Film Room: Where The Steelers Run Defense Went Wrong

First off, it’s important to point out nearly everything went wrong Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I thought Javon Hargrave did well…and that’s about it. Heck, maybe with the Coaches Tape, I’ll even find out he struggled. I may go insane if that happens.

But there were certainly a couple of plays and issues that came to mind to allow the Chicago Bears to rack up 220 yards on the ground. Jordan Howard went for 138, Tarik Cohen for 78 despite the Bears having a nearly negative passing attack.

So how did it happen? The Steelers run fits were bad. But some plain didn’t exist. And created wide open lanes to run through.

Let’s start with the end. Here’s the game-winner. Inside zone run to the right but Jordan Howard cuts it back to his left. Steelers in traditional base 3-4. Here are their run fits as they appear to me.

We’re missing one player. An alley defender in the “C” gap, between LT and TE. Generally, that’s a safety but there’s no one in the area. Now, Ryan Shazier, responsible for the weakside “A” gap, has to come across the field and try to make the play. He doesn’t, and that’s on him, but he wasn’t in a position to succeed. No alley fill and Howard scores.

It’s similar to what happened on Zeke Elliott’s touchdown to beat the Steelers last year (and was wrongly blamed for). It looks like Shazier totally guessed; he didn’t, he played his gap. But one gap was left seemingly unaccounted for.

Then there was the plain ugly. Artie Burns…I don’t know what’s going on here. Chickillo forces the ball inside and Burns, just nothing happens. Truly, I have no explanation and when something looks that ugly, it’s tough to understand what the plan even was.

The final issue didn’t seem like one that turned into any huge runs but it left me scratching my head. The Steelers have run their 3-4 shifted front with the nose tackle cocked and the shift-side linebacker lined up off ball. Usually, this is done to the strong side of the formation.

But against the Bears, they often shifted to the weakside. Like here. Shifting away from the tight end. So the Bears were able to count numbers and run away from the shift. This isn’t even their true “4-3” front but it’s shifted weak all the same.

Here, they’ve shifted strongside but it’s against heavy personnel. There’s a tight end to the boundary but there aren’t enough bodies in the box. From the center to the tight end, the Bears have four blockers. From the center over, there are only three Steelers’ defenders: Bud Dupree, Hargrave, and Shazier. Four vs three, Steelers lose.

Where is the safety coming down in the box vs 13 personnel? Why only a seven man box on 2nd and 9 against a team who can’t throw a lick?

Now, Joe Haden gets held like crazy. But no one was in a position to succeed.

Here is the same issue. Fire X blitz. The assignments. Steelers shift to the weakside of the formation.

Again, who is the C gap defender? The safety? No one fills the alley. Another big run.

And it got weirder. At one point in the game, the Steelers shifted strongside. But the Bears simply responded by motioning their tight end to see how the Steelers’ DL would react. Here, they shifted over a gap and the SS walked off the ball with the tight end away. That seems like a logical reaction.

But here, they don’t. If I’m an offense in the future, if the Steelers’ DL doesn’t respond to that shift, I can get them out of position and force them to play an under (weak) front on each run.

Maybe there’s another layer I’m missing but it looks like it could be an issue.

There’s a lot going on here so let’s summarize the biggest issues.

1. Individual breakdowns. Missed tackles and poor angles to the football.

2. More importantly, schematically, it seemed a mess. There were gaps left free the Bears easily exploited and weird front choices that put the Steelers in bad positions to succeed.

This was an ugly game from Keith Butler. I mean, an ugly game from everyone, but there’s a lot going on here I can’t figure out.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • stan

    I was at the game unfortunately. There’s no doubt Butler got his butt handed to him schematically but this was primarily a failure of execution. I personally saw Dupree and Shazier pull up rather than follow the ball for a tackle several times. Williams dove into the wrong hole several times and got himself out of position.

    Chickillo was getting his butt beat on running plays all day too. That made it even more frustrating to only see Harrison on the field for a couple of snaps. This is a game made for James Harrison yet all he did was stand on the sideline.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yeah, no idea what they’re doing there. I was screaming the entire game to put 8 in the box. This makes it look even worse. Both Haley and Butler were down right awful in this game. No idea what they were doing.

  • JT

    Everything about this post makes me angry. I compare the title photo to literally any alignment the Browns or Vikings showed us the last two weeks and I get angry. I watch the full gif of the final TD and see missed tackles and fistfuls of jersey, and I get angry. I see Artie Burns playing the run like our TEs try and block, and I get angry. I think about the fact that we didn’t stack the box when a WR only caught one pass all game long, and I get angry.

    You’ll be receiving a strongly worded letter from my Doctor about my blood pressure, Mr. Kozora.

  • gdeuce

    even in the gif where we stacked the box above, they just ran away from Davis’ side into the giant hole with no C gap defender

  • pittfan

    Artie Burns!!!! WTF???

  • David LaVeck

    Agreed. This article sums up the run defense pretty good. What did the secondary do all day, there was no one to cover? They should have recognized this early and at least brought up a safety. Look on the bright-side, the secondary didn’t give up anything? What a joke.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Chick was titty dancing with TE’s the entire game. No excuse for not playing jh this week.

  • srdan

    It was one of htose games where it all went wrong. I get it. But man, to not put your best run stopper on the field? Why didn’t james go in? They ran at his side all day.

  • Narayan Iyer

    Jay Ajayi gashed us in a similar manner last year and we were able to stop him (the run) when we met them again later last year! The Steelers knew they were up against Jordan/Tarik duo, they could have employed similar tactic, right? Was it so difficult to prepare for this?

    Oh … and obviously there’s no octane left in the tank (much vaunted high octane offense)! Ben says he did not play well, but that seems to be the story for him on the road games! I don’t think you can club Ben & Tom Brady together!

  • steelburg

    We need to get a new defensive coordinator man. We don’t have time to waste trying to develop Butler as a legit defensive coordinator. Call Rex Ryan and let him run this defense because the talent is there.

  • Narayan Iyer

    We also need a new OC!

  • johnhoien

    As soon as I saw the whole defense, and I mean everyone move completely w/ the Howard & then he cut it back.. I had a nasty flash back of Elliot’s game winner a year ago.. Gap integrity.. Find it quick.. Baltimore on the road this wk

  • #beatthepats

    Expect a double te or extra lineman next week- and blown off the line of scrimage., on offense- raven bigger dl occupy all 5 olineman and no run game, big ben in shotgun every play – loss

  • Lil Smitty

    unless they wanted to see what they had in Chik. Give him a game to try to figure it out. I would say F for run defense.

  • steelburg

    I can live with Haley. His offense is designed to have Ben get rid of the ball quicker. Ben big plays hunts to often and doesn’t take the underneath stuff. I think Ben and the offensive line may actually be more to blame for the offensive struggles.

  • Narayan Iyer

    I will not disagree with you here. Yeah … no idea why Ben did not throw (underneath) to dunno who (Bell?) and instead chose to hit Brown who was apparently double teamed on a 3rd and 2 If I’m not mistaken! Discipline is essential.

  • StrengthOfVictory

    What happened to stopping the run in order to make teams one-dimensional? Make Napoleon Dynamite have to win the game with his arm. The Steelers are supposed to have the secondary personnel to cover in the secondary—and half the work is done for you when their receivers are Wheaton and Wright.

    The only thing I can figure is that the Steelers honestly didn’t think Chicago would be that committed to the run. They imagined they’d collapse the pocket, get Glennon on his back a few times, and force the Bears into 3rd and long. But the Bears weren’t afraid to run, run, and run again.

    And it doesn’t help that the muffed punt by Rogers flipped the field early after a successful defensive stand. From there, they looked like they were playing on their heels.

  • steelburg

    I remember on another 3rd down he had I think it was James open underneath and he pumped fake him and looked deeper down field and ended up taking a sack.

  • Mark

    Excellent analysis, which definitely explains why we lost. If you cannot stop the run in the NFL, you will lose every Sunday.
    1. Artie Burns should be required to tackle Watson 10 times everyday next week. He’s not physical at the point of attack. I would bring Troy, Blount and Taylor into practice this week to have a conversation with this young man about how to play physical football at the CB position. That was downright disrespectful to his teammates.
    2. If Javon Hargrave leaves the field for any reason, I will have Butler’s head examined. We are getting out coached by 1 dimensional teams. No passing attack whatsoever, stack the box with 8 and have corners play man along with LB’s on TE’s with safety help deep.
    3. Chickillo got abused yesterday by TE’s, yet James (lift a house) Harrison is on the bench not playing a snap
    4. Vince Williams is now a liability in the run game and we all know how he looks in pass situations.
    5. Offensively, have we heard the word setup? Okay, run the slant with Bryant and then come back fake the slant and run towards the sideline on the 2nd slant. Not us, we are going to throw that no matter what.
    6. How about a run blitz on 1st down put them into a passing situation or check out of run and still blitz the statue known as Glennon.
    7. Tomlin stop hyping up the Bears publicly because your team believes the hype and plays scared

    Bottom line, everyone calm down we all know that we will have 1 or 2 loses like this during the season that make no sense whatsoever.

  • stan

    Is there going to be another post where we discuss that Glennon didn’t even look at receivers other than his running backs in the second half yet we still didn’t cover them? Or should we put that in here as well?

  • Narayan Iyer

    Agreed! But I believe it was Einstein who said that its foolishness to do the same things over and over again but expect different results! We’ve made these mistakes in the past (Dolphins), should we not have learnt from it?

  • Ichabod

    So here’s a question, can poor angles and tackling be improved?
    These issues are far too common with this group of players
    As for the offense…I guess it doesn’t matter how many elite players you have if they don’t rise to the occasion, you struggle or lose

  • Petherson Silveira

    I stand by what i said yesterday: “And another thing. We are terrible against outside zone. Look what Dolphins did to us last year. Bad coaching and recognition of offensive personnel.”

    And this Article just confirmed what a dumb guy like me saw and Butler and Tomlin did not. It was absurd, how in the world NFL coachs can not see this. Was so obvious.

  • mem359

    Lolley pointed out that the Bears only had 34 yards on 14 carries in the second half.
    So it wasn’t like they couldn’t play run defense. Just head scratching for them to start and end that badly.

  • Ichabod

    6 to 5 loss

  • JT

    Could be some merit to your theory, as Howard and the run game fell on their face last week. But wouldn’t that be all the more reason to stay committed to it this week, to get the 2nd leading rusher last year back on track?
    And agreed. The muffed punt and sack strip were daggers with the inefficient offense we had.

  • Steeldog22

    No gap integrity. Chick not holding the edge. Burns not filling the gap (and then flopping) after Chick turned the one run inside. I disagree that Shazier is not at fault. His gap is at or about the hash mark. He’s in the middle of the field going the wrong direction in that first run which is and has always been a problem of his. He runs first, reads second. He has the most amazing physical talent that he often still makes the play, but often a little deeper than he would have if he read first, then moved and taken a better angle. Some of his backfield misses might be tackles as well. Can the team doctors put Dirty Red’s head on Shazier’s body (though Dirty Red got totally smoked on that end zone pass).

  • Steeldog22

    Bears’ run game plan all day was cut back on the overpursuit, even if just an initial move one way, then race to the edge or off tackle the other way.

  • Steeldog22

    And our safety reaction and pursuit is horrible.

  • Michael James

    Make no mistake, the run defense was ugly yesterday. But this game wasn’t lost by the defense. In fact they only allowed 14 points in the regular time, where 7 of them came as a result of a very short field for the Bears after that muffed punt.
    This game was lost by special teams and the offense. If those two units only perform close to their potential (especially the offense), this game is an easy win.

  • stan

    The defense did come out strong in the second half. It didn’t hurt that Howard had to leave the game twice in the second half due to injury. The problem was that they really looked relieved when the game got over early in overtime.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Yup, the defense has beem carrying the team for the most part. It’s tme for the offense to carry their weight.

  • Steve

    Bud really had a bad day. Got caught inside on a end sweep to his side. What was Bud doing on the 3rd gif to the end?? Mitchell also, just sat there in his safety spot, and takes bad angles to the ball carrier.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Ypg has gone down each year since Haley took over. There’s no use in making ben get rid of the ball quicker if he can’t score any points off of it. Honestly the offense as a whole has never looked that good under him and it’s definitely not improving. His success had more to do with player talent than anything you can attribute to him. Once the talent isnt there, the offense falls off a cliff. Now even with all the talent, his unit looks as bad as it ever has.

  • BlackAndGold97

    It’s unfortunately clear to me Vince Williams is a downgrade from Timmons, but the Steelers have
    no depth behind him. A perfect compliment to Shazier would be a tackling machine like Levon Kirkland from back in the day.

  • francesco

    Been saying this for two years.

  • Alex Kozora

    *Steelers Depot not liable for any heart attacks you may have

  • francesco

    It was so obvious that the Bears intended to run on first and second down all game. All the Steelers needed to do was stand at the line of scrimmage instead they were flying through gaps for no reason and overplaying their positions.

  • Kniff

    So so frustrating. I am not one of those fans who throw in the towel or give up etc. I also balance my response on the simple observation that any given Sunday any team can win. But when are we going to step up and start setting the tone throughout a full season? This game was winnable despite all the problems. The Bears gave us the ball 2x in their end and even with that help we couldn’t rack up some points. I put the weight of the blame on Ben. We have the weapons, step up and win. His road record is abysmal. Lead Ben lead.

  • srdan

    I cant stop laughing at that play. It looks like he wanted to get blocked. Ran up to an offensive player that was already engaged and couldn’t touch Artie. So Artie faked it and dove on the ground. It almost looks like there was an invisible player on the field that pancaked Artie.

  • SteelersDepot

    We’ll see what the all-22 has to say, but quite honestly, I don’t think Harrison in place of Chickillo would have helped much, if any. He still would have been required to protect the edge which is something Chickilo seemingly did fine at most of the game against outside zone runs. The blame on a lot of the runs goes to either the inside linebackers, the safeties or scheme. This not to say that Chickillo was without fault, I just think you need to realize what his job was on most of these plays and where the open running lane was.

  • Hyped Up Hypocycloid

    So, let’s ponder the implication of this article. Here’s a self-described kid blogging from his mom’s basement who picks apart the Steelers’ defensive game plan in such a way as to make it obvious that it was a poor game plan and there’s no reason as to why it was set up as such. This isn’t some high paid expert on NFLN or ESPN, this is an (above) average fan picking this apart.

    If you concur with the article’s critical analysis, then doesn’t it follow that what is going on with the PS — and has been for years — is that while the front office has been able to assemble top notch talent, the coaching staff in place does not match its quality? Isn’t that a reasonable conclusion to draw?

    Consequently, the talent on the roster does not realize on the field. This goes for the head coach, whose record in games against poor teams where the Steelers are heavily favored is terrible, as well as for the defensive coordinator who is easily exposed by an internet blogger with some film and common sense.

    I do concur with this article, and I’m left to conclude that if this team succeeds, it does so by virtue of the players and not the coaching. Now, like last year, I expect the team to heat up in the second half of the season but won’t be able to secure home field advantage which will lead to the inevitable road game disappointment.

    [/steps off the soap box]

  • barry foster

    Artie didn’t want any parts of Jordan Howard

  • steelburg

    Ben has had his best years in Haley’s system. It’s a system designed to keep Ben up right for the long haul. So I think the system has done that for the most part. I think Ben being Ben has accounted for the injuries over the recent years where he is scrambling trying to make an extra play. I do agree that Haley is flat awful in the red zone. But if not Haley system it would have to be one similar because Ben would get killed in a system that is similar to what Arian runs with the Cardinals.

  • Darth Blount 47

    “It’s like you’re dreaming about Gorgonzola cheese when it’s clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office….”


    “Cause you’re fuc***’ fired.”

    Watching these Gifs made my head hurt even more. A total lack of will, focus, effort, tackling, and understanding, apparently. I know this happens to us every once in a while, but the very backbone of our Defense is and has been the Run D. When it’s great, we’re great. When it fails, we often fail.

    I hate to be THAT guy in this instance but is it about time to hit the panic button on our Safety tandem?! Mitchell is the vet and the leader of the Secondary. A lot of this falls on him back there. I’ve been a supporter and defender of his for a while now, but at his cost next year, I have to wonder if his time is fleeting fast.

  • nutty32

    That’s the basic job, agreed. And he doesn’t let the runner outside. But IMO to do that job well one has to also be cognizant of angels and where your teammates are coming from and be able to squeeze that off tackle lane down to a reasonable size. Anyone can just bracket far outside and claim they did the job while forcing the ilb to fill a huge alley. Chick needs to fight for his angels much better than what he showed. He was pretty much a non-factor on most those runs even if he did his primary, basic task.

  • steelburg

    I said last year during that Miami game that Burns appeared scared to tackle and some people on this site was critical of my comments and now you noticed it. I’m starting to see a trend with him. If we play against a bruising RB he seems to do this.

  • nutty32

    Agreed. VW needs to step up his run fill game. He constantly seems a step slow to the play. Run stopping should be his calling card & if he can’t excel at this, well there’s little reason for him to be out there. LJ Fort time?

  • nutty32

    The irony is that the Bears came into the game already one dimensional, they can’t pass effectively.

  • Bradys_Dad

    where the D-line made its’ mistake was when they left their hearts and heads in that damn tunnel – c’mon guys !

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Ben has also had the best weapon’s he’s ever had in those years as well. I think he did what he did despite Haley. Ben is a part of the problem too, but he can be managed. You can’t manage bad play calling. We need a new regime on that side of the ball, because the Ben/Haley combo simply isn’t producing points, for whatever reason. Letting go of Haley would not be the end of the world. The ravens fired their OC (Cam Cameron) midway through the season and went on to win the SB. The Broncos offense looks better than ours, which is sad.

  • BlackAndGold97

    I would be fine with LJ Fort, how much worse could he be? I would take anyone who stays in his lane assignments and has serviceable tackling ability.

  • nutty32

    Preseason is preseason, but LJ was a heat seeking missile all 4 games.

  • Sdale

    Love the reference Darth! For the Safeties, I think it had to be scheme. When a team has done nothing but run the ball, no football player is going to sit back and watch the same gap get exploited over and over. There was no chance this team was going to exploit us in the passing game, so why would there not be a safety in the box unless that’s what the coach wanted? A couple plays could be explained by player mistakes, but the whole game means coaching to me.

  • Sdale

    That’s a good point. Harrison can hold that edge without giving ground to the tackle/TE and it shrinks the lanes some, but with no one filling, a good RB is still getting through those gaps most of the time. He would have made a couple of plays where he just manhandled his blocker and made the tackle himself, but there still would have been a lot of yardage with that scheme.

  • Sdale

    Yeah, he had a bad game.

  • colingrant

    Artie Burns’ effort was so pitiful, I would have characterized it as a “fix” if I didn’t know any better.

  • Alex Kozora

    Emmitt Smith was a “highly paid” expert. Money ain’t got a thing to do with it, my friend.

  • razaard2

    Defense sucked huh?
    Second half shutout, after giving most points on the first half because of terrible special teams mistakes. Also forced turnovers that gave the o chances to score
    Do was far, far from perfect, but offense and ST lost this game

  • Hyped Up Hypocycloid

    Yes, of course. I should’ve put “expert” in quotes like that… I have a ton of respect for the work you do. AFAIC, you give me the most expert football analysis and opinion. I just called you “a kid in his mom’s basement” as a rhetorical device to emphasize my point at how obvious the flaws in the “game plan” were. See? I put “game plan” in quotes, heh.

  • Hyped Up Hypocycloid

    I agree. The D had to deal with the drive from the muffed punt and the blocked FG. While they certainly got gashed for rushing yards, rushing yards don’t win games. With this offense, giving up 17 points should certainly be enough to win. The O lost the game on the 4Q drive when they started on their 38 and went three and out. Pitiful.

  • SouthernSteel

    Chick looked good the first quarter n half… Then he just started getting destroyed… Hurt, tired or just getting man handled… Don’t understand why JH didnt replace him in 3rd quarter… Seemed so obvious on TV

  • SouthernSteel

    Lol… Except for wheatons drop

  • razaard2

    They didn’t even run that much. Roughly a third of their rush yards came in ot

  • ryan72384

    Good breakdown. Holy hell who is quarterbacking this defense and making these calls? The wide open gaps with nobody filling. How does that even happen? I also said in another post I think VW and Shazier are our worst duo if starting MLBs in a long time but watching some of this film makes me realize our safety duo is just about as bad. And Artie seriously? Corners that don’t want to tackle..SMH

  • Shane Mitchell

    My thoughts:

    The game winning play, I believe Heyward’s assignment is to 2 gap (4i) with A/B gap responsibility to keep Shazier clean so he can fill/scrape as needed.. Shazier was too hyped up and undisciplined on this play. Shazier is supposed to make this play, it is designed specifically to allow Shazier to be the playmaker and he ran himself right out of the play.

    Artie Burns is still too soft, and easily blocked out of plays by WRs, and reluctant to tackle, its a problem that will be exploited, especially if they are playing Cover-2 where the outside CBs have outside run responsibility in the defense.

    Sean Davis? does this guy know how to make reads at all, sure doesnt seem like it on the gamefilm, he is going to lose his starting job, he isnt very good at anything other than spot drop cover-2. Wilcox will likely become a starter very soon at SS.

    They need to play the under front to get pressure pass rushing with their Dline, but shifting so much between the over/under/even front creates confusion because when they make these shifts on the ball, its not just dline assignments that change on the play, you now have LBs thinking what is my assignment on the play a split second before the snap. Its a bit much, I thought the idea was to simplify the Defense?

  • GravityWon

    I was very upset when the Steelers didn’t select a safety on day 2 of the draft. Mitchell is a hitter, not a playmaker. The best defenses seem to have grade A free safeties these days.

  • Dshoff

    With the Steelers using just 2 DL guys so much in the first couple of games, it almost looked like they didn’t know who was supposed to cover what gap when having 3 DL in the game. I know, I know, it can’t be that simple but…

  • will

    Great analysis Alex. It sure appears that Coach Butts is weak minded.