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How the Steelers adjusted to stop the Bengals rushing attack after halftime

In one of the best tale-of-two-halves games this season, the Steelers were gashed by the Bengals’ ground game in the first half, and completely stifled it in the second. The one small adjustment they made is brilliant in its simplicity.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you found yourself mysteriously tucked beneath a rock, far from the light and sound of a television screen broadcasting the Steelers/Bengals game Sunday afternoon, you likely walked away at halftime to grab a snack or a beverage — or, maybe, something to punch into next week — wondering to yourself, “what in the world did I just watch?!”

Most likely, you realized the recently stout Steelers rushing defense — No. 2 in the NFL during the preceding four weeks — had been gashed for runs of four, seven, ten and twelve yards (some of those distances, more than once).

When the game was over, you probably felt satisfied, having watched that strong defense return approximately three plays into the third quarter. But, even after a second watch, you likely asked the same question I did: what changed?!

It took me about four viewings to figure out the change, it was so subtle. The formations were the same: most of the time, the Steelers were in a 4-2-5 nickel (or a 2-4-5, depending on whether you choose to break it down by level or position, but that’s a discussion for the off-season). More often than not, one of the two safeties could easily be found about two yards off the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, there was even a cornerback in the box. The Bengals spent almost the entire game in 11 personnel, usually with quarterback Andy Dalton under center.

The offensive line’s blocking schemes varied throughout both halves. Inside power, inside zone, outside zone, and even one outside run in which the pulling guard looked like he was moving in slow motion. No matter the scheme, the results seemed to be the same.

First quarter, fourth quarter. It made no difference, because the formations were, for all intents and purposes, the same throughout the game.

The difference, once spotted, seems both simple and profound. Subtle and miraculous. Dichotomies.

To attack downhill with your inside linebackers, or not to attack? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to have them charge aggressively headlong, or to have them mirror the sea of troubles that is the enemy’s running backs and, by opposing cautiously, end them?

Okay, so there wasn’t professional football in the days of Bill Shakespeare, although that name would just roll right off the tongue as a head coach or a coordinator. But I digress.

Yes, the difference between being gashed repeatedly for seven or more yards and getting stuffed repeatedly in the backfield was all about Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier: they were simply being too aggressive.

Second Quarter, 5:10 Remaining, 2nd & 10

You could swap this play out with any of a half-dozen or more before half time, and the only difference would be how far the Bengals’ runners got past the line of scrimmage. Part of the problem is L.T. Walton overpursuing to his right and getting taken out of the play, but the bigger issue is Timmons and Shazier both attacking straight ahead. Especially with two young defensive linemen who are still working on technique, this is risky, because it essentially vacates the second level in hopes of stopping the runner at the first level. With no one to back up the inexperienced Walton, running back Rex Burkhead had a clear lane in which to run.

Fast forward, now, to the third quarter.

3rd Quarter, 1:33 Remaining, 2nd & 2

Beginning, as I said before, at about the third play of the third quarter, you can see a distinct-yet-subtle change in how the Steelers defended the run, and it was like Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken: it made all the difference.

In this case, Shazier still attacks straight ahead at the snap. Timmons, however, moves down the line from the offensive right to its left, mirroring running back Jeremy Hill. Shazier’s attack actually appeared to initially help the offense, as he was easily cleared out by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. In the end, it helped Timmons, though, as it forced Whitworth further inside, giving Timmons an obvious lane to defend and an open field in which to do it. The end result was Hill being dropped after a modest two-yard gain. That was actually one of the Bengals’ better runs of the second half.

It gets a little trickier with outside zone, but it worked there, just the same.

4th Quarter, 11:47 Remaining, 2nd & 10

This play starts off as an outside zone run to the offensive left, but it gets disrupted early by Javon Hargrave’s strong push up the middle. While we can’t show it, there are examples of this happening in the first half, as well, but like the other runs, they gave up significant gains despite the disruption.

On this play, the disruption is aided by Timmons moving laterally at the snap. Had he not been in lined up two yards off the left B gap, the left guard would have been tasked with chipping Hargrave. In fact, he still should have, before moving to the second level. However, he was completely focused on Timmons, who let the guard come to him.

Meanwhile, Shazier also starts out moving laterally, and the fatal mistake happens at just about the same instant Hill recognizes that his original path has been disrupted by Hargrave, and cuts back to his right. The Bengals’ right guard lunges at the much quicker and more agile Shazier, who has already recognized the cutback and has started moving forward to get around the guard. Had he attacked downhill from the start, he would have been engaged with the guard, and the fate of the entire play would have been in the hands of safety Sean Davis — who is, admittedly, a strong run defender — and linebacker Bud Dupree. There’s no guarantee this would have gone for any real gain, but Shazier waiting to attack prevented even the possibility of it.

The subtle changes the Steelers made in defending the run at halftime on Sunday went a long way toward reinforcing the idea that football is much like a game of chess. The Bengals got the upper hand early, but in the end, they were checkmated.