Trench wars are some of the most fun battles to witness in the NFL, and the Steelers showed their ability to dominate that aspect of the game. Running the ball balances the offense, and a balanced attack would be a serious advantage against the better teams.
The Steelers rank 30th in rush offense with 93.9 yards per game 17th in yards per carry with 4.3. Their run game had to adjust to James Conner being the primary running back early, but his high ankle sprain forced Jaylen Samuels to become the starter the past two weeks.
After gaining only 28 yards on 11 carries against the Raiders, Samuels broke through the Patriots for 142 yards on 19 carries. But the difference was the offensive line and maximizing their efforts with Samuels’ running style. Conner has his own power running style that works better behind lead blockers, but Samuels’ performance leans more towards stretch runs and zone schemes.
But the Steelers found a way to incorporate Samuels’ speed along with the strengths of their offensive line. We discussed the Steelers’ reluctance to use those strengths against the Raiders in last week’s War Room feature. Watch how both Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pull to become lead blockers and take on Pat Chung and Kyle Van Noy on the edge:
That’s an example of Randy Fichtner creating favorable matchups with some of his best players. But that’s something the Steelers were able to do when Conner was available. But Samuels brought an element to the running game similar to the strengths of Bell because of his vision. He was able to pick his gaps and attack.
Being able to succeed behind different run schemes forces defenders to guess which gaps they need to fill. Watch how the Steelers ran this wham block using Jesse James to take on Devin McCourty while Alejandro Villanueva wins against Adrian Clayborn on the edge:
By the time Clayborn disengages with Villanueva, Samuels is in full stride and cannot be caught by the defensive end. Even Antonio Brown got into the act of blocking at a high level downfield.
These runs never allowed the Patriots to commit to the right gap, forcing them to show gap integrity across the board. This prevents an aggressive flow to the ball and forces tacklers to be more tentative, allowing the running backs to set the tone.
Watch how that kind of run can lead to incorrect guesses by defenders that open up holes. Samuels approaches the line and hesitates for just a second, but that hesitation forces No. 53, Van Noy, to guess where Samuels wants to run. Van Noy moves towards A-gap, but gives up the gap on the hesitation, and Samuels runs through his arm tackle attempt:
Even when the Patriots accounted for most gaps, Samuels could occasionally find at least one spot where the Steelers’ could win. Watch this stretch run where Villanueva takes on Elandon Roberts while James seals his edge against Van Noy. JuJu Smith-Schuster seals his man to the outside and Samuels’ burst finishes the job:
Even without using Roosevelt Nix, the Steelers were able to force the Patriots to spread their defense out and take advantage of their thinned out alignment. The Steelers used Washington on 69 percent of plays and Eli Rogers on 44 percent of plays from the Patriots’ game.
Watch how the Patriots were lined up on Samuels’ longest run of 25 yards. The Steelers have three receivers on the field, spreading the Patriots out, leaving only six players in the box. Then the counter toss is called with the line getting one-on-one matchups across the board as Vance McDonald pulls down the line to kick out Chung:
Notice the splits between No. 90, Malcolm Brown and No. 93 Lawrence Guy. That’s a considerable amount of ground to cover against Ramon Foster and Pouncey, both of which are of the Steelers’ best blockers. They did a good job of using their spread offense to force lighter personnel groups on the field and take advantage of the matchups.
The Saints will provide a much stronger challenge as they are the NFL’s top defense against the run and give up the second fewest yards per carry. Their defensive front has seen strong play from Cameron Jordan and rookie Marcus Davenport at both defensive ends, so there won’t be as many favorable matchups as there were against the Patriots.
But if the Steelers manage to create and win favorable situations to open running lanes for Samuels against this Saints defense, it could be a great sign that they’re ready for the playoffs.