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.
So it has come to this. A must win game against your biggest rival who is on an eleven game win streak to have a chance to get into the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens have already indicated that they are going to rest some of their players which could help but it doesn’t guarantee anything. In recent years we’ve see the Steelers rest some of their starters in week 17 and still come away with the win.
There probably isn’t another team that knows the Steelers as well as the Ravens. The Steelers must switch up their plan and do what the Ravens wouldn’t expect. The Steelers are going to have to be at their best and that starts by running the football.
Predictable Runs vs Ravens Defense
To say that Devlin Hodges has struggled the past couple games would be a bit of an understatement so how can they help him? An improved running game would take some of the pressure off the young QB. In totality the Ravens have been a good team against the run but in their last seven games that have allowed over one hundred yards rushing 5 times.
James Conner was described as “very much in question” by Mike Tomlin for the game this week so Benny Snell and Kerrith Whyte will have to pick up the slack. In my Rookie Report this week I touched on the predictability of the play when Snell and Whyte run the ball so I wanted to take a deeper look.
Snell Yes and Snell No
With Conner back in the lineup the Steelers staff have severely limited the usage of Snell almost exclusively in the 13 personnel/Jumbo formation which can be effective in short yardage situations. The result is him running against stacked boxed. Over the last 2 games, 7 of his 9 carries have been in this personnel grouping going against 8 and 9 man boxes. Every one of those runs has come on 1st and 10 during the flow of the game. Not in short yardage or in the four minute offense where it makes sense. The offensive line has not blocked these situations well leading to him often being hit in the backfield.
In the month of December Snell has 40 total carries. In 11 or 12 personnel he has run 10 times of for 47 yards. In every other personnel grouping he has 30 carries for 67 yards.
In this package you have Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett and Zach Banner as your tight ends with Johnny Holton as the wide receiver. With a rookie quarterback and these receivers there is no threat in the passing game. The defense knows what is coming and their ready for it.
Whyte This Way
The addition of Whyte in week 12 gave the backfield a burst of speed they didn’t have. They have sprinkled him in the offense and has put of good numbers amassing 121 yards on the ground with a 5.8 yard average.
The majority of his work (14 carries) has come on power runs following the lead block of David DeCastro and they have been successful gaining 78 yards on those carries (5.6 average).
Any defensive coordinator looks for trends like this. If 67% of the time when they run the ball with Whyte it is going to be with DeCastro pulling as a lead blocker the defense can key on that. Judging by recent results that is what is happening.
In December, Whyte has 10 carries with DeCastro leading the way and he has gained 36 yards (3.6 average). On all other types of runs Whyte has 6 carries for 42 yards (7.0 average)
Tweak the Game plan
The offense isn’t going to change a whole lot and we know they like to run what they are comfortable with. They aren’t going to go away from the power runs and they shouldn’t but this is a must win game so let’s see if they can tweak some of what they do.
A Change to 13 Personnel
This is something they have run all year, in any situation, but there is one change that they can make they would make a difference. Substitute Diontae Johnson for Holton.
Holton is fast and they like him for the occasional deep shot but 3 receptions for 21 yards doesn’t strike fear in a defense. Additional, he is straight line guy lacking the lateral agility Johnson has. If you put Johnson as the lone WR and the deep safety sneaks up, Johnson has the ability to win off the line of scrimmage and take a slant the distance. The safety will have to play deeper to avoid this leaving one less defender to fill a gap.
More Runs from 11 Personnel
Put your best weapons on the field and spread out the defense. 11 personnel will likely trigger Nickel if not Dime defenses and open up the box. Another positive is the ability to block by the wide receiver group. They’ve all shown the willingness and technical know-how to get the job done. Through the first 15 weeks while facing the 8 or less in the box vs 11 personnel Conner, Whyte and Snell are averaging over 4 yards per carry. Here are some looks that have worked for them.
1st and 10 – Conner vs Baltimore in week 5 with 8 in the box. This is an inside Zone run with Duo blocking up front. Offensive line executes the blocks and Conner finds the open gap.
1st and 10 – Snell vs Cleveland in week 13 with 7 in the box. Another inside Zone run with an Ace block by B.J. Finney and DeCastro. Hit the hole and run hard.
2nd and 13 – Whyte vs Arizona in week 14 with 6 in the box. Another look at the Ace block this time by by Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro this time. Look at all the big, wide gaps they create.
2nd and 23 – Whyte vs Arizona in week 14 with 6 in the box. Motion by the tight end moves on of the defenders to help open up room for this draw play.
There will be a trick play. I would bet at least one but maybe more. They’ll open up the play book and see what they can find. They could try a reverse or reverse pass out of 13 personnel. You could see a jet sweep with the option that has become popular. No reason to hold back anything this week.