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.
Film Study: Examining Josh Dobbs as a Package QB
The Steelers offense put up a decent showing in Week 17. Behind a revitalized deep passing game, the Steelers offense opened up at all levels of the field. They eve tried out some new concepts to the scheme. The most notable of those would be the package implemented for Josh Dobbs. The third-string quarterback all season, Dobbs was inactive for the prior 15 games. Leading up to their game Sunday, the Steelers have maintained that the Dobbs package could show itself against the Browns. Having not ruled out anything, what was the package and just what did it entail?
This play is a simple pop pass jet sweep. The Steelers naturally have experience running that jet sweep action from earlier in the year. Hey, the pop pass itself has shown itself before. This one is simply a read for Dobbs to make. The Steelers run a pin-pull sweep to the short side of the field while the jet action is to the field side. The Steelers praise Dobbs for his headiness. This package makes use of that. Dobbs is reading the Mike linebacker (44) on this play. The read is simple. If the linebacker follows the motion, Dobbs keeps it, if not, it goes to Ray-Ray McCloud. The linebacker holds firm, so this goes to McCloud.
The problem with this play is the blocking is just bad. There are obvious problems. First, Myles Garrett stands Alejandro Villanueva right up and holds a strong edge. Villanueva’s inability to seal this edge eats up McCloud’s horizontal space. Then, Anthony McFarland whiffs on the linebacker coming down. This is a weird usage of personnel. McFarland never is going to be a very good lead blocker. The loss of the blocking dooms this play to fail for a loss.
This is a Steelers staple. They absolutely adore counter out of the shotgun. With Dobbs, they use it to create an effective counter read option. Working that off of their tendencies, the Browns crash on this off the edge. Dobbs just has to read what Oliver Vernon (54) does, and he keys those pullers. Dobbs simply pulls it back, has ideal open field blocking from JuJu Smith-Schuster, and gets a big rip. That is an awesome job of the Steelers using their tendencies to fool the Browns.
So, the Steelers now use the same play as the first video here in the red zone. That is perfect. The red zone is money for jet sweep action because of how much horizontal space there is to work in that area. It stretches the field. Good schematics, nice play call, but bad execution up front. Garrett was a problem for the Steelers all day, and Villanueva did not have a very good game. He blows up this play and stops McCloud from ever getting vertical.
Okay, fourth play in and third new concept. This is a seriously extensive package the Steelers have. It is not like they ran the same one or two plays. No, this is a well-developed package. That gives credence to the fact they may pull it out in the playoffs. This is the Bash Read Option. Dobbs just reads Vernon to see what he does. He squats down on McFarland running the sharp horizontal path and Dobbs keeps it. Overall, this is solid blocking. The pullers hit their guys, and the Steelers get lineman into the second level.
The Steelers work a pass off of this play. This time instead of popping it to McCloud, Dobbs runs a play-action fake and rolls out. He does a fantastic job to get out of this play. The Steelers run a three-tiered concept. McFarland is underneath on the flat route, Smith-Schuster comes on the over the route, and Washington runs a deep post. Depending on how the defense reacts adjusts Dobbs’ reads, but the over route is the most obvious one. Either way, no one is really open on this one and Dobbs has to throw it away. Creating a net-zero from a net loss as a quarterback is a good thing.
This is a play that will be familiar to everyone. The shovel option that the Steelers have run now for years. Vernon clamps down to the boundary towards McFarland, so the pitch to McDonald is the correct call here. Still, this blocking is not good and the main culprit for why this play does not work. Dotson whiffs on a pull and allows a defender to meet McDonald head-on in the alley. If Dotson hits that it is a different result and a solid gain.
The same pitch idea on this play, but instead of a shovel option, this is a shovel veer play instead, meaning that McFarland simply gets a handoff on a stretch action instead of a toss from Dobbs. The edge rusher bolts down on that veer action and the correct call is the pitch, yet again. Overall, this is just an awesome hustle play by the edge rusher to somehow turn up field and stop McDonald. The blocking on this one is outstanding. Sometimes, teams just make a better play.
Overall, the Dobbs package is promising. Schematically, it is unpredictable but simple. Teams can not crowd the box with Dobbs as a passing threat, either. That is the nice thing about this package. It seems that it would be most effective in short-yardage and red zone spots, however. The Steelers decided to unleash it in some odd spots. In the future, strictly use it for those situations and all is well. The biggest obstacle to this, as it is for the Steelers running game in general, is blocking.
Film Study: Steelers WR Chase Claypool Must Be Heavily Involved on Sunday
The Steelers, with a bevy of their backups, came excruciatingly close to a victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, falling by a two-point margin that could have eliminated the Browns from the postseason. Instead, they will face the Browns on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. It will not be Mason Rudolph leading the charge but Ben Roethlisberger, which should go a long to lift Pittsburgh’s chances.
Either way, Sunday brought a valuable lesson that the Steelers must follow. The Steelers have to implement Chase Claypool into this offense and use him. For the past one and a half games, whenever activated, Claypool has proven to be a catalyst to open up the Steelers offense.
The Steelers really wanted to hit this route all day. The slant flat combination between Claypool and Vance McDonald was a frequent play call. This is the only time they end up hitting it to Claypool. Claypool uses a slide release to draw the cornerback outside from his inside shade. The cornerback’s hips turn outside and that near hip gets locked the moment his hips freeze to extend his arms for contact. Claypool then armbars over the cornerback’s arms and get enough separation to get open and get the first down. For a guy who has some trouble versus press, this is encouraging.
Obviously, though, Claypool’s explosive plays were the highlights of his day. This is an outstanding catch. The play through contact to even get himself into the window at the catch point is awesome. At times this year, Claypool has not played at his size. He does play to his size and physicality on this play and it is why he is able to make this catch. Boxing out that cornerback in contested catch situations is something that Claypool needs to do at a higher level.
However, he is capable of making plays like this any time. The Browns show a single-high look, so this cornerback is going to be on an island in the Cover 3 scheme. Something that Ben Roethlisberger needs to do this week is trusting his guys to just make plays. That is something that Rudolph did exceptionally well on Sunday. He let his guys go and make plays. That does not mean Roethlisberger has to ball Joe Flacco ball and just launch bombs. No, far from it. But Claypool is a playmaker who can make tough catches. If the pre-snap look obviously leaves him in a one-on-one scenario, give him opportunities. The guy is a freak.
This play is just pure speed from Claypool and nothing more. He stems it quite nicely into the blind spot of the cornerback. Still, this is that height-weight-speed combination that Claypool was touted for out of the draft. Guys at 6-foot-4 should not be able to run this fast. With that type of speed, Claypool can house one if the ball is on the money on any deep pass. Over the second half of the Steelers, the Steelers have neglected this stark advantage over teams. Mike Tomlin continues to mention Claypool’s “rookie wall,” but on Sunday they did want him to get involved and it was clear. As Tomlin intended, it was likely a confidence-building game.
Here is another added benefit of the Claypool vertical success. For Claypool, it will open up all of the routes on the vertical plane. With guys having to respect his deep speed, Claypool can run outs, digs, curls, comebacks, and more on the vertical plane. If they decide to devote resources to slow down those routes, too, then the underneath stuff opens up and others eat in his place. That is a great schematic advantage that the Steelers are just corking out now.
The stats are clear that when Claypool has a big day and is involved, this offense churns in a different way. It makes sense. Think back to that drive versus the Colts where the Steelers bombed in the red zone, but it was a Claypool drive. For the rest of the game, the Colts backed off. Claypool is the Steelers’ best weapon to attack downfield by far. It is not even close. He makes the wheels on the offense turn if he is on because the defense has to back off or get burnt. Part of it is Claypool doing his job. In recent weeks, he is doing just that. Now, the other part is Randy Fichtner and Roethlisberger. Get Claypool involved and give him his deep opportunities and the offense goes with it. Claypool should be an integral piece to the offensive gameplan in the Steelers’ first playoff game Sunday.
Scouting Report: Colts Playmakers On Both Sides of the Ball Present Issues
The Steelers have yet another opportunity to clinch the AFC North in Week 16 as they host a surging Indianapolis Colts team. Indianapolis has a host of young playmakers on both sides of the ball that are contributing to their upward trajectory. However, key veterans, such as quarterback Phillip Rivers, as holding down the anchor as well with their notable experience down the stretch. How can the Steelers somehow turn around the ship and defeat the Colts in Week 16?
Head Coach Frank Reich runs a system that relies itself upon West Coast offense ideals. That means this offense is very horizontal and they give their pass catchers lots of YAC opportunities. However, with Rivers being a rather solid vertical passer, they also have some elements of vertical passing concepts from the air raid and Air Coryell schemes respectively. It gives the offense flexibility to do what it wants. That flexibility comes in particular help when they suffer injuries along the offensive line and should impact them in a big way today.
Here is a little feel for the Colts passing offense. There are a lot of bunch sets and they like to attack the middle of the field at all levels. Drag routes are everywhere throughout the playbook. Some other extremely common routes are over routes, slants, post routes, and dig routes. They run bunch sets to try and create traffic. In that way, Steelers fans will recognize a bit of this scheme. Create mismatches with size through stacked looks and then let the receivers do the rest of the week. With a seam route on this play as well, it gives Rivers the ability to take the duty of trusting one of his receivers down the field if he wishes to do so. Seeing that he has single-high coverage and man coverage across the board, Rivers takes the shot and they get a big gain out of it.
However, one of the cruxes of their offensive success recently has been their rushing attack. Rookie Jonathan Taylor is finding his groove and the offensive line looks better than ever before. Most of their runs go between the tackles, and they run inside zone and split zone primarily. It takes advantage of strong blockers like tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox.
Here is a split zone run where the movement upfront is clear as day. Doyle hits the kick-out block while the combo block by the right tackle and right guard get a lot of movement up to the second level. It clogs up the lanes for the linebackers and Taylor uses his vision and elusiveness to create yardage. Runs like this are commonplace for the Colts, especially over this past six-game stretch.
Defensively, the Colts run a 4-3 scheme headed by Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus. Eberflus has turned his defense into a primarily Cover 3 and Cover 1 heavy defense. When he came to the Colts in 2018, it was largely a Cover 2 defense, but that will change this season. With their adaptability in coverage, disguising coverages on the back end has never been better. Like the Bills, they do a lot of man match coverage, which is what led to Ben Roethlisberger’s pick-six against the Bills. Given the Steelers’ love of throwing the ball underneath, it would not be a surprise to see heavy single-high looks with match-man principles underneath to try and slow down the passing attack.
Players to Watch
QB Phillip Rivers
Rivers has been delightful to watch this season as he continues a strong season. Despite playing through a bad toe injury, Rivers has managed this offense nicely. The veteran expertise he has brought to the position, especially from a mental standpoint, has opened up the offense in a lot of ways. He can still make most of the throws to any part of the field, and while he is not mobile, Rivers has no trouble getting the ball out in a hurry underneath. Still, with a depleted offensive line this week, Rivers has his work cut out for himself.
OL Quenton Nelson
It is impossible to talk about Indianapolis and not mention potentially best player. Quenton Nelson is a monster who brings everything NFL teams to want in a guard to the table. He has the mauler nastiness to throw people into the ground. Nelson has the football IQ to sniff out stunts and stop them in their tracks. But perhaps most importantly, Nelson is a certified people mover. This running game’s base is powered by Nelson as he moves guys out of their gaps with ease. Now, Nelson had a tough time against Cam Heyward last season, so if there is anyone who can stop Nelson, it is Heyward.
DL DeForest Buckner
After coming over in a trade from San Francisco, the Colts have reaped the benefits of DeForest Buckner’s talents. He has been one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL this season bar none. Buckner is fourth in the NFL among interior pass rushers in quarterback hits. His blend of explosiveness and power was felt by the Steelers last year. Buckner registered a sack, four pressures, two quarterback hits, and two quarterback hurries last year against the Steelers. They will have to slow him down and protect Roethlisberger.
Matchups to Watch
Nyheim Hines vs Steelers LBs
The Steelers are down to only three inside linebackers for this game with Ulysees Gilbert III heading to IR and Marcus Allen missing the game with a stinger. That leaves them without a strong coverage linebacker, and the Colts have an elite receiving back in Nyheim Hines. Hines is their gadget do-it-all guy similar to JD McKissic for the Washington Football Team. Whatever the Steelers have to do to prevent a repeat of that Week 13 performance, they have to do it. Especially with heavy pressure coming, it should be clear that quick passes to the running back are going to be used in high dosage on Sunday.
Steelers Pass Rush vs Colts Offensive Line
This is the elephant in the room. It is like a cloud hanging over the head of the Colts’ offense. They will be without both of the starting tackles, and they leave a lot of room for TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith to create pressure on Rivers. It was already noted that the Colts offensive line had trouble with Heyward last year, and with Stephon Tuitt now back in the mix as well, the Steelers pass rush could be a menace that this Colts offense is bugged by the entire game. If the Steelers want to win this game, the pass rush will need to be a big factor and perhaps create a turnover.