Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images
If the Steelers want to be considered contenders for a spot in the NFL Playoffs, they need to get back to running the ball.
In 2011, the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the Super Bowl, they finished 14th in the NFL in rushing yards per game at a respectable 118.9. The Steelers’ have had some prolific offenses since then, including 2017 and 2018, when they finished 3rd and 2nd in total offense, respectively. But they have not finished higher than 14th in rushing since that 2011 season, averaging no more than 110 rushing yards per game in any of the subsequent eight years. This year, through ten games, the Steelers are on pace to average their lowest per game rushing total this century at a measly 80.7.
There are many explanations for the Steelers’ flagging run game. For starters, Ben Roethlisberger’s rise to prominence among the game’s elite quarterbacks encouraged the Steelers to increasingly structure their offense around the passing attack. Roethlisberger threw for a then career-high 4,077 yards in 2011. He has surpassed that number four times since, with injuries in 2012, 2015 and this season keeping him from doing it three more times.
2011 was also the year the Steelers began to receive dividends from a trio of stand-out receivers they had plucked from recent drafts. In 2009 they took Mike Wallace out of Ole Miss. In 2010, they got Emmanuel Sanders of SMU and Antonio Brown from Central Michigan. All three quickly became play-makers, with Brown a full-fledged star by 2013. Unable to sign and retain all three, the Steelers continued to look for quality receivers near the top of subsequent drafts. They added Markus Wheaton in 2013, Martavis Bryant in 2014, Sammie Coates in 2015, Juju Smith-Schuster in 2017, James Washington in 2018 and Diontae Johnson in 2019. Every one of those players except Brown was taken in the fourth round or higher. The success they had with Wallace, Sanders and Brown, coupled with Roethlisberger’s ascension and the NFL rule changes that made it easier to throw the football, had the Steelers scouring the draft for pass catchers.
In that same period between 2009-2019, the only running backs they selected in the fourth round or higher were Le’Veon Bell and James Conner. Bell blossomed into arguably the top running back in the league in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers were never a run-first team during his time here. Throughout his tenure, they based out of 11 personnel formations that spread the field with three receivers and largely ignored 12 or 21 personnel sets that were beneficial to the run game. Bell, a patient runner with a slashing style, didn’t need a lead blocker to run the zone-heavy schemes the Steelers installed for him. The fact he was among the league’s best receiving backs made the argument for throwing the football even stronger.
Up front, the Steelers built their line around players who tended to be quicker and more technically proficient than around maulers who could blow defenders off the ball. Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert could all move their feet and climb to the second level in the run game, making them well-suited to execute zone blocking schemes. Their agility made them good pass protectors, too. As Roethlisberger got older and his pass attempts increased, keeping him from taking hits in the pocket became a high priority of the offense.
The conversion to a pass-happy attack was made complete in early 2018 when the Steelers parted ways with then-offensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose control-minded tendencies had allegedly caused friction between he and Roethlisberger. They replaced Haley with long-time quarterbacks’ coach Randy Fichtner, of whom Roethlisberger was known to be fond. Fichtner was seen by many as a puppet hire designed to appease the star quarterback, whose frustrations with Haley had prompted him to speak publicly about retirement in 2017. Under Fichtner, the offense would essentially belong to Roethlisberger. When Big Ben’s pass attempts increased from 561 in 2017 to 675 in 2018, many felt this was indeed the case.
Entering the 2019 season, then, the Super Bowl offenses of the 2005-2011 era that had revolved around a power run game and an efficient Ben Roethlisberger were long gone. In their place was a gun-slinging attack that threw the football two-thirds of the time and led the NFL in passing attempts. A run game that averaged less than 110 yards per game just once between 2005-2011 had not exceeded that mark since. The rushing deficiencies were masked by the overall success of the offense under Roethlisberger. Despite some clamoring for greater balance between the pass and the run (much of it here at BTSC), the Steelers did little to make alterations.
When Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury in week two, the keys to the offense were handed to the unproven Mason Rudolph. Rudolph may or may not evolve into a quality NFL quarterback some day, but the early returns have shown he is, for now, no Ben Roethlisberger. With Rudolph struggling to command the offense, particularly when it comes to pushing the football down the field in the passing game, the weaknesses in the Steelers’ rushing attack are suddenly glaring.
Never was this more apparent than in the ugly loss to Cleveland last Thursday night. Long before Myles Garrett morphed into a real-life wrestling goon, the Steelers’ attempts to run the football resembled what happens when someone rides a bicycle into a brick wall. The final numbers weren’t necessarily appalling — 16 carries for 58 yards, 3.6 yards per carry — but 24 of those yards came on two carries (one of which was a 13 yard scramble by Rudolph), leaving the remaining run splits at 14-34, 2.4.
Fichtner’s unwillingness to run the football (counting sacks, he had Rudolph attempt an absurd 48 passes) was likely a product of the early returns in the run game. In the first half, the Steelers generated just 28 yards rushing on 11 carries. The prime culprit in their failure to run successfully was the inability of the offensive line to get any sort of push against Cleveland’s defensive front. Plays like the one shown below were pretty much the norm.
This is the first offensive play of the game. The Steelers, in a 12 personnel set with both tight ends and a compressed receiver to the top of the formation, run an inside zone play designed to hit to the left of center. But left guard Ramon Foster (73) gets beat across his face by defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence (99), which takes away the A-gap between the guard and center, and Garrett (95) drives tight end Nick Vannett (88) into the B-gap between the tackle and guard. This forces Conner to bounce the run outside where, once his shoulders are no longer squared up the field, he is an easy target for cornerback Greedy Williams (26), who comes in unblocked to make the tackle. The run loses a yard. It is a harbinger of things to come.
When the Steelers weren’t simply being out-muscled by the Browns at the point of attack, they were being out-numbered. At times, Cleveland simply loaded the box and made it impossible to run inside.
Here are the Steelers in the six OL jumbo set they’ve used frequently the past couple of weeks. Vannett is aligned to the left of the formation alongside Zach Banner (72), who has reported as the sixth lineman. This is a one-back Power concept, whereby all of the linemen from Banner to Pouncey block back to their right while Vannett turns out linebacker Sione Takitaki (44) and right guard David DeCastro pulls and wraps up to Joe Schobert (53). Running back Trey Edmunds is supposed to follow DeCastro into the hole between Vannett and Banner.
Unfortunately, there is no hole. That’s because this play is dead-on-arrival due to the fact the Browns have eight defenders in the box against just seven blockers for the Steelers. Look at the pre-snap picture. With the Steelers blocking Power using traditional rules, there is no one to account for middle linebacker Mack Wilson (circled). Wilson scrapes unimpeded into the hole and stuffs Edmunds for a one-yard gain.
On the following 3rd and 1 play, this happened:
Again, there is no push at the line of scrimmage against the Cleveland front. And again, Cleveland has the Steelers’ out-numbered in the box, this time nine to eight. Vannett motions across the formation but lines up too wide to cut off old friend Morgan Burnett (42), who pinches inside of him to drop Edmunds for a loss. Even if Vannett blocks Burnett, corner Denzel Ward (21) is unaccounted for coming off of the opposite edge and will likely tackle Edmunds short of the sticks. It’s another run play doomed from the start.
With Roethlisberger in the lineup, Pittsburgh would likely have checked out of all three of these runs to man-beaters against the single coverage on their receivers. It’s unclear whether Rudolph did not recognize the fact Cleveland had the Steelers out-numbered or if he has not yet been given the power to check out of certain plays by Fichtner. Regardless, in each of these instances, there are scheme and personnel problems inhibiting the rushing attack.
We can see the impact the decision to restructure the Steelers offense around Big Ben that began after their last Super Bowl run has had. The offense was bound to decline in his absence, but a better run game may have minimized some of the damage. It is unlikely the Steelers will be able to improve their run offense significantly over these final six weeks. Moving forward, however, it must be addressed whether Roethlisberger returns in perfect health or not. What, then, is wrong with the run game? And how might it be fixed?
The problems begin up front. The popular narrative is that the Steelers possess one of the best offensive lines in football, with perennial Pro Bowlers Pouncey and DeCastro as the anchors supplemented by a solid supporting cast. As pass protectors, this group has been excellent the past few years, allowing Roethlisberger to re-write the franchise record books. As run blockers, however, they are simply not built to pound the football.
Ramon Foster is 33 now, in his 11th season and struggling. Foster was whipped up front by the Browns’ younger, more athletic defensive tackles on Thursday night. He gets beat to first contact, is slow when moving in space and is often out-leveraged by playing too high. I have loved Foster’s attitude and effort for years. For an undrafted player to have been a mainstay of this team’s offensive line for as long as he has is quite an accomplishment. But everyone reaches that point where an upgrade at their position is necessary, and the Steelers are likely there with Foster. Foster has one year and a $5.5 million cap hit remaining on his contract, so it would be unlikely to see the Steelers cut him after the season. But they should either replace him with B.J. Finney in the starting lineup next season or acquire a player in the draft or free agency who can provide improvement as a run blocker.
The tackle position needs to be re-evaluated as well. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler are both, like Foster, undrafted players who were developed into starters by previous line coach Mike Munchack. Villanueva has been a solid contributor the past few seasons and the Steelers are said to like Feiler. But professional football is a results-oriented business, and the numbers in the run game speak for themselves. The infusion of top-level talent on the Steelers’ defense, which now includes nine first round draft picks, has clearly made a difference in that unit’s turnaround. A similar investment will likely be necessary if the team expects an improvement in the run game. It’s possible the Steelers have gone as far as they can with one or even both of their undrafted tackles.
At running back, the trio of James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. looks solid if not spectacular. None of the three are burners or slashers, which limits the team’s big-play potential in the run game, but all three are young and capable. The upgrade the Steelers likely need in the backfield is the addition of a fullback/H-back to replace Rosie Nix, who, after being placed on injured reserve last week, has likely played his last football for the Steelers. Whether the Sutton Smith Experiment provides that answer remains to be seen. Smith has been bouncing around between the waiver wire, practice squad and active roster all season. The decision to move him to fullback after drafting him as an edge rusher was an interesting one. Whether he or someone else becomes the next fullback, it’s clear the Steelers could use a physical lead blocker to assist with opening holes for their backs.
Then there’s the scheme, which is perhaps the biggest question mark of all when it comes to running the football. From an X and O perspective, Fichtner will have to re-evaluate whether he wants to continue to base out of 11 personnel and run a steady diet of zone and pin-and-pull concepts or if he wants to integrate more 21 personnel sets and transition more towards power, counter and iso runs. Three of the league’s best teams at the moment — New England, Baltimore and San Francisco — have all gravitated more towards this style of offensive football, using strong rushing attacks to play ball-control and set up their passing games.
Whatever Fichtner decides to do will likely be tied closely to Roethlisberger’s progress. I can’t see Big Ben returning next year as a game-manager who uses the run to set up the pass. However, both Fichtner and Roethlisberger have to recognize that the lack of a rushing attack is proving detrimental to the offense as a whole. Combined with the fact the Steelers do not currently possess the weapons at receiver they have in recent years, and that Roethlisberger will be 39 and returning from a serious injury, it would be foolish to insist on throwing the football two-thirds of the time like they did in 2018.
The Steelers are short on draft capital and are expected to be tight to the salary cap again this off-season. Whatever resources they do have should be spent on the offensive side of the football. A wide receiver who can discourage the sort of press-man schemes the Browns employed that let them out-number the Steelers in the box seems necessary. More importantly, upgrades at the guard and tackle positions that will allow the Steelers to be more physical in the trenches are imperative. The defense looks stellar and Roethlisberger should be healthy again. If the run game can return to its 2005-2011 form, the Steelers should be serious contenders for a run at their seventh Lombardi trophy.