Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time. For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player.
The Irresistible Force Paradox
Have you heard of the irresistible force paradox? It’s the adage that poses the question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” It is sometimes used when taking about football to describe when a number one ranked defense goes against a number one ranked offense.
This is not that scenario. It’s actually quite the opposite. More like the “stoppable force vs the movable object”.
Steelers Run Game vs Bengals Run Defense
The struggle for the Steelers’ offense runs pretty much across the board. The quarterback play hasn’t been stellar. The wide receivers have seemed averse to creating separation in their routes. The once highly regarded offensive line has been spotty at best. And the play calling has been less than exciting.
This brings us to the running game which goes along with the offensive line woes. Through 3 games, the Steelers are ranked number 29 in the league in rushing. They have 51 carries, for 192 yards, averaging 64 yards per game and have a total of 1 rushing touchdown. The longest run of 23 yards was from the third string running back.
As a comparison, in 2018 over the first three games, they averaged 23.3 carries, 90 yards per game and had 4 touchdowns rushing. What a difference a year makes.
The Steelers running game is the stoppable force.
A glimmer of hope could be on the way come Monday night. The Cincinnati Bengals come to town to visit the 0-3 home team in primetime. With them they bring the NFL’s number 31 ranked rush defense.
To this point, the Bengals have faced 103 rushes, giving up 506 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. That’s 168.7 yards per game. Last week, I thought the Steelers giving up 168 yards to the San Francisco 49ers was bad. The Bengals gave up 259 yards rushing to that same 49er team.
The Bengals run defense is the moveable object.
The Bengals have a new defensive coordinator this year hiring Lou Anarumo who was formerly the defensive backs coach with the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. He did have some experience as the DC in 2015 with Miami acting as the interim DC for the final 12 games.
After watching the last two games, you can see he likes to mix thing ups with his defensive fronts. He’ll show you 3 and 4 man fronts that were generally determined by the offensive grouping. If there were 2 or more tight ends on the field the mostly used a 3-4 look. They use Geno Atkins, Josh Tupou and Andrew Billings across the defensive line. Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard lined up as the OLB’s and Nick Vigil and Preston Brown on the inside.
With the Steelers injury issues at the tight end position they will likely use a lot more of 11 personnel. Against personnel with zero or 1 tight end the Bengals primarily used a 4-2-5 nickel defense with Adkins and Billings at the defensive tackles and Hubbard and Dunlap on the ends. Tupou would be taken out for the extra defensive back.
The Bengals leading tacklers are Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams with 23 and 22 stops respectively. It’s usually not a good sign when three of your top four tacklers are defensive backs.
Borrowing (copying) the Success of Others
As I stated above, the 49ers ran for 259 yards against the Bengals so I wanted to take a look at what they were doing that was so effective. Judging by what the Buffalo Bills ran last week they seemed to have adapted some of what the Niners were doing as well. There were similarities in what they were doing on offense.
They both used a variety of runs and had success. They ran outside and inside Zone, lead counter, pin and pull and jet sweeps to name a few.
One thing that caught my eye in particular was they both used a variety of motions with the wide receivers. They would use jet, fly and orbit motions and timed it up with the snap of the ball to freeze the middle linebackers.
We’ve been talking about how the Steelers offense doesn’t deceive the defense. This little addition to freeze the linebackers could be enough to open up some bigger gaps which the Steelers so desperately need.
Let’s take a look at some different runs.
The Niners are in 11 personnel, the Bengals are in Nickel. The offensive line is all going to slant to their right. The QB shows the ball to that side and they get the front 7 flowing that way. They use George Kittle (85) in what looks like it’s going to be a slide block to take on the DE but he shows a little nod to the inside, freezing Dunlap (96) and ends up leading to the outside.
The Niners are in 22 personnel, the Bengals show a 3-4 look with Hubbard’s hand in the dirt. Here is an outside Zone run. The key blocks are from the fullback taking out one inside linebacker and from the center. At the snap he’ll chip the 1 tech, to give the LG time to try the reach block, and then he climbs to the second level to cut off Brown (52).
The Niners are in 11 personnel, the Bengals are in Nickel. They’re going to use WR Deebo Samuel (19) as the decoy here. They motion him inside and he settles to the left of the QB. Pre snap he motions to the right for a swing screen look. The motion not only moves the ILB’s away from the play side but will freeze them as well. The play becomes a Zone run for an 11 yard gain.
The Bills are in 12 personnel, the Bengals in a 3-4. The Bills are going to use Jet motion coming from the right side. The QB is going to fake to the Jet and pitch to the running back for a nice gain. This works for either the pitch or the Jet sweep going the other way. Either way, you’re holding the linebackers in the middle, opening up space with no one there to fill the gaps.
The Bills are in 11 personnel, the Bengals in Nickel. Again they’re going to use Jet motion moving the ILB’s right where they want them for the Pin and Pull. The center is going to block down on the 1 tech (the Pin). The right guard is going to release to the second level to block the LB Brown. The LG is the Pull to the right to take the 3 tech that was over the right guard. The right tackle is going to swim to the second level to take on LB Vigil. This opens up a tunnel right up the middle for the ageless wonder Frank Gore (20) for a 15 yard gain. That Jet motion holds the LB and 3 tech just for a split second to give the OL time. Wonderful execution.
Can This Help?
Yes, of course! It certainly can’t hurt to try. There are many benefits.
Time of Possession – The Steelers are losing this battle on a weekly basis and its hurting the defense. The Niners and Bills combined to run the ball 78 times helping them control the clock. The Niners had the ball for over 32 minutes and Buffalo controlled the ball for nearly 37 minutes. This would bode well for the entire team.
Let the Horse’s out of the Stable – James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell are all capable of contributing on, if not carrying, a drive. No need to ride one guy and wear him down. Use a rotation and hammer the ball at the defense to wear them down.
Help the Young QB – Mason Rudolph did some good things in his first start and had to understandingly be feeling some nerves. If the Steelers can get the running game going not only will it take the pressure off of Rudolph but it could open up the passing game as well.
Open to Change – This one is harder to judge. You saw above what the motion can do to help deceive the defense. This Steelers offense has not really shown a propensity to change. They do what they do. Would they be willing to adopt what other teams are doing to the Bengals?
Sometimes pride gets in the way. Coaches want to use their system to win. That may be the case or it may not but if I’m feeling the heat of being 0-3 I would be open to any and all suggestions. They front office has already changed their methods. Maybe the coaching staff will start to tweak some things on Monday night.
The Steelers haven’t been able to run and the Bengals haven’t been able to stop the run. One of those things is going to change.