Running Against Different Fronts: How The Steelers Matched Up

By Alex Kozora

It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers run game struggled in 2014. They tied for 27th in the league in yards per game, a paltry 86.4. Only two teams had a worst yards per carry mark than Pittsburgh.

Throughout the season and reviewing game tape, it seemed apparent the team struggled against 4-3 teams more than they did 3-4, but I couldn’t empirically prove it. So to test the idea, the table below breaks down the team’s rushing performance game-by-game. The table is listed below chronologically but feel free to sort it how you wish.

One flaw I saw coming into this idea was the strength of defenses. If a 4-3 run defense is better against the run than a 3-4, offensive yards per carry might not tell you much information. So I added two additional categories, and they’re the most important ones.

Defenses yards per carry and YPC difference. Meaning, what the YPC allowed each defense allowed over 2013 and how much better or worse the Steelers’ number was comparatively.

For example, Pittsburgh averaged 2.1 YPC in week one against the Tennessee Titans. On the season, the Titans allowed 4.0 yards per carry. So it’s a difference of negative 1.9 YPC (4.0-2.1). Make sense?

Data is listed below with final results to follow.

TEAMFRONTATTYDSTDYPCDEF YPC+/-YPC
TEN4-3132702.14.0-1.9
CIN4-3154302.94.0-1.1
CHI4-3197303.85.3-1.5
MIN4-3206723.44.0-0.6
NYJ3-4246202.63.4-0.8
BAL3-42511304.53.8+0.7
OAK4-3173211.93.9-2.0
NE3-41810906.14.5+1.6
BUF4-33211113.53.5-0.9
DET4-3203601.84.2-2.4
CLE3-4319603.13.9-0.8
BAL3-4167314.63.8+0.8
MIA4-3207603.84.1-0.3
CIN4-33510513.04.0-1.0
GB3-42813814.94.6+0.3
CLE3-42511114.43.9+0.5

Total numbers, including YPC difference, against each front.

FRONTATTYDSTDYPCDEF YPC+/- YPC
4-319157053.04.2-1.2
3-416670234.24.0+0.2

The table confirms my thoughts. The Steelers averaged 1.2 more yards per carry against odd (3-4) defenses than evens. Despite 25 less carries, Pittsburgh ran for 132 more yards. From a YPC perspective, their top five games came against a 3-4.

Don’t think that running against a 3-4 is generally easier, either. Four of the top five defenses in yards per carry employed a 3-4.

What I saw on tape backed it up. The Steelers line lacked the ability to combination block and get to the second level against even fronts. Tougher, obviously, but linebackers can’t be left unblocked to fill the run. We’ll show just two examples but there are countless others.

Here, right tackle Marcus Gilbert is late reaching the second level. MIKE linebacker E.J. Henderson is able to freely flow to the back, bringing down Le’Veon Bell for no gain.

Here’s Ramon Foster in Week 15, asked to pull but unable to chip and work to Vontaze Burfict (#55), who makes the tackle.

In two games against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers’ averaged less than three yards per carry. That’s not going to cut it versus a divisional foe you’ll see twice a year. A unit you’ll see twice in critical weeks, down the stretch in Weeks 14 and 17. For all we know, the AFC North could be on the line. And the Steelers have to run the ball effectively.

Senior in college, blogging from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • falconsaftey43

    Very interesting. Wonder if going up against the Steelers 3-4 defense in practice during TC and stuff is part of the difference?

  • Mike Frazer

    The question is what came first, the chicken or the egg? They faced five 4-3 defenses in the first half of the year, and five 3-4 defenses in the second half. Was the better running a result of the defensive front, or was it a result of the overall improvement in production from the no-huddle and improved O-line cohesion? Typically a 4-3 will generate more stops at the LoS but yield more long runs, while a 3-4 will be more consistent at stopping the run in the first 2-3 yards because the extra guy playing off the line has more time to read and adjust, so it seems to fly in the face of history to assume that they simply ran better against the defensive front that is more consistent against the run. But your numbers bear it out, to some extent, so it can’t be discounted.

    I would be more inclined to assume it was the no-huddle, better o-line play and building experience for Bell that generated most of the improvement, but there’s not a good scientific way to determine it.

  • Mike Frazer

    And the second play netted something like 4.5 yards. I don’t see that as a failure in any way.

  • Alex Kozora

    It’s an understandable argument but I don’t think it works well enough. if that were the case, the team would have run better against Miami and Cincinnati. But they posted negative marks in each game, including an ugly 3.0 YPC vs the Bengals.

    The trend is pretty clear. +0.7 vs the Ravens 3-4, -2.0 against Oakland the next week. +1.6 against New England followed up by a -2.4 versus Detroit and their 4-3.

    To answer your second comment, you’re not seeing the bigger picture. The concept didn’t work. The linebacker was free, Foster never got to him. Can’t have that.

  • cencalsteeler

    This, is hopefully where we see the most improvement. Last year, we had the Pouncey injury, the Adams experiment (both at tackle and TE), the psychological deflating of DeCastro, and the mystery of Bicknell Jr.’s attempt at coaching the line. Now, we have stability with a line coach and not a lot of questions with who will be playing where. No more excuses this season…. things should shape up regardless of what defense is thrown our way.

  • Dewayne Braxton

    Are you counting Mike Adams playing tight end and all the times they had to use spaeth as an EXTRA blocker. Tired of fans saying the Oline improved so much when they unfact benefited from Haley using Spaeth and Adams again…as EXTRA blockers to cover the line’s weaknesses.

  • Dewayne Braxton

    We love Foster but he is not athletic enough to chase linebackers.

  • Dewayne Braxton

    Even with using extra blockers they ranked 27th. Only three teams were worse. So this does not need to studied. Any reasonable person knows this line is weak.

  • Alex Kozora

    I find it to be a worthwhile study. It shows it isn’t an overall lack of talent – this line does have some ability. It’s showing that against 3-4 defenses, this team can run well enough. A 4.2 average would rank the Steelers’ tied for 14th. Isn’t spectacular but a much better place to be in, yes?

    While we didn’t delve too much into the X’s and O’s, I outlined the general problems of running against the 4-3 and a 3-4. It’s a huge weakness, far beyond the simplistic “the line is weak” notion. It’s a glaring problem and one that has to get addressed.

  • Dewayne Braxton

    Fact is that a strong offensive line would produce better than 27th in rushing. And if we added another real starter the numbers would improve. I am sure other factors are involved but this line’s woes are to documented to ignore. Say what you will but the real numbers say they are weak.

  • Dewayne Braxton

    Wow! The Steelers rushing woes continue. Let’s put the same four lineman out there plus Pouncey and everything will be fine. I feel so excited about Beachum and Adams. Hard to find studs like them. And Mike Adams maybe the best blocking tight end in the league.

  • Madi

    Chase? No lineman can chase a linebacker. They were running towards each other. Foster should have made the block. At least half a block.

  • Madi

    I assume we will fare better against 4-3 defenses with the return of Maurkice Pouncey. That’s a lot more uncovered athleticism than Velasco/Wallace.