Looking at the stats from Sunday afternoon’s game between the Steelers and the Cowboys, it looks like Dallas found some running room. After all, 114 yards at 5.4 yards per carry seems like a solid number.
The details of the game told otherwise, as 46 of those yards came, literally, on Elliot’s final two runs of the game. Unfortunately, both went for touchdowns — and, ultimately, Pittsburgh lost the game because of it — so both the running defense and the scoring defense suffered considerable failures when the game is taken as a whole.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t promising signs from the run defense against the league’s top runner. They held him to 68 yards on 19 carries before those final two runs, after all. In fact, we’ll start with a key play by two young players, as well as by Steelers’ fans’ favorite linebacker to beat up on.
Three keys happen here, as highlighted above. First and foremost, linebacker Jarvis Jones — who gets more criticism than he deserves, especially in run defense — cuts off backup running back Alfred Morris’ outside lane by driving the tight end backward. As that is happening, rookie Javon Hargrave fights through an initial double-team to drive the center into the backfield, right into Morris’ field of vision. This causes a moment of hesitation, giving linebacker Anthony Chickillo a window.
Chickillo’s backside pursuit, it must be noted, was textbook perfect, as he recognized the run direction early and turned parallel to the line of scrimmage as soon as he got into the backfield, instead of pushing deeper and trying to drop Morris for a loss. He wouldn’t have had the angle to do so.
Without any of these three keys, this could have been a big gainer. Instead went for just two yards.
In our next play, we see an example of improving pre-snap recognition, a savvy veteran move and the possibilities of one young, budding defensive lineman.
First of all, you can tell the Steelers are selling out to the run here, as they have seven on the line. Not “in the box”; actually on the line. At the snap, nose tackle Dan McCullers does what Dan McCullers does best: makes the blocking attempt of the guy across the line from him look foolish. He actually drives him almost two yards into the backfield off the snap. Doing that, rather than flowing with the offensive line, completely eliminated any cutback late Elliot might have had, but putting an obstruction (the center) into the backfield and by disrupting the flow of the two backside linemen.
A small window does open up, even though linebacker Lawrence Timmons is lying in wait on the other side. However, linebacker James Harrison has stood up the left tackle and is driving his way toward the hole. As Elliott finds the opening, Harrison closes it by shedding his blocker and getting low for the tackle.
Finally, let’s stay on McCullers and see the kind of strength he brings to the table, and how it can be used to benefit the Steelers’ run defense going forward.
There are smart plays, there are savvy plays, and then there are simply feats of strength, and that last one is exactly what we see here. A very, very clean hole opens here between the center and the left guard. Lawrence Timmons sees it and sets his feet, willing to give up a few yards to keep from over-pursuing Elliott.
McCullers, though, sees the hole and reaches to his right as Elliott is getting to the opening. With a single arm, he wraps up the powerful Elliott and stops his progress cold. Timmons and James Harrison arrive a heartbeat later to help clean up.
While there are plenty of missed opportunities from Sunday’s game to lament, including some glaring failures in run defense, it’s easy to see these guys beginning to come together with an understanding of their individual responsibilities, as well as the team goals on each play. The secondary is still a work in progress that may be another season away, yet, but the run defense is coming together in a big, big way, and could be the catalyst to spur this team to the post-season in 2016.