva heads past Bowser and is in perfect position to seal the LB(5). Ramon Foster has the most difficult block. He has to “reach” NT(2) to his right, as Pouncey pulls. Hubbard down blocks (on 3) as Decastro pulls. McDonald lets(4) go by and is in perfect position to seal the LB(6). Decastro kicks out(4) and Pouncey cuts S Lardarius Webb as he tries to fill. Darrius Heyward-Bey kept the CB out of the play the entire time. Last, but not least, and the reason I chose the All-22 view for this play (rather than the end zone view); Juju sprints across the field from the snap of the ball. By doing so, he is able to get just enough of Weddle to allow Bell to pick up a few more yards. This is just one example of why Juju’s teammates have quickly grown fond of him.
The design of this play not only eliminated a man advantage for the defense. It put the blockers in position to make easy blocks based on their angles. It still took execution by the players to make it work. You won’t see it done much better than this.
The Steelers offense came out with a mindset vs the Ravens. They were going to run the ball. They ran it on their first play. They ran it on their last play. And they ran it 39 times in between. The Steelers ran from 2 TE sets. They ran from 3 WR sets. They ran from 0 WR sets. They ran with 3 TE. They ran with a FB. The Steelers ran until they had crushed the will of the Ravens. In a divisional rivalry where the more physical team usually wins, the Steelers made no mistake which team that would be.
Now the Steelers prepare to face the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field in Week 5. The Jaguars are dead last in terms of yards allowed per game (165.5), so it is safe to say Steelers fans who love the running game can expect a lot more of this on Sunday.