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.
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