Great rushing attacks are built upon the blocking at the point of attack. Last week’s record setting day by Le’Veon Bell was proof positive of this theory and he would be the first one to agree. In Week 14’s version of in the trenches our breakdown on how the Pittsburgh Steelers would deploy their rushing attack was right on target. Let’s see if we can do it again as the stakes are raised even higher in Week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals season is all but done at this point in the year as they have no chance to advance into the post season. This game is an exception in the eyes of the Bengals: A division rivalry game with the Steelers with the grudge of last season’s Wild Card Playoff game looming large. This gives a talented, but generally unmotivated Bengal’s front 7 motivation to bring their “A” game. The Bengals defense has given the Steelers issues in the past, let’s see how the match-ups pan out.
The star matchup will the Steelers’ right guard David Decastro against the Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Per Pro Football Focus, Atkins scores an 85.8 on the season and DeCastro is rated an 87.3. If DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey can mitigate Atkins’ ability to disrupt run plays, and work to the second level to get a block on a linebacker the Steelers’ line will most likely be able to assert itself over the course of the game. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert will square off against Bengals’ defensive end Carlos Dunlap in another matchup of high quality linemen. Pro Football Focus (PFF for short) scores Gilbert at 86.2 and Dunlap at 82.7. But Dunlap’s high score is partially based on his pass-rushing prowess, his run stopping metric dips down to 74.1. In contrast, Gilbert scores a solid 80.9 in the run game this season and has shown the ability to block Dunlap in the past
Steelers’ center Maurkice Pouncey grades at 82.6 per PFF this season with a run blocking metric of 72.7. Pouncey’s run blocking metric is far from the highest on the team’s, but he’s an asset in other ways. When he’s on the field he’s adept at reading run blitzes and making sure every Steelers blocker knows their specific assignment.
The match-ups on the left side of the offensive line may be where the Steelers choose to exploit the Bengals’ defense, much like what they did against the Bills last week. Ramon Foster returns to action this week and will be tasked with blocking the rotation of Bengals defensive tackles Pat Sims and Domata Peko. Foster is considered a top ten guard by PFF and is graded at 85.1, while Sims and Peko score 46.1 and 42.4 respectively. Yes, you read that right, there’s close to a 40-point gap in grading their respective performances! Sims is having a down year as his grading dropped almost 30 points from last season when the Bengals were a playoff team. At left tackle the performance gap closes dramatically. Alejandro Villanueva will have his hands full with Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson, like Sims and Peko has a poor grade of 41.6 on the season while Villanueva rates a respectable 74.1 (and climbing). These stats can be slightly deceptive though because Villanueva’s run metric is 62.2. Johnson’s run stopping metric is 54, a full 13 points higher than his total grade for the season.
The Steelers offensive line has a decisive advantage against the Bengals defensive front based on the data PFF has gathered thus far this season. But the Bengals run defense can still be formidable, mostly due to their linebacker play.
Despite his suspension earlier in the season Vontaze Burfict is turning in another solid season, with a PFF total metric of 86.5 (the highest grade of any defender both teams), and a run stopping metric of 82.7.
When the Steelers come out in 11 personnel Burfict will be accompanied by Karlos Dansby in the Bengals nickel formation. Dansby is another player whose performance has dropped dramatically since last season. This year his overall grade is a 51.6, down from 80.8 last year. Even with the decrease in Dansby’s overall performance, he still has been decent against the run this season. Garnering a PFF run defense metric of 73.7. The Bills had linebackers with similar grades but the Steelers linemen were effective at getting to the second level or using scheme to make life easier on their linemen. Namely they used Roosevelt Nix to block linebackers so Le’Veon Bell still had a hole if the offensive line was unable to get to the second level.
If the Steelers use more run heave formations like they did against the Bills, the Bengals will use a rotation of Vincent Rey and Ray Maualuga as the third linebacker in their base defense. Rey has put together a solid season, and has a run stopping metric of 76.6 in 2016. Maualuga, in contrast, is another Bengals defender who has played poorly compared to last year. PFF rates him at a lowly 37.7 on the season compared to a last year’s grade of 79.1. Maualuga’s performance aside, when you look at the Bengals’ linebackers and their run metrics, it’s easy to see why they could be a thorn in any team’s running game.
There are other personnel that can provide contributions to the running game throughout the Steelers’ roster. Using Nix to block linebackers allowed the rushing game to flourish last week. Having a fullback in the game changed some of the blocking assignments and made the Steelers’ offensive linemen’s jobs easier. His ability to block linebackers will allow the Steelers linemen to concentrate on the Bengals front four. Fullback is a dying position in the NFL but Nix has managed the third best run blocking grade per PFF all season in limited action (80.3). Seeing him lineup in front of Bell should make defenses sweat, he’s a dynamic blocker and he’s only getting better.
Other players that must contribute are tight ends like David Johnson, Ladarius Green and Jesse James. None of them have great run blocking grades per PFF (50.8, 48.9 and 46.1 respectively) but when they get the job done they spring Bell for big plays. If the Steelers decide to go run heavy don’t be surprised to see back up lineman Chris Hubbard lining up as a tight end to provide an advantage getting movement at the point of attack. Hubbard started three games this season and has seen spot duty as a blocking tight end this season. His run blocking metric is 71.7, much higher than the other tight ends on the Steelers’ roster, and he’s adapting to his new role as a blocking tight end nicely.
After combing through all the data, the Steelers have a decided advantage in running the ball. Especially if they implement run heavy personnel and blocking schemes like they did in Buffalo last week. If Todd Haley moves away from his oft used 11 personnel and brings in the big bodies like Hubbard and Nix, the Bengals’ defensive front seven could be in for a long game. Given the rivalry between the two teams and the outcome of last year’s playoff game, the referees will be monitoring player interaction closely to make sure the game doesn’t digress into an all-out fight. With that in mind the offensive line must make sure they do not stall drives with penalties. If they can keep the yellow laundry off the field the Steelers should be able to implement the running game effectively Sunday in Cincinnati.