This shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to Pittsburgh Steelers football over the course of the past several years, but they have become among the best teams in the league when it comes to executing the running game via counters.
Pro Football Focus posted an interesting article recently that looked to quantify individual team rushing success based on specific run concepts, split between inside zone, outside zone, power, duo, and counters. When it came to the counter runs, the Steelers offensive line was both the most frequent and most successful in running it.
According to their charting, Pittsburgh run counter on 39 rushing plays last season. They averaged 5.8 yards per rush on such plays, but most notably, the offensive line generated 2.2 yards before contact per rush, which was the most in the league by a healthy margin.
It goes without saying that the primary protagonist for this success is veteran right guard David DeCastro, a multiple-time first-team All-Pro performer heading into his seventh season. The former first-round pick has become arguably the best at his position in the NFL, and a top-50 talent among all positions.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers – aided by the work of David DeCastro on the move – were the league’s best team running counter, totaling 39 carries averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 2.2 yards before first contact”, Sam Monson wrote. “Nine of those 39 carries went for 15 or more yards, but nine of them were also stuffed at or behind the line. Three of the best five teams in average before contact ran counter less than 10 times all season”.
It’s also worth noting that the counter is a staple run for the Steelers not just because DeCastro is there but because they have always run it with success and offensive line coach Mike Munchak believes in it. They still run the counter no matter who is in the game, whether it’s B.J. Finney or Matt Feiler, the latter of whom started the regular season finale in place of a resting DeCastro and got his own opportunity to run that play.
While we have done a lot of terminology work over the years on this site, if you should be so inclined, Pro Football Focus has also previously posted an article in which they break down how they define each of the blocking schemes pointed out in the beginning of this article.
You don’t fix what isn’t broken, and the counter running game certainly is not broken for Pittsburgh. it has worked so well in certain games that they simply ran it over and over again. Examples against the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills within the past few years spring to mind. DeCastro is the nucleus, but it takes a full team effort to execute it at such a high level.