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Steelers Film Room: Dysfunctional run defense could spell doom in Week 4

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The Bears had a perfect game plan Sunday against the Steelers: Run the ball and, when they adjust to stop it, run the ball some more. It worked quite well.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Few would classify the Steelers’ run defense on Sunday against the Chicago Bears as even moderately successful at stopping backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard. Throughout the afternoon, for every solid play and stop for a loss, there were two or three long gains given up, and there was hardly a single Steelers defender who appeared to play 60 minutes of even consistently competent run defense. The issues, unfortunately, were largely fundamental in nature.

2nd Quarter, 4:10 Remaining, 1st & 10, MIN 42

This play is both a testament to Cohen’s outstanding quickness, and an indictment of how the Steelers’ run defense played all game long.

The first thing to notice is that the Steelers have their defense rotated to the left, aligning defensive tackle Tyson Alualu as a 3-tech between the Bears’ right tackle (Bobby Massie) and right guard (Kyle Long), with defensive end Cameron Heyward aligned to Alualu’s left as a 5-tech. Outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo is all the way out to the offensive left as a 6/9-tech, standing up. The rest of the linebackers have all shifted to the offensive right, leaving outside linebacker Bud Dupree behind and between Heyward and Alualu. All of this was likely to get the fastest defenders to the play-side edge. However, the Bears had already been using misdirection effectively. This would end up being just another example of that.

At the snap, Heyward slides to his right, at first keeping his hips square to the line of scrimmage. Chickillo and cornerback Artie Burns have held the left side of the offensive line in check, allowing inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to knife inside, right into Cohen’s lane.

Cohen’s quickness is on full display at this point, as he basically stops on a dime and reverses direction in a single beat. Shazier was knocked ever-so-slightly off-balance by a chuck from left tackle Charles Leno, Jr., and is unable to get his shoulders and hips turned to the left to take Cohen on.

As Cohen cuts back, Heyward has already committed a cardinal sin of run defense, turning his hips toward the play side and accelerates while he’s on cutback duty. This puts him in no good position to defend the cutback against a much-smaller and much-quicker running back, and he is left grasping as Cohen reverses direction.

All the while, Dupree has crashed inside, as backside contain was Heyward’s role on this play with the linebackers all rotated to the offensive left. He is in traffic when Cohen cuts back, and has no chance of making a play. The play would net 26 yards.

3rd Quarter, 6:43 Remaining, 1st & 10, MIN 25

Chickillo had done a good job most of the day setting the play-side edge in run defense. On this particular down, though, he wasn’t up to the task, and it bit the Steelers hard. Unfortunately, that was the second thing that went very, very wrong on this play.

The first was the play call itself. After being gashed by outside zone runs for almost 40 game minutes, the Steelers inexplicably send both inside linebackers straight up the middle rather than using them to help with outside contain.

Heyward makes a last-second, pre-snap adjustment, as he recognized something about the play, and it nearly worked to perfection, as he was able to get immediate penetration. Unfortunately, he was unable to get a hand on running back Jordan Howard, who simply stretched further outside before turning upfield.

At that point, though, Chickillo had already been pushed far, far outside. With Heyward and both inside linebackers now well behind the play, and Chickillo outside the numbers, Howard had a nearly ten-yard wide hole to run through. He would end up gaining 17 yards on the play.

Overtime, 8:34 Remaining, 1st & 10, PIT 19

Our final play was also the final play.

When you’ve been eaten alive by cutbacks and counters all game long, you’d think it would be smart to account for that possibility, especially when your opponent has you back on your heels. Unfortunately, no one on the Steelers’ defense seemed to remember the gazillion times in the preceding 61 minutes when the Bears got their backs into open space by having them reverse direction.

On the final play of the game, Cohen starts out to the offensive right, but this was a designed counter all the way. After taking the handoff, he immediately curves back around to the offensive left -- where there was nary a Steeler to be found. Much like Heyward on the first play seen above, Shazier has no shot at containing the counter because he has turned his hips toward the play side. As Cohen reverses field, Shazier has to flip his hips completely, costing him critical steps and leaving him with no chance of getting to Cohen. Making matters worse was Burns being blatantly held when he was the last line of defense. That gave Cohen all the room he needed for the winning score.

The good news? All these mistakes can be easily addressed. The bad? Ten years into Mike Tomlin’s career as head coach, these head-scratching losses continue in early-season games. If the Steelers want any chance at home-field advantage in the playoffs, they’ll need to figure out a fix, and quickly.