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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.

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