Without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith and instead relying on the likes of Jamir Jones and Derrek Tuszka, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush was easily thwarted by the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday afternoon. That’s shown in the stats. Even knowing how little Joe Burrow dropped back, just 18 pass attempts, the fact the Steelers had zero sacks and zero QB hits is a major disappointment. That much is obvious.
Less obvious is the impact their absence was in the run game. Watt is one of the game’s best EDGE run defenders while Highsmith has grown by leaps and bounds in his second year. Not having either of them was highly impactful against Joe Mixon and the Bengals’ run game Sunday. Four times, the backside linebacker allowed the cutback on a zone run, letting Mixon get more yards than he should’ve.
Today, we’ll take a look at each of those plays and how the Steelers’ defense left too many yards on the table.
First example comes late in the first quarter. Zone run to the right. On zone runs, there is not designated hole for the back to hit. He’s reading the play and making defenders “wrong” by running where they aren’t based on how the defense flows to the football and fills their gaps. There’s a Bounce (outside) Bang (middle) and Bend (cutback) read for the back on these runs.
Here, Mixon starts to his right but gets vertical and cuts back as he sees the hats of the defense, especially rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk (#92) flow down the line. Mixon crosses his face with a bend here. On the backside of this play is ROLB Melvin Ingram. He’s unblocked, intentionally so by the defense, and his role is to be able to close down and help secure any cutback. But he can’t close quickly enough and Mixon explodes upfield for a five-yard gain and successful run.
ROLB Jamir Jones (#40) has the same issue later in the game. Another zone run that Mixon cuts back. Jones sees it the whole way and yes, he has to make sure he doesn’t let the back get outside of him either, but he’s not aggressive enough in closing this down, shuffling down the line as opposed to attacking.
Jones now has to dive to try to make the play and Mixon breaks through his arm tackle, picking up 11 yards and a first down here.
2nd and 7 in the third quarter. Ingram, at ROLB, flows down the line and sees the run the entire way. But he’s not explosive or athletic enough to close the gap off in time. He does make the tackle but not after Mixon drags him eight yards and past the marker for another Bengals’ first down.
There are, to be fair, other issues on this play, like Henry Mondeaux getting blown off the ball by this double-team. When an offense can double the DE and trust the RB can outrun the backside linebacker, it’s hard to play good run defense.
Last example. Another 2nd and 7 run. This time it’s Derrek Tuszka (#48), making his Steelers debut, who isn’t quick enough down the line. Technically, I suppose, he is, and he does make the tackle but it’s an ankle tackle that came dangerously close to allowing Mixon to break into the 2nd and 3rd level 1v1 against CB Joe Haden. And still picks up four, putting the Bengals in third and short (which they converted).
So what does it look like when things go right? Just a couple of quick clips. Watt is one of the NFL’s best on the backside of these zone/stretch runs. Check out this clip from 2019, chasing the ball down and making the tackle in the backfield. The speed, the close, the finish to take the RB down as he’s trying to make this read.
Don't understand why each week, teams let TJ Watt unblocked on the backside of their run schemes. He's going to crash down and make the tackle everytime. Hair on fire attitude and great closing speed. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/WQehlInOAh
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 24, 2019
Though he’s no longer with the team, Bud Dupree was also among the NFL’s best at this, a height/weight/speed freak of an athlete. Watch him close down this run on Saquon Barkley almost as soon as he gets the handoff.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 17, 2020
Make no mistake. I’m not asking nor expecting Jamir Jones and Derrek Tuszka to play like Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt. There’s a reason why both those guys were first-round picks who have been paid handsomely this year, Dupree by the Titans and Watt by the Steelers.
These examples illustrate how Pittsburgh missed Watt and Highsmith, their top-tier OLBs, just as much in the run game than the pass game. The numbers will have us focus on the pass game. The no sacks, very limited pressure, and it’s not like Mixon ripped off a gaudy, 200-yard game that grabs all the headlines. But the Bengals’ run game kept them on schedule and helped rip off big runs to build up a lead they easily held onto. Little things like not squeezing the backside cut add up and the Steelers found that out Sunday. Hopefully, Watt and/or Highsmith can come back to play Aaron Jones and the Packers’ attack in Week 4.