PITTSBURGH — The Steelers rushing attack is finding its zone. It seemed like it might happen, just like it did in the second half of last year. While Pittsburgh’s heavy use of 12 personnel last season allowed their run game to blossom, they started lethargic from that standpoint this season, making the entire offense play at a substandard level. But over the last few weeks, Pittsburgh is finding legitimate ways to get the ball.
What happened between the bye week and now, though? Even though it’s clear that the team believes they have their identity as a smash mouth run team figured out, it all came in the slight adjustment made by the running backs and offensive line. Both Najee Harris and Broderick Jones said that the offensive line and running backs are now meeting with each other more frequently and going over what they like. It’s less about what the running backs like and more about what the offensive line wants now. And they seem to love outside zone and plays that involve pulling guards and tackles.
“I just feel like we’re learning a lot from each other,” right tackle Broderick Jones said. “You see what one guy likes and what we all like. It’s easier to get things going with each other. I think it’s helping us a lot.”
Those subtle changes throughout the week, along with offensive coordinator Matt Canada heading down to the sideline, have altered how Pittsburgh communicates offensively. It’s hard to argue with the results of the changes, too. But Pittsburgh made four natural changes that got the wheels moving in motion to turn the entire rushing attack around.
What Changes Did Pittsburgh Make?
Pittsburgh’s run game changes can be divided into four different things. But let’s just run them down. First, Jones came in for Chuks Okorafor. Second, Pittsburgh is using the athleticism of its offensive line to get out in space and lead block. I include Darnell Washington in that statement. He’s involved as much as anyone.
Third, they are mainly running out of shotgun or stacked looks. Even if the box is more cluttered, those stacked looks give the receivers free releases in the passing game or more apparent avenues in the run game. Pittsburgh now has a legitimate play action under center passing game, and they use their guys effectively in motion in those looks. Lastly, they are using like bodies on like bodies. Tight ends are not down-blocking edge rushers; receivers are not blocking linebackers. That all comes together to combine for 371 rushing yards in two games.
“When we talk about the meetings and stuff, we talk about plays they like,” Harris said. “They like pulling, they do, so if they like to pull, we do too. If they like to run outside zone, we do too. They like it, so we like it. It just works.”
Welcome to Pittsburgh’s new-look run game. It’s working, and it’s sustainable. The passing game has not followed yet. There’s a lot more to unpack where that came from, but Pittsburgh is a more dangerous team when the offense has something to hang its hat on each week. It’s far from perfect yet, too. Pittsburgh scored 17 points from their first three possessions, but they started stacking boxes without a passing game to threaten the Packers over the top. The Steelers will have to crack that trend, too.
“The run game was doing their thing,” wide receiver Diontae Johnson said. “We just kept feeding Najee and Jaylen the ball. Once we had a little thing they were off playing zone, we just kinda took little out route and stuff like that — taking what they were giving us.”
But for now, it’s fine for the team to love what the run game is doing. When you post over 160 yards in back-to-back weeks, that group is doing something right. Pittsburgh can score with this offense, but they can not be prolific without an average passing game. That is the next step in the process.