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Steelers Film Room: Run defense shuts down Baltimore’s ground game

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After getting gashed by the Dolphins and Patriots, the Steelers defensive front went a little “old school” Steel Curtain on the Ravens.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

8-yards, 5-yards, 6-yards.

Those were the results of the first three runs by the Ravens on Sunday. “Here we go again,” I thought. “The Steelers are going to get eaten up on the ground.” They didn’t, however. The rushing total for the Ravens at the end of the game was 29 carries for 50-yards. When we look at plays when Baltimore actually tried to run the ball (exclude 2 kneel downs and a Joe Flacco scramble), they ran 26 times for 38-yards. After allowing 19-yards on the first 3 runs, the Steelers defense clamped down, allowing 19 yards on 23 carries the rest of the game.

What changed? We’ll look at the 4th rushing attempt by the Ravens. This came on 2nd down and 4, right after a 6-yard run on 1st down:

The Ravens are in 11 personnel (1RB, 1 TE). Note, however, that OT Hurst is in as the TE. The Steelers normally counter 3 WR with their nickel package (2DL, 4 LB, 5 DB). Here, they stayed with their 3-4 personnel. As you can see, the Steelers have their NT (Hargrave) and DE (Tuitt) aligned as 3-tech and 7-tech to the strong side. Heyward and Jarvis Jones are aligned as the 1-tech and 6-tech to the weak side. The Steelers have a 4-man line utilizing 3 DL and 1 LB as a DE.

The 3 LB’s are off-the-ball. Shazier and Timmons would normally be so normally, but the addition of Chickillo is a twist. No mistake, the Steelers are aligned in a 4-3 “Over” front (1-tech aligned to the weak side).

The play resulted in only 2 yards. Two plays later (after an accepted 3rd down penalty to push the Ravens out of field goal range), Baltimore had to punt.

So defensive coordinator Butler switched to 3-4 personnel (instead of nickel) vs. a 3 WR set, and ran a faux 4-3 look. Was this change utilized because the Ravens used Hurst as a tight end? An offensive tackle certainly poses little to no threat as a receiver. This could be the reason the extra cornerback was not used.

Well, not so much. Next, we’ll look at a play from early in the 2nd quarter. The Ravens have the ball 1st and 10 on their own 16-yard line, after a punt:

We see the same look from the Steelers. We also see one of the reasons I like it. Shazier, as the “Will” (Weak side) linebacker is free to run to the ball. This utilizes his read and react skills, as well as his speed, to their fullest. Shazier is the Steelers most dynamic play-maker on defense. This alignment puts him in position to make those plays.

Note again, that the Ravens are in 11 personnel. This time, Pitta, their TE is in. The Steelers still utilized 3-4 personnel, in a 4-3 alignment, instead of using their nickel package.

This is not to say that the change in personnel/alignment was the only reason for the Steelers success against the run on Sunday. Lastly, we will look at a play that demonstrates simply “winning one-on-one” matchups, as both Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have talked about:

The Steelers are in their 3-4 defense. This is something we don’t see much from them anymore. It is what they would normally use against 2 TE sets, which the Ravens are in here (Hurst is again in at TE, with Pitta in the slot, off the screen).

Tuitt flat out whips his man. It just so happens to be that “his man” is Marshal Yanda, widely regarded as the best guard in the NFL.

Butler did use unconventional (by his standards) personnel groupings. Against 3 WR sets, the Steelers used 3DL, 4 LB (rather than 2DL, 4 LB) on 10 occasions. In all, they aligned with both the NT and DE on the strong side 17 times. 11 of those also had 3 LB off-the-ball, in a faux 4-3. Butler also “went the other way,” as the Steelers used their nickel package vs 2 TE sets a few times.

I don’t know what Butler’s game plan was; however, my guess is that part of the changes were due, in part, to being particularly familiar with the Ravens tendencies. Can we expect similar schemes going forward? That remains to be seen. Certainly it was part of the reason the defense had their best showing vs the run so far.

The biggest test of the Steelers run defense lies ahead with the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10. We’ll see if Butler uses some of the same schemes. Stay tuned...