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Steelers Film Room: Run defense wilts in Miami

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The Dolphins pounded the Steelers into submission on Sunday. We’ll look at some of the reasons the run defense failed.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We all saw this on Sunday. It wasn’t pretty. In truth, it was downright ugly. The Steelers defense was run over, and around, by Jay Ajayi to the tune of 204-yards. Did I want to look at it again? No, but trying to forget about that awful display of defense wouldn’t mean it didn’t happen. So I approached the film from a therapeutic standpoint. By seeing what went wrong, I might be left with an understanding of the issues which need to be fixed. This seemed to be a (slightly) better alternative to the “What the hell happened?” narrative that was continuously running through my brain.

The “eye in the sky doesn’t lie,” as the old saying goes. Whatever you can do wrong in run defense, the Steelers did on Sunday. There were LB’s overrunning plays, leaving cutback lanes open. There were stunts run at the wrong time that left players out of position. There were curious alignments that left the Steelers vulnerable to the run. There were guys simply not getting off blocks. The difficulty was not in finding examples. It was deciding what to focus on.

Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference gave me some direction in that regard. When answering a question about Artie Burns’ play, Tomlin mentioned the failure of “crack/replace.”

Crack/replace, in simple terms, is the CB replacing the safety as the force defender when the safety gets crack blocked (sealed from the outside, in), typically by a WR. This happens more frequently when the S is aligned close to the LOS, with the CB deeper. As the CB sees the WR moving to execute the block, the CB will shout an alert to the S (ex: “Crack!”), and move to the LOS, becoming the outside contain man.

We see evidence of this type of play on the first offensive series by the Dolphins:

Notice S Robert Golden aligned close to the LOS. He gets crack blocked by WR Kenny Stills. Artie Burns must replace Golden as the force defender. Burns does not follow his assignment, getting sucked inside. Ajayi is able to turn the corner, picking up 12-yards.

Burns would make the same mistake on virtually the same play on a 3rd quarter run that Ajayi would take for 20-yards.

Not that Artie was alone in failing to properly execute “crack/replace.” Here on this 3rd quarter play, we see Ross Cockrell struggle similarly:

Again, we see Golden getting crack blocked by the WR (Devante Parker). To be fair, this was more of a quick-hitting play than the previous one to Burns’ side. Still, Cockrell has to react quicker, and take a better angle to the ball-carrier. His failure to do so was one reason why Ajayi took this run for 33-yards.

This is not to say that other players were not at fault. Whether on these plays I’ve highlighted, or on numerous others throughout the game, mistakes were made on all levels of the defense. I chose these because:

  • Tomlin mentioned them
  • These were responsible for some of the bigger gains surrendered on the ground

As I re-watched the game film, I wasn’t looking for a silver lining. Whatever the film showed is what I would convey, however unpleasant it may be. Remember, we’re looking to see what went wrong to gain understanding. There was evidence, though, of proper execution of “crack/replace.” I feel it is more instructional to show that rather than another example of the defense’s failings:

We can see the Dolphins in the same formation (11 personnel, 2 WR backside, TE in a wing/slot). On this play, Cockrell is quick to react, maintains outside leverage as he closes to the LOS, and forces the run back inside. Although he didn’t make the tackle, Cockrell’s execution helped limit this run to a 3 yard gain.

This play shows that there is an understanding of the assignment. When executed properly, the defense can be successful. The play-to-play inconsistency displayed by Pittsburgh, however, will lead to the outcome we saw on Sunday.

The Steelers run defense was not good, by any stretch, against the Dolphins. Again, there were many reasons for this. The examples we looked at here show why they were gashed on the perimeter. Like any area for improvement, these are correctable. Whether or not the Steelers get them fixed is something only time will tell.