The more football I watch, the more I realize numbers are the most definitive way to assert a point. Numbers are something that we can all comprehend and we don’t need playing experience to understand them at a basic level.
So when you read that the Bengals had four less rushing yards on four less carries than the Steelers at the end of the first half, and then finished with 81 less rushing yards on 26 less carries by the end of the game, that means something to you.
Because you remember when the Bengals were only down six at the end of the first half, and know that they ended up losing by 15. You can declare that there’s a case of causation present there.
The Steelers closed the game on Sunday by forcing multiple turnovers on defense, and never truly abandoning the run game. The 81-yard differential between the two teams on the ground was the second biggest negative differential for the Bengals all season, and the Steelers accomplished this by doing what they do to most teams. Let’s go through their simple yet dominant success against the Bengals run defending unit with a few examples.
Right guard David DeCastro and left guard Ramon Foster are excellent at pulling on power concepts. DeCastro, specifically, is one of the very best at it around the league and running back Le’Veon Bell is a constant beneficiary of his expertise.
On the first drive of the game, it reminded me a lot of last year’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, when Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line ran over the Bengals defense in the first minutes of the game. This was as close to a start as it was over a year ago. Vontaze Burfict actually makes center Maurkice Pouncey’s job so much easier when he tried to time a quick A gap blitz before the snap, as Pouncey was supposed to go out to get Burfict in the second level, but he just takes him out immediately and washes him out of the play. We know this because Pouncey is an uncovered lineman.
With Burfict KIA’d, the remaining “scrape” defender over the top of the play is Kevin Minter, who is tasked to make up more ground than he is capable. All the blockers on the front side of the formation have to do is pin Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap away from the hole, and there’s no one left for the Bengals to pursue this play from behind. Which is bad because the force players are completely taken out by a pulling DeCastro and a downhill Roosevelt Nix.
Sticking with the theme here later in the game, it’s almost an identical blocking scheme performed. In this instance, it’s the left guard Foster who’s uncovered as he goes into the second level to take on Burfict. Foster gets tripped up by Atkins to his left which causes Burfict to remain free on the pursuit (indicated by the orange arrow). Nix is going to have to take on two defenders instead of one, but, DeCastro’s dominance went on display again. 185-pound Dre Kirkpatrick is the force player to bring the run back inside to Burfict and Vincent Rey, but 316-pound DeCastro had none of it and kept Bell clear to take a better angle away from the linebackers, which helped out Nix as he ended up cleaning both Rey and Burfict.
I’ve mentioned many times this year how messy the Bengals second-level blocking has been this year when they run outside zone, this is the way it’s supposed to look. Total synchronization at the first second and half out of everyone’s stance occurs. If you look at Foster, he makes sure before he goes after Minter upfield, he helps out Pouncey’s reach block by long arming Pat Sims, getting Pouncey’s head in front of Sims and effectively taking him out of pursuit. Michael Johnson actually has a chance to shoot his gap and catch Bell in the backfield, but he’s just late enough for Bell to get past and run for an eight-yard gain.
It’s midway through the third quarter and the Bell is still going. Tight end Xavier Grimble motions towards the play side of the formation and the Bengals defensive line guesses wrong when try to slant their first steps to their left, and making the reach blocks much easier for Foster and Pouncey. The Steelers are very good at running the ball against one gap defensive fronts, because they have the personnel to athletically counter it, which leads into the catalyst of their running game.
Patience is a virtue
Bell’s seemingly trademarked “patience” as a runner behind the line of scrimmage can do damage even before the play is snapped. Defenders know that the Steelers offensive line is so imposing at the point of attack, that sometimes they try to not overly commit to one game in fear that Bell will just adjust and take the gap that the defender didn’t fill. For these reasons, defenses are never truly safe when leaving six or less defenders in the box, as seen here:
On this draw play, the primary read for Bell is the B gap right in front of him between the right guard DeCastro and the right tackle Chris Hubbard. Andrew Billings is the playside defensive tackle at the 2i spot, and gets obliterated by DeCastro’s chip before he advances towards Burfict.
At this moment, the Bengals have a two-on-one advantage with Nick Vigil, Dunlap, but here’s where Bell’s reputation makes this play design work. Bell, as usual, stops his feet and surveys what’s in front of him. He can charge up field, or bounce it outside. Vigil sees this and doesn’t fully commit initially downhill to fill the gap. This hesitation gives tight end Jesse James time to come all the way in front from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage and take Vigil out of the play.
This wasn’t the only time Bell got more yards on his own.
The established point of attack is DeCastro reach blocking defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. The fullback Nix goes to meet Burfict and Bell is originally planning on following behind him. Glasgow looks to be two-gapping whilst stacking DeCastro, and gets taken pretty far out of both gaps.
Bell sees this and cuts the play back inside, where Glasgow is too far outside to finish the play, and every pursuit defender is being accounted for. Bell will make you over commit or take you out of your gap entirely, and that’s what he did to Glasgow here.
Finally, the main component to what makes Bell’s running style effective is this:
The phrase “hat on a hat” is really just helmet on a helmet. Meaning everyone in the box is accounted for and the scheme was successful. Bell is able to spend so much time behind his blockers because they’re always on their assignment when they’re supposed to be, and they rarely allow penetration.
This was an issue for the majority of the game, the Bengals sparingly got in Bell’s face in the backfield, and the Steelers were able to move the ball between the 20s for the entire game.
One team’s persistence to play it’s strengths and the other team’s insistence not to was the main difference in the outcome of this matchup. The Steelers didn’t even end up averaging over four yards a carry, but they still rushed for over 150 yards.
Very rarely do teams put up that production on the ground and not come out victorious when their opponent put up less than half comparatively. The Bengals still have a competent unit to defend the run, but they ran into one of the most well oiled machines in the whole league.