Trying to Diagnose the Steelers’ Run Game Issues

By Kyle Dawson

The Steelers run game hit rock bottom in the team’s loss to the Washington Football Team.

I have no idea how it can get worse. Pittsburgh combined for 21 yards on 14 attempts on the ground, and wasn’t great overall offensively in its first loss of the season.

Over the last month and a half, give or take, we’ve seen fans and media alike try to figure out what’s going on with this rushing attack.

Some say it doesn’t matter, that you don’t need to run the football effectively in today’s NFL. I would agree, in part. I don’t believe you need to run the ball for 150 yards a week as a team to win. I think the Steelers, as constructed, could probably get away with a respectable but not shiny rushing performance. Those people say, “just throw short passes. Just throw the ball to JuJu or Diontae in the slot and throw screens.” Sure that works, if the ball gets caught and they make a man miss. I also believe doing that too much, and not trying to take the top off a defense allows other teams to stack the box and bring their safeties closer to the line because they don’t need to worry about getting beat deep.

I think a few things need to happen in order for the Steelers to be respectable in that facet of the game going forward:

Re-introduce Matt Canada to the offensive gameplan

Canada wasn’t just brought in to be the QB’s coach this past offseason. I firmly believe he was meant to try to aid the run game, which has finished in the bottom four of the NFL the past two seasons. Here’s what’s happened over the past nearly two months. The Steelers went from ninth in the league averaging nearly 130 yards on the ground to 55.5, which now has them ranked amongst the worst rush offenses in the NFL. The 130 yards a game are through the first six games of the season: that’s up to the Tennessee game. The last six are from (at) Baltimore through Washington. Mark Kaboly has a great article in the Athletic regarding Matt Canada’s influence on the offense disappearing, or, being put on the back burner. Through the first eight games, nearly 40% of run plays involved jet sweep action. In the last three games, that number dropped to 15%. Randy Fichtner, while he’s not talking about farts, thinks that could have to do with the shorter weeks and less practice time. I buy that to a degree. In a short week the idea may be to trend back toward what you’re comfortable with, what your quarterback is comfortable with and familiar with. Kaboly pens that the Steelers have used jet sweep motions only four times in their last 34 rush attempts. They did it once last week. What the sweeps do is give the defense more to think about. It exposes man coverage and it reveals some blitzes. The 21 yards rushing against the Football Team were the sixth-fewest in franchise history. It’s time to bring the motions back. It’s time to make things complicated and try to help open up the field a bit. Getting James Conner back will help too. I just hope Canada’s influence on the offense was in heaven for a full half-hour before the devil found out it was dead.

Here’s a link to Kaboly’s article. If you’re subscribed, I suggest giving it a read: https://theathletic.com/2251639/2020/12/11/matt-canada-steelers-run-game/

Less is More with Eric Ebron?

Ebron has played on 79% of the Steelers offensive snaps this season. That’s the highest percentage in his career. In six of the last seven games, he’s played 80% of snaps or more. Ebron has never played more than 68% of his team’s snaps in a given season. Sure, he brings more than Vance McDonald in the pass game, but with the increase in snap count and targets comes a higher chance for drops and less effective run blocking. That’s all we heard from Colts and Lions fans when Ebron signed his contract in Pittsburgh: “He can’t run block and he drops everything thrown his way. Hands of stone,” the whole nine yards.

Ebron is a good pass-catching tight end. He’s reliable and he gives the Steelers something at that position they haven’t had in a while. Sans the last couple of week’s drops, he’s been pretty good in that department. His 49 receptions are already his fourth best total in his six-plus years in the NFL. His career high is 66 grabs on a career-best 110 targets with Indianapolis in 2018, the year he got in the end zone 13 times. He’s scored four times this season, and his 78 targets are creeping towards being the second highest total of his career.

But with the increase in targets and snaps I think has brought out the lapses in run blocking for #85. I’m not going to go as far as some have gone and say he doesn’t care about blocking for the run. That’s just ridiculous. But I can give you numbers.

The Steelers’ run game was going strong for six weeks to begin the season. The average per carry may not have been there the whole time, but the numbers are good. Ebron was playing on less than 80% of the snaps during that time frame. Even still, he was in on a lot of snaps, comparative to his career. Again, he’s never played on more than 68% of his team’s snaps over the course of a season. Statistically, the decline for the run game started against Baltimore, but I’d say it started against Tennessee, to a degree. The Steelers didn’t shift to the run despite a huge halftime lead. Ebron’s snap count went above 80% that week and has been there ever since, with the exception of the Baltimore game at Heinz Field. Vance McDonald’s snaps have gone down significantly from when the run game was going well. McDonald is the better run blocker. I don’t think Ebron is a scapegoat for the issues, but the more he plays, especially on run plays without McDonald in there, tells me the Steelers care less and less about the run game. They value the threat Ebron is as a pass catcher and a guy in the middle of the field more in those instances, which, again, is fine.

Here’s the summary of before Ebron started playing 80% of snaps or more versus when he wasn’t doing that:

Games 1-5 ( < 80% snaps ): 159-684 (4.4 ypc)

Games 6-12 ( > 80% snaps* ): 140-427 (2.9 ypc) – * vs BAL (68% snaps)

And his career snap count chart:

I think when it comes to Ebron, less is more. He’s a good threat, but he should be unleashed as such, rather than a nearly-ever-down tight end. Here’s the tweet thread from last night where this was sparked from:

Getting Healthy

It’s no secret the Steelers need to get healthy to run the ball better. Maurkice Pouncey returning from the COVID list and James Conner doing the same should naturally help this team out. There’s not much more to say here. Pouncey is obviously a step up from JC Hassenauer. James Conner is better than Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland. Flat out. Conner’s 4.4 yards per carry is nearly the best of his career. He’s also better in pass pro and as a pass catcher than either of those guys.

Again, I don’t need glitz and glamor. I want to see competence from the run unit if I’m a Steelers fan. That’s all. They’ve got a good chance to show that against a Bills’ defense that has been horrid against the run this season. We’ll see. Put a pin in it.

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