Film Room: Steelers Running Well On Passing Downs

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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • falconsaftey43

    It’s great to see the running game get going. Things like this (successfully running on passing downs) is why I hate when people try to nit pick and criticize play calling. We all know if that 3rd and 9 run hadn’t converted, everyone would be calling it a terrible play call. “What is Haley thinking running on 3rd and 9!?” fans would have screamed in anger. It’s always results based criticism. But in actuality, over the last 3 seasons teams convert 29.6% of 3rd and 8-12 situations when they pass and 26.7% when they throw. So really, it’s not necessarily a “passing” down in terms of achieving success. So much goes into an individual play call. Down, distance, game time, score differential, opponents defensive trends in those situations, your offensive strengths, offensive personnel on the field (don’t always have time to substitute, maybe someone is hurt for a play), defensive personnel on the field, defensive substitutions made after you call the play, defensive formation they line up in, specific plays installed that week in the game plan for critical downs. There are so many more variables to consider, many of which fans don’t have access to. I’m not saying never question play calling, but can we maybe keep this in mind the next time they call a pass on 1st and goal? Maybe there is a reason they called that play, and they didn’t just pick a random one out of the play book.

  • john bennett

    I want to see a lot more of Nix leading the way……and Grimble…..those two just make space for Bell.

  • SilverSteel

    Sounds like Haley is back in rythym. We need that. Good breakdown guys!

  • SilverSteel

    Yes they do. Our backfield is so much better with the FB playing.

  • Scott Thomas

    Thank you for writing the words that I wanted to write.

  • pittfan

    “” It’s always results based criticism.”””

  • Rob

    Mike Munchak out of the dog house now Matt? haha

  • nutty32

    Villy doing work on each one of those helping balance out his books, get back in the black.

  • SteelCity

    You provide some of the most relevant and interesting stats…very intriguing that 3rd and 8-12 yards to go there is about the same success getting first downs if you run or pass for the past 3 years….good job as always sir

  • Mark

    Do you mean Vance McDonald who is a better blocker than Jesse James. I think Bell enjoys having a lead blocker like Nix. I like our 1 TE, 1FB, and 1RB look because it allows us to keep AB and MB/JuJu on the field as well. Also allows us to run to the weakside with Nix leading the way. So many options with this look.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I know you’re just poking fun, but for clarity I never said he was or should be in the doghouse. I just said that he shouldn’t be the only coach who isn’t fair game for criticism.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Definitely his best game of the season.

  • Rob

    Yes I kno..just pulling your leg lol