The Steelers convincingly took care of business in Jacksonville with a 27-3 victory to improve to 10-0 on the season.
Despite that perfect record, Head Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the team on the field is far from perfect. One of the main areas of concern has been the Steelers’ stagnant running game. While it has been a work in progress, Tomlin acknowledged that it was a multi-week project to fix. The good news is that the Steelers put up the most rushing yards they have since their Week 6 victory over the Cleveland Browns. However, how that occurred may bring into question some sustainability questions for the future.
James Conner Powers Running Game to Success
While the Steelers tried to make some adjustments, the real power of the running game was none other than James Conner. Despite having some down games in the past few weeks, Conner played his best game in over a month on Sunday. Per SteelersNow’s charting, Conner forced six missed tackles, an impressive day for the Pitt product. It was that creativity that launched Conner’s day.
The obvious first play that comes to mind is Conner’s vicious stiff arm. Few plays are as disrespectful as a strong, power run where the runner just bulldozes a guy over with ease. Conner reached that level of disrespectful on this run as he just strong arms the defensive back into the dirt. Even prior to getting into the open field, Conner does a great job of violently planting his foot in the ground and cutting on a dime. That forces a missed tackle by the defense who is converging in the middle of the field and Conner breaks this one. Conner’s read and react ability was on another level in this game.
This is a jailbreak run that is actually aided by some really fantastic backside blocking to help Conner. The Steelers continue to try and run this counter from the shotgun and it is just getting shut down every week. David DeCastro does not look as athletic as he did last year and is not clearing holes like he used to this season. It is a nice job by Conner to see everyone on Jacksonville pursuing to the play side and to make something out of nothing. The credit goes to him and solid blocks by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Ben Roethlisberger to help spring this improbable gain.
This is the best of both worlds on this play. Not only does the line get some good blocking up front, but Conner aids them on it too. Check out Eric Ebron and Zach Gentry seal that edge to open up the outside lane for Conner to burst through. That is the groundwork to spring this. Conner’s subtlely pressing that line behind Gentry and Ebron to get the linebacker and defensive back to cheat down closer to the line of scrimmage behind cutting outside. This is great vision and a run that great running backs make. Conner is working off the ideal blocking to then suck the second level defenders into the trash below and then just uses his burst to get the corner.
In reality, this is just an awesome play call by Randy Fichtner. This is a master class on how to exploit the Jaguars third-down tendencies. They run a long of blitzes on third and long, but on third and medium, the Jaguars love to show this blitz look and drop back. This is not a revelation, as they have shown it in prior weeks. The Steelers are just catching them off guard by running into an extremely light box with everyone backpedaling. It helps that the backside on this play is sealed off very well by Chuks Okorafor and Maurkice Pouncey while David DeCastro gets a hat-on-hat to clear the alley on the pull. Overall, this is the best run play on the day as an entire unit.
Still, this running game is being staggered to a degree. Many of the fans will point to the little push the Steelers get up front, and while that can be true to a degree, the Steelers actually have a massive numbers problem. This is not a badly blocked up front as far as it goes. The push is there and the play side edge is nearly sealed. The issue is the Jaguars are in Cover 1 and have a nine man box against only eight Steelers blockers. Conner is going to have a hard time defeating the edge with that cornerback pinching the line. He actually does break that tackle, and this one can be chalked up to Eric Ebron missing the linebacker at the second-level. It has been seldom mentioned but the Steelers miss Vance McDonald’s blocking presence on plays like this one. If Ebron seals off that linebacker, Conner is still running.
Again, this play really is not horribly blocked up front. The Steelers are facing a seven man box when they only have six guys. They are trusting Conner again to be able to break this in the alley. DeCastro hits his pull and the blocking is not bad at all, but Conner is stuffed by a free linebacker keying this play.
This is where Fichtner lays the offensive line and Conner out to dry. The look and run is so similar and vanilla that teams are just reading the flow pre-snap and jumping it. There is no way Conner can make a move in that small of a space, so schematically Fichtner has to find a way to freeze that backside linebacker or move him. Effective motions would help that. The Steelers badly need to mix up their pre-snap looks with the motions if they want this counter play to work again. Running the ball in the modern NFL requires new wrinkles, looks, and plays to keep teams on their toes. The Steelers are not doing that. Everything about it is far too predictable and it is hard to blame the offensive line on a good deal of this plays.
Anthony McFarland had three unsuccessful carries on the day. The Steelers are trying to get him involved anyway they can, but he is just not seeing the field right now. McFarland has dynamic athleticism to hit open spaces and break big plays, but when his feet and eyes are not working together, it is tough to maximize runs with his athleticism. This is all a processing problem. McFarland makes this cut far too sharp and steep and essentially loses control of his cutting ability after the fact. If he stays patient and controlled, McFarland has a cutback lane he can hit behind Feiler. This is a young guy battling through the struggles of the NFL. It seems the game is just going a bit too fast for McFarland right now.
The Steelers running game is a work-in-progress, as Tomlin acknowledged. Most of the big plays on the day was Conner creating yards himself through his elusiveness and athleticism. However, the offensive line certainly took a step up in regards to their performance. It is far from perfect, but there were some creases to hit this game. The loss of McDonald and the schematic efforts are hurting this run game right now. Fichtner and Matt Canada have to find a way to diversify looks and get teams off-guard. Blitzes off the edge are disrupting pulls and the offensive line. The numbers game is simply off for the Steelers right now up front. They can run against a seven-man box with only six blockers, but in order to do that, they need more flavor schematically. That is what will really break open this rushing attack.