I get it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing everything they can to try and jumpstart their lifeless running game. So Sunday, the team tried something new. Heavy personnel groupings, putting multiple TEs and FB Derek Watt on the field to block for Najee Harris. On paper and in most cases, it’s not a bad idea. Get your biggest bodies and in theory, best blockers to pave the way. This team paid Watt quite a bit of money in signing him, partly for his special teams value but also as an old-school lead blocker. So that was part of Pittsburgh’s gameplan to run on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Which was a very stupid thing to do.
Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m not calling it stupid (although to be clear, I am). Mike Tomlin is the one framing it that way. He didn’t do it after the game but instead before it, talking run game with Steelers.com’s Bob Labriola in an interview that gets published every Sunday morning.
Tomlin’s answer was in response to what the Bengals do well to slow down opposing run games. Here’s his full response.
“The Cincinnati Bengals, for example, when you go ace personnel, which is one back and two tight ends, sometimes they play with five defensive linemen against that, which is essentially a short-yardage and goal-line defense. If you run into that, you’re stupid. That’s what I mean. If they over-commit themselves to an element of play, you have to acknowledge that. Often, I get frustrated when I deal with the media, because I get questions about why we didn’t do certain things, and I just don’t have the time or the energy to explain that element of it. They put five defensive linemen in the game you throw the ball every snap until they put four defensive linemen in the game. And it’s as simple as that.”
To sum up, in heavy personnel, the Bengals tend to play an especially heavy front. They’re a base 4-3 defense but against run packages, they will bring in a fifth defensive lineman and really crowd the line of scrimmage. That’s something we even noted in our scouting report. Here’s what we wrote:
“The Bengals remain a 4-3 team but it feels like they’ve added some wrinkles to their front. At least against the top running backs they’ve been playing against. They’ve done a couple different things to stop the run. A 5-2 look with the nose tackle head-up on the center as opposed to their normal 4-3 front with him shaded, usually to the strength of the formation, as a 1T. A true 0T. Don’t see those too often, even in Pittsburgh (almost always shaded).”
And included an example of how that front looks against 21 personnel.
So what did the Steelers do? I’ll give you one guess. Matt Canada tried to run the ball out of heavy packages, using multiple tight ends and Derek Watt to pound the rock. The Bengals, as everyone including Tomlin expected, beefed up their d-line with five of them on the field.
The first example came on the Steelers’ second run of the game. 2nd-and-6. Pittsburgh comes out in 13 personnel, 1 RB, 3 TEs, and 1 WR. And true to form, the Bengals have five defensive linemen in the game and nine guys in the box. With only eight to block, the Steelers are -1 in terms of box count, a bad place to be for any run game, especially one struggling as much as the the Steelers are.
The blocking is a mess. Eric Ebron whiffs on the LDE Sam Hubbard then can’t touch the crashing CB Chidobe Awuize (#22). Multiple Bengals run free, Harris is running for his life, and it’s a minor miracle he gets two yards out of it. But the play is negated for an illegal formation, Okorafor not covered up, and the Steelers march backwards.
Fast forward to late in the first quarter. Pittsburgh coming out in 21 personnel. 2 RBs (one being FB Derek Watt, aligned off-the-line to the top). The Bengals have just four true defensive linemen in the game but like our scouting report noted, bring up two LBs and align them on the line of scrimmage. It creates a 6-2 front, an eight man box with the Steelers having only seven to block. It again leaves them -1.
With motion on the snap, it becomes a 9 man box again, making Pittsburgh -2. There’s immediate pentation, it seems like Kevin Dotson got beat, but he’s just the first and far from the only one. A swarm of Bengals’ defenders rush in and Harris loses three yards on 1st-and-10, setting up 2nd-and-13.
Moving to early in the second quarter. The broadcast angle never gives us a great look at things pre-snap (we’ll see it much better on the All-22) but Pittsburgh is again working out of 21 personnel with FB Derek Watt. Yet again, the Bengals employ their five defensive linemen front, as shown below (#1 slightly offscreen is DE Sam Hubbard).
Power/gap run, Dotson pulling left to right, but every running lane is clogged up. It’s an unsuccessful one-yard run, setting up 2nd-and-9. Three plays later, the Steelers punt.
There were other runs out of heavy personnel where Pittsburgh was fortunate Cincinnati didn’t respond with more of this heavy personnel. Not that those runs ended up doing much better. But why Pittsburgh would make this a good chunk of the rushing attack when their own head coach admits it’s a “stupid” idea is just beyond me. The coaching staff is doing no favors in helping their guys succeed.
In fact, the only two successful runs Najee Harris had on the night came out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) which created lighter boxes. A four yard run on 1st-and-10 and Harris’ long of 20 yards. Here’s a look at each.
Light boxes alone don’t guarantee success, this overall poor running game is proof of it, and guys still have to win their battles up front. But it’s easier sledding than running into the teeth of a heavy Bengals front no one – not the Vikings, Bears, and now Steelers – has had success running against.
The only thing I’ll give Canada credit here for is a second-half adjustment. In the third quarter, Pittsburgh came out in heavy personnel and the Bengals responded with a five defensive linemen look. But the Steelers spread the field out and threw the ball to Najee Harris in the left flat, a wide open completion that went for six yards. It goes down as a pass and catch but it’s an extended run play and a very successful one at that, especially compared to their true ground game.
That’s an example of good coaching. Know what your opponent is likely to do and use it against them. Present a run-first look, draw the Bengals into bringing out their big people, then spread the formation and throw it. I’m generally not a fan of running empty out of these big looks but this is a smart call. But it was the only time we saw it and the run game had to suffer in the first half just to get this point.
On the whole, this was just a poor gameplan. I’m not going to pretend like staying in 11 personnel would’ve produced mega, ideal results. It wouldn’t have, just as it didn’t the first two weeks of the season. But the Steelers are making a tough situation even harder on themselves. Tomlin openly admits running the football with big people is a recipe for disaster, the team does it anyway, and they end up with disastrous, predictable results.
Bad coaching is a cardinal sin for an offense that needs all the help in the world. They aren’t getting any.