The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has taken major steps over the past few weeks. Now, coming out of at their bye week, they are tied for second place in the AFC North, 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Baltimore Ravens.
It is a stretch to call for the Steelers to make the playoffs given their circumstances, but they have to be thinking that they are still alive sitting at 2-4. The defense is seeing young names such as T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick step up as leaders of the team, and with that, they should only ascend throughout the year.
However, the offense has obviously left a lot to be desired. The passing game struggles are no surprise, given the amount of shuffling at quarterback. However, this meant that the Steelers needed to rely on a ground attack to protect their inexperienced passers. With an elite offensive line and a Pro Bowler such as James Conner, the group should have been able to help pick up the slack.
However, the Steelers currently rank 28th as a team in rushing yards per game and 27th in yards per carry. James Conner has averaged 3.2 yards per attempt this season, a far cry from his 4.5 yards per attempt through two years. For a team that is not getting Ben Roethlisberger back this season, they will have no chance competing if they cannot get more going on the ground.
Is it the play calling, the lack of a quarterback, the offensive line or James Conner? What can the Steelers attempt to fix to get the run game going?
The first question obviously comes down to the quarterback shift. It is clear that quarterback play has limited JuJu Smith-Schuster, is the lack of respect in the deep ball hurting the chances of Conner. On the contrary, actually. Conner has faced an 8-man box just 16.22% of his rushes this season. That number is down significantly from 27.91% last season. Last season he saw 7.1 defenders in the box on each attempt, while that number is only 7 in the box this year.
Despite fewer players in the box, the Steelers are not making defenses pay. Power success and stuffed rank can help tell a story of how well the offensive line has played. When a back gets into the open field, it is on them. However, power success measures the number of third and fourth down situations with less than two yards to go a running back converted. Stuffed rank is the number of runs that go for one yard or less. The Steelers ranked fifth in these two categories in 2018. They rank 26th and 30th respectively this year.
This is not a good look for the Steelers offensive line, which has not been able to generate a strong push-up front. However, this can come down to a few issues as well. To start, Conner has not been as quick to hit the holes when they are there. Last season he had a 3.64 efficiency rating, which tracks steps taken per yards gained. A lower number means a north-south runner. This year his rating is up to 4.73.
This means the line has to hold their ground longer. That does not help when they are trying to convert in these short-yardage situations.
On top of that, the team has seen a drop off in second-level yards, and open field runs. That was never a strength of Conner as he ranked 20th, and 19th in those areas respectively. The Steelers rank 29th and 27th this year, though.
Second-level runs go for 5-10 yards while open field runs are 10 yards or more. Conner is not getting into the second level at nearly the same rate. This is hard not to pin on Conner. Last season he had 23.2 yards created per game. That is the number of yards he picked up after making a defender miss. This year that number is down to 12.7. On a per-carry basis, he creating 0.5 fewer yards per carry after first contact.
He averaged 4.6 missed tackles per game last year, which is down to 3.8 this year. Conner has not been efficient in making defenders miss. He has been reliant on what the line gives him, which is less than a year before.
However, the play calling can take a little blame in this area as well. The Steelers have tried to get Conner outside of the tackle box. The spread nature of their running game has helped in keeping less defenders in the box. However, they have not been successful running outside of the tackles this season. Plays like the one below have been seen too often. This is a trifecta of issues. The offensive line looks out of whack pulling to the outside, the play call forces Conner to the weak side of the field and he stutters around which adds to his worse efficiency rating this season.
When running off of the right tackle Conner has a 36% success rate. Conner does have a 50% success rate running behind the center, which has been the most efficient method of rushing. The team has spread out their attempts, but may want to run less outside, as Conner has not been decisive, and the line has not been dominant.
However, Conner also has only a 21% success rate when the quarterback is not in shotgun compared to 48% in shotgun.
PASSING GAME VALUE
When the Steelers run with Conner they should spread teams out, and then run him up the middle out of the shotgun. Where the Steelers want to get Conner outside of the tackles is in the passing game.
Conner is on pace for 69 receptions for 616 yards, both would be career highs. He already set his career-high in receiving touchdowns last Monday and has only one incompletion on targets this season. When adding in his receiving value, Conner has averaged over 4.6 yards per touch and has gone over 100 combined yards twice.
The Wildcat has helped him get quick passes, get him to the edges, and help boost his stats. We know that the team cannot back to that look again, though, it is too easy to solve.
However, looking at his receiving value against the Chargers and you can see that they had a lot of success getting him in open space outside of the tackles. All of a sudden, he was looking like the Conner of old.
Getting quarterback consistency will help Conner get back into the swing of things immensely. However, there are things that can be touched upon all levels.
Conner will need to work on making multiple defenders miss, and picking up more yards when he gets into open space. He also will need to be more decisive running downhill.
The offensive line can help in this area. However, they need to improve when it comes to running outside of the tackles. Rosevelt Nix is a chess piece who can pull and lead rushing attacks outside the tackles, and Vance McDonald is an underrated athlete as a pulling blocker as well. Getting these two in the mix can help, but the team needs to call more shotgun runs up the middle.
On top of that, getting Conner more work in the receiving game stretches the defense thin, and keeps teams from crowding the box, which will be needed as the team rides a backup quarterback home. Not all is lost for the Steelers rushing attack, but the team needs help in all phases from the play calling, to the line, and Conner.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.