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 an 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. Let’s get into it.
Heading into week 11 there’s been so much talk about the Steelers’ inability to run the football with starting running back, James Conner, being unable to surpass 50 yards in any of the last 3 games. While this game against the Jacksonville Jaguars while isn’t necessarily a game that the Steelers should have to run the ball successfully to win, it sure would help. On the other side of the ball is where I think real the matchup to watch is.
Steelers Run Defense vs. James Robinson
If James Robinson was a name that you didn’t know before the season, I don’t blame you. As an undrafted free agent out of Illinois State, Robinson has been one of the more pleasant surprises for this 2020 Jaguars team with roughly 900 scrimmage yards and 7 touchdowns through 9 games. He’s truly the one way this offense ticks.
In the last 3 games alone, Robinson has had 327 rushing yards and hit paydirt twice. In doing so, he’s caught the attention of Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin. Tomlin said at his Tuesday press conference, “I cannot say enough about him (Robinson) and the respect that I have for what he’s done. I read something this morning where he has run for more yards than any undrafted rookie in the history of our game, through this point in his rookie season and that says it all. But beyond that fact, when you look at the tape, his style of play is impressive. He’s a deliberate one-cut guy. He’s downhill, he’s quick to holes, he’s got good vision. He finishes off runs extremely well with great pad level.”
I’m not going to pretend I can describe Robinson any better than Tomlin just did. Robinson is certainly an impressive back. His power and vision jump off the tape.
Watch him here as he follows his pullers and even pauses to let the blocks develop, reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell (am I allowed to say that here?) and then shows off his burst through the hole for the first down. One thing you’ll see that is extremely consistent in his game is his ability to finish runs with power, the type of runner that will wear you down as the game goes on if you keep them in the game.
Here’s another example of his vision and power. He takes the draw and waits for the hole to open up and again shows his burst through the hole, running through an arm tackle before laying the boom on a Chargers defensive back. Then he continues to fall forward with 2 other defenders on his back.
The last run I wanted to show was one where Robinson continues to show his vision and array of moves. He sees there’s nothing in the middle and shows good footwork to press outside to grass. He bounces and spins off the cornerback’s attempted tackle and then beats the defense to corner for the first down.
While Robinson isn’t a typical home run hitter out of the backfield, he still has 5 explosive runs this year and has successful runs on over 50% of carries. The definition of an old school, downhill bulldozer.
In two of the last 3 games, the Steelers have been missing two of its key members of this run defense with defensive tackle Tyson Alualu and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton being hampered by injuries. Against the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 8 and 9 the Steelers gave up 308 yards on 58 total carries to the opposing running backs. Alualu did return last week, but there still were some gaps in the run defense against the Bengals as Samaje Perine averaged close to seven yards on his seven carries.
With Mike Hilton set to return this week I believe he’ll give this Steelers run game a needed boost off the edge. If the Steelers can eliminate James Robinson and force rookie quarterback Jake Luton into a one-dimensional offense, it should be a repeat of last week. If they let Robinson start rolling and have a bit of ball control in this game, you could start to have the feel of the Dallas Cowboys game from two weeks ago.
As the pressure continues to mount with the undefeated season in week 11, this team is going to get opponents’ best game every week. Will this Pittsburgh run defense be up to the challenge this week? Or will they get caught looking ahead to the massive AFC North rematch against the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving Thursday? We’ll see at 1:00 pm in Jacksonville which Steelers team came to play.