One of the areas in which the Pittsburgh Steelers struggled most on the offensive side of the ball during the early portions of the 2017 regular season has been establishing an effective early-downs running game, the lack of which has forced them to spend far too much time playing behind the chains.
While they did improve upon that aspect on Sunday against the Chiefs, what I want to focus on today is how they did not allow the down and distance dictate their play-calling, remaining committed to running the ball on unconventional down-and-distances—and finding success in doing so.
Take, for example, their decision to run the ball on their opening drive across midfield after Le’Veon Bell had been tackled for a loss of four. That set up second and 14, and yet they persisted, hitting the counter trey with David DeCastro and Jesse James leading James Conner for 11 yards around the left end to set up a manageable third and three.
Later, on their next drive of the quarter, they were faced with a third and nine, and yet they chose to run the ball anyway, featuring DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey leading the way for Bell around right tackle, allowing him to pick up 10 yards. It’s not often you convert a third and nine on the ground. It wasn’t even a draw play.
Still later, on the same drive, a hold on the previous play set up a second and nine from the 28. They stuck to the ground. It was a pretty simply-designed inside run, walling off a lane up the gut, though bell did have to push for extra effort to pick up the nine yards needed.
While not necessarily entirely unorthodox on second and six, the Steelers converted that on the ground as well in the second quarter, again on the counter to the left. While not quite as smooth as it was designed, it got the six yards.
It was a theme that persisted through the fourth quarter. On second and nine, from deep in their own end, some power running up the gut with the fullback leading the way freed Bell up for a 12-yard scamper and some breathing room that flipped the field.
Later, facing second and eight, they did not convert, but Bell was able to gain six yards to set up a third and two, which is a successful result. Once again, it was the fullback, this time around left guard.
Putting up productive rushing numbers on first down is very important, but so is being able to make up for bad numbers by having success on the ground in less likely circumstances. It helps when the defense may be thinking you are more likely to pass, as well. On Sunday, they achieved this end very well.