To point out that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game struggled on Sunday would be stating the obvious. Neither Le’Veon Bell nor rookie James Conner had much success running the ball against the Browns, and on some of the few times in which they did, they were brought back on holding penalties.
1. 3. 1. 0. 5. 2. 1. 5. 5. 4. 1. 1. 0. 15. Those are the total yardage figures on the Steelers’ 14 official runs on the day, with the 15 sticking out like a sore thumb. It came on the final meaningful offensive play of the game, sealing the final first down necessary to close out the victory with three kneeldowns.
There are only a few ‘successful’ runs mixed in there, and frankly there wasn’t a whole lot that the running backs could have managed to do about it, in part because of how the offensive line, tight ends, and wide receivers blocked, but also largely because the Browns defense played the run well.
It has to get better, starting today, and really, there is no reason to think that it won’t get significantly better rather quickly. The Steelers have the same offensive line as they did a year ago who dominated most defensive lines through the second half of the season and into the playoffs, and they deserve a lot of the credit for what Bell accomplished as a runner a year ago.
They just have to be more effective against the run today than they were a week ago, though they did well overall in pass protection. I think that Maurkice Pouncey struggled as much as any of the linemen against the run, and we know that is not going to remain that way.
While the Vikings certainly have some talent along their defensive line—including Linval Joseph in the middle, who recorded three run stops in the season opener—there is no compelling reason to think that their showing against the Saints are indicative of who they currently are after they allowed over 100 yards rushing per game a year ago at 4.2 yards per carry, though they did allow the third-fewest rushing touchdowns.
The Vikings have the personnel to be a quality defense, but the Steelers have the personnel to be a quality rushing offense, and in the home opener, I’m inclined to believe that the running game will look quite a bit more lively than it did a week ago.
The coaches will have seen what worked and what did not, and they will adjust accordingly. The reach-blocking along the perimeter proved to be an issue on a number of their carries, so I would expect to see some changes in that department.
They also shouldn’t see so many negative down and distance circumstances that discouraged the Steelers from running as much as they would ordinarily like to as they did last week. About a quarter of the total number of plays the Steelers ran last week came with more than 10 yards to go for a first down.