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Carter’s Classroom: Fix the run with the pass ☕

How bad is the Steelers’ ground game right now? They rank 29th in rushing yards through week 2 and 21st in yards per carry. The Steelers have to buck both those trends to kickstart their offense.

James Conner - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Even when Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be part of Randy Fichtner‘s plan for the Steelers’ 2019 offense, having a successful running game has been essential to moving forward.

But with Mason Rudolph set to start the rest of the year, the running game has to start clicking for the Steelers to have any hope of moving forward. Let’s get into how Rudolph can actually be part of the solution to the Steelers’ problems in the run game:

How bad is the Steelers’ ground game right now? They rank 29th in rushing yards through week 2 and 21st in yards per carry. The Steelers have to buck both those trends to kickstart their offense.

So what’s been the problem? It’s been the offensive line getting overloaded on most rush attempts. The Steelers’ line is still a talented group that can still win their matchups, but both the Patriots and Seahawks were extremely aggressive against the run.

Watch this run for no gain when the Seahawks load the box with eight defenders and have a cornerback closing off the edge. It overloads the line, which gives Conner no space when Matt Feiler gets beat by Quinten Jefferson. Had the Steelers gave Conner just one more second he could’ve had a one-on-one chance with a cornerback:

Not only were they overloading the box, the off ball linebackers and safeties consistently took aggressive approaches to the line with little consideration of having a pass thrown behind them to a vacated space. This was because the Steelers weren’t expected to use play action and in both games Roethlisberger hadn’t shown a reason to fear passes over the middle.

Watch how Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright aren’t even thinking about the pass. Their footwork shows they’re only considering the run and charging their gaps:

When a defense swarms the line they often force more mistakes and put more pressure on the weaker spots. That’s why Feiler, Vance McDonald and others sometimes would get beat and it would get highlighted more. For example, it’s likely that James Washington was supposed to at least chip or seal Wright on the above play but didn’t for lack of understanding that particular look.

The key to backing the defense off this kind of aggressive play is catching them off-guard with the pass. That was a big reason why Fitchtner called the flea flicker Rudolph completed to JuJu Smith-Schuster. It made the Seahawks’ linebackers think about different threats in the Steelers’ offense.

So do not mistake the problems in the run game for being a lack of talent on the line. They still communicate well and work together when given opportunities. Watch how the block for Conner on this 14-yard run.

Wright blitzes A-gap, but that doesn’t stop Maurkice Pouncey from helping Ramon Foster against defensive tackle and former Steeler Al Woods. Watch how Pouncey helps control Woods, then peels off to seal Wright.

Then notice how Xavier Grimble uses an excellent reach step on the left edge to seal Clowney. This not only clogs up Mychal Kendricks from the play, but it allows Villanueva to charge to the second level block Wagner just enough so Conner can accelerate into the secondary:

The talent is still there, but Fichtner and Rudolph need to find ways to keep linebackers guessing and never let them get settled into being aggressive and successful. After Rudolph hit several passes, including that flea flicker and some play action, the Seahawks’ linebackers were on their heels more.

Watch both Wagner (54) and Wright (50) on the below play. This is a run the entire way and the Steelers’ line goes right to run blocking. But because of the success in the passing game, both Wagner and Wright are tentative to approach their gaps.

By the time they realize it’s a run, Wright is out of the play and David DeCastro is at the second level blocking Wagner. All of this allows Conner a solid five yard gain on first down:

Finding that balance between passing and running isn’t easy, but when you force a defense to honor both as legitimate threats, it makes life easier. Even though the Seahawks and Patriots stymied the Steelers’ ground game, they were more concerned with keeping that stuffed than taking away the pass because the Steelers hadn’t threatened them with big play scares.

All that can change with just a few big plays from Rudolph and his receivers.

Carter’s Classroom needs your help! We are seeking sponsors for the 2019 NFL season that would be willing to see their brand grow through advertising with us. All interested parties should contact me at christopher@dkpittsburghsports.com.

MORE CLASSROOM

September 19: Nelson’s lockdown start
September 18: Rudolph’s best weapon is confidence
September 17: What makes Minkah special
September 16: Execution trumps scheme

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Jay BaileysCtrpgh76jason1937Chris CarterMr. Jim Recent comment authors
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Ctrpgh76
Ctrpgh76

The sad part is these coaches have no idea they need to stop being so predictable. The running game has failed because they try one or 2 run plays and the defense knows it is coming they load up the box, Steelers QBs cant audible and they get stuffed and they shelve the running game. You need to commit to it but also mix it up and use different formations. Chris Carter understands this. Joe six pack in the stands understands this. Fichtner? Tomlin? Not so much.

BubbaBanjo
BubbaBanjo

If you can’t run you better be able to pass.

If you can’t pass you better be able to run.

If you can’t do either its gonna be a long season.

Jay Baileys
Jay Baileys

Chris, don’t you think all teams are going to do this until the Steelers prove they can complete passes down field? The Pats and Hawks basically were daring them to throw deep, which I guess the only one was the flea-flicker. Ben’s deep passes were terrible, so they were able to stack the line and dare them to beat them deep. Sure they need to run the ball better, but nobody runs well with 8 or 9 defenders near the line every running play. Maybe Rudolph will actually use play action and burn them with a crosser over the middle to Juju or Washington. They don’t have to throw bombs. One of those guys gets one on one behind their front 9 in space and takes it to the house, that changes things defensively, right?

Mr. Jim
Mr. Jim

I believe that sometime from Ben’s last action in the last preseason game and opening against the Pats is when his elbow began to give him problems. He certainly did not look like himself in the Pats game and right from the start of the Seahawk game it was obvious he had problems and then it became obvious to all.

jason1937
jason1937

I think that I agree with the ‘Super Genius’ who thinks that Conner has really not played well to put it mildly. Even last year it is highly questionable Conner is All-Pro. He gets nicked up way too much and this year does not break tackles and has been stepping OB. The O line has not been playing well especially Foster but Samuels is a better back. A feature back is another position that should be on the Steelers wish list.

rocco14
rocco14

The “super genius” is one of the last people in the world that you want to take your football advice from. I still remember when he first started and he couldn’t even pronounce players’ names correctly let alone analyze play. To his credit, he has clearly studied up and improved over the years, but he is still much more competent when talking about hockey than football.

Mr. Jim
Mr. Jim

excuse my ignorance but may I ask , who is this ” Super genius ” being referred to???

jason1937
jason1937

I agree that Madden has boned up on football in the last couple years. But do not forget he has a lot of knowledgeable guest on his program and his comments are influenced by them. In the end, we will see how Conner fares this year and if the Steelers seek a feature back in the future. I still think that the team should have moved on from Foster.

Mr. Jim
Mr. Jim

Foster has never been a good run blocker, some of our best rushing games have come with his backup in when he was injured.

rk98
rk98

I’ve had an internal debate going on for years about the Steelers tight formations for runs. In that first play, the Steelers have ten men in the box but really only 6 are skilled blockers. The other 4 are the QB, the RB and two semi-worthless blocking WRs. That allows a defense to cover the one split end with a CB, leave one S deep and have 9 other guys to focus on the box. So unless you have a very speedy back who cuts outside, it just shoves 17 men in tight spaces with very little running room.

I like the idea of splitting three guys wide which would likely remove 4 defenders from the box. That would leave 6 skilled blockers on just 7 guys with a lot more open space. And, if the defense stacks the box, you have one on one situations downfield.

Geoffrey
Geoffrey

I noticed Conner miss a few reads in the Patriots game (or at least it seemed that way from the numbers pre-snap and how the O-Line blocked the play), looked like he was seeing everything better against Seattle but just didn’t have room to operate.

I hope the Steelers use more play action and attack the LBs in SF, they aren’t on the level of the Seahawks. I have hope with how Rudolph went to McDonald.