Thus far in the 2013 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been able to muster only 75 yards rushing. Just let that sink in for a few moments. Seventy-five yards in two games.
Just to compare, Adrian Peterson, on a single carry this season got 78 yards. It is a sobering, and somewhat embarrassing proposition. A franchise that was built on the strength of its run game should be able to find a way to move the ball on the ground.
With that, we must consider all potential causes of the problem. It really comes down to three factors one must look at.
Scheme—Are the play calls the most effective for the strengths and weaknesses of the current roster?
Individual talent—Many have pointed to the lack of talent at running back or along the offensive line as the source of the drought.
Poor play—This differs from lack of talent in that the players can make plays; they simply do not do so far too often.
Breaking down the Monday night game between the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, it appears as if everyone in the debate is right...and wrong at the same time. Here is a play, early in the game that really illustrates just how far-reaching this problem is.
Let's break down what should be a fairly basic, and effective counter play on first down.
As you can see, the Steelers come out in 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) in an attempt to maximize their options at the line of scrimmage.
Tight end David Paulson starts in motion to the left, then begins to work back right just before the snap. The Bengals do not react, indicating zone defense. So far, so good.
Here you can see what the design of the play is at the snap. Center Fernando Velasco and right guard David DeCastro are to block down on the Bengals defensive tackles, in essence creating a lane. This crash left is also part of the deception of a counter.
This lane isn't only for running back Felix Jones, but for pulling guard Ramon Foster and Paulson. The design of the play is for both to pull through the hole, picking up the Bengals linebackers, and Jones to follow.
And before anyone asks, yes there are different blocking schemes for a counter, counter trey or counter gap. But judging by the results and further film study, this is the best-case scenario for this play.
Left tackle Mike Adams blocks the defensive end in the 7-technique, while right tackle Marcus Gilbert's job should be to seal the other side of the line, walling off the Bengals defensive end. It's a numbers game, and to look at it, the Steelers have what they want.
But at the snap, it only takes an instant for things to go wrong. First, Adams steps inside instead of outside and the Bengals end is able to pursue Jones from the backside.
Gilbert, the other tackle, keys on the Bengals inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict rather than defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
This causes immediate problems because now there are three Steelers headed to the same area, and Dunlap is unblocked. Both defensive ends are on a free run at the running back.
The other problematic part of this play is that while Foster is pulling right to block for Jones, there is no where for Paulson to go. He's too far from the play side at the snap to get to Dunlap, and he and Jones arrive at the hole at almost exactly the same time.
As the play progresses, you see where the missed assignment along with poor play design have doomed any positive outcome.
What we see here is Foster has pulled, but instead of keying on Burfict, he instead has to block Rey Maualuga and Burfict is arcing around. The problem is, because Gilbert decided late to block Dunlap, and Paulson has come inside as well, there is no lane for Jones, and he is unable to pop the play outside against the unblocked linebacker.
The key player on this play was Gilbert. At the snap, if his job was to block the linebacker, and leave the end for Paulson, so be it. But, Gilbert hesitated at the snap, and left Paulson with no right choice.
The running game is all about winning the numbers game. The Steelers had the math right, enough blockers to match up with the Bengals defense and allow Jones to run. But instead, both tackles missed their assignments, and the entire play fell apart as other players tried to cover for it.
So, what did we learn? That it is clearly a combination of factors. At least one, but more like both tackles missed their assignments, and Paulson might not have been athletic enough to do his job. But, even with all that, this was a very complex and convoluted play to run right out of the gate against a stout defensive front.
Against the Bears, things won't get any easier for the Steelers. The coaching staff needs to keep it simple with quick run plays that don't rely on complex blocking assignments. These long, drawn out run designs are more than this team can execute, and the talent isn't there to run them properly.