Film Room: Improvements in the Steelers' Running Game

Chris Halicke

Earlier in the season, I did an in-depth film study on James Conner and the running game. I carefully watched each and every carry, looking to see where he could have hit better running lanes, how well the offensive line actually did in run-blocking, and how the game-planning and play-calling impacted the results. 

After carefully studying three games worth of carries, I found that coaching and the game-planning was the biggest culprit, followed closely by blocking on the edge, especially by the tight ends. 

Conner was not void of blame, but his mistakes were minimal compared to everything else I saw. I knew that the running game would succeed eventually if they were able to get these other issues resolved. 

The Steelers had their largest output on the ground in the 24-17 victory over the Chargers. James Conner, Benny Snell Jr., and Devlin Hodges combined for 124 yards on the night. Snell got a significant workload, which eventually increased when Conner left the game with a bruised thigh.

It wasn't a perfect performance by any means. They still only averaged 3.4 yards-per-carry in the game, but we can never just rely on what the numbers tell us. After all, we all watched the same game and all thought the same thing: the running game looks better this week.

After looking deeper into the film, I agree with that sentiment. The running game did look better. There was much better blocking up front, on the edge, and even some of the schemes and play-calling was creative. 

Obviously, the Steelers want to be able to run the ball successfully. With a young quarterback leading the offense, the biggest way to help Rudolph or Hodges out is to be able to run the ball successfully.

There are three plays in particular I want to use to demonstrate the positive things I saw that the Steelers need to utilize more as they move forward.

Like I said before, I was pretty hard on the tight ends in my Conner film study. Vance McDonald shut me up on this one. His initial double on Bosa baits the safety into committing to Conner. McDonald then breaks off the double team and takes out the safety and opens up a huge hole for Conner to run through on the edge. 

The execution on this stretch run is done to perfection, which is pretty much why it ended in a touchdown. McDonald was key here with his blocking. Diontae Johnson also had a solid block on the outside that allowed Conner to get in the end zone.

I also want to give credit to Randy Fichtner here. I'm not normally a fan of stretch runs. They take too long to develop, which means you're asking your linemen to hold their blocks longer, which is not only difficult, but you're also raising the chances of getting called for holding or any other blocking penalty. 

Also, with how fast defenses are in the NFL, stretch runs may become the rarest run play called. Defenses that are fast, especially laterally fast, can dissect and react quick enough to blow the play up. 

However, running a stretch run out of the pistol formation is pretty creative for what we've seen so far in the Steelers' offense. It gives the defense less time to react to the runner and it allows the runner to get to the line quicker and burst through a hole before the defense has a chance to get to him. 

All of the above happened on this play and it resulted in six points. What more could you ask for?

This play shows Conner can improvise and has the vision to make the right cut. The blocking is also stellar here, along with the design of the play.

This is another run that moves laterally to develop, but the offensive line seals off the entire front, giving Conner a lane to run though. Conner sees a much larger hole open up back against the grain and bolts up for an 11-yard gain.

One of the biggest complaints I had from my Conner film study earlier this season was the Steelers would too often motion a blocker over toward the side of the play. If the defense was in man (which they were most of the time), that means an additional defender is now on the side of the field the run is going towards. That extra man was often left unblocked. 

In this play, the jet motion by the receiver actually takes the safety out of the play for the run, because the motion is going away from the side of the run. This happened in a play against the Bengals also and was successful. 

Going forward, if the Steelers will continue to use motions like this, it could really help the offensive line open up large holes like we saw in this play. 

In this final play, Zach Banner made his way in as an extra offensive lineman. Him and Matt Feiler seal off the edge beautifully. Feiler chips on Banner's blocking assignment, making it easier for Banner to seal off the edge. Then Feiler blocks the linebacker out of the gap, giving Benny Snell Jr. a beautiful hole to run through.

The Steelers have tried to use Banner as an extra lineman at times, and while the quality of blocking goes up, the offense becomes a little more predictable. The fact that they could get a good run with good blocking here when the Chargers were anticipating run all the way is a good sign of things to come. 

With either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges in at quarterback, the offense relies more on the running game to succeed. Being able to impose your will on the defense is huge. The coaching staff still needs to add wrinkles and creativity to the offense to keep the defense guessing, but plays like this show that the Steelers have the ability to execute good run plays in obvious run packages and situations.

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