Steelers Vertex: Struggles in covering running backs in the passing game – Behind The Steel Curtain

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The Steelers have been defending the run well, but the Bengals used their backs effectively in the passing attack.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. Giving up less than 100 rushing yards total over the last two games, the Steelers have really turned around this part of their game which was historically bad last season. But there is more than one way to use a running back, and on Sunday the Bengals found a way to use their rushers effectively in the passing game. Exactly what caused the Steelers to get exploited in this manner? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex– a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have done an excellent job at stopping the run in the two games since their bye week. After only surrendering 29 rushing yards to the New Orleans Saints, the Steelers held the Bengals to their second-lowest rushing output of the 2022 season. Only rushing for 62 yards on 24 attempts, the Bengals averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Their leading rusher was Samaje Perine with 11 rushing attempts for 30 yards and a 2.7 yards per carry average. Before leaving the game with injury, Joe Mixon had 20 rushing yards on 7 attempts for a 2.9 yards per carry average. Finishing out the rest of the players, Joe Burrow had 5 yards on 4 carries for a 1.3 yard average while Trayveon Williams had 7 yards on 2 attempts for 3.5 yards per carry.
With the Steelers defensive front doing a nice job of bottling up players in the run game, the Bengals utilized the philosophy of getting their running backs the ball in space as part of the passing game. Attempting to get the running back to most likely be dealing with a linebacker in coverage, the defensive line is basically taken out of the equation. The Bengals utilized the running backs in the passing game for 7 receptions on 7 targets for 94 yards and 3 touchdowns. Joe Mixon had 3 receptions for 42 yards with a long of 24 yards while Samaje Perine had 52 yards on 4 receptions with a long of 29 yards and 3 touchdown receptions.
So what exactly are the Bengals doing to utilize their running backs so effectively in the passing game, and what can the Steelers do in the upcoming games to stop it? It’s film time.
The first target to a Bengals running back didn’t come until close to the end of the first quarter. I want to note that before this play not only had Joe Burrow not targeted a running back, he had yet to target Tee Higgins either, and the score was a 3-3 tie.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 3:58.
Joe Mixon is the running back.
First I want you to notice Robert Spillane sitting in zone in the middle of the field and the Steelers dropping both safeties deep. While most defenders look like they are in man coverage, the Steelers have three who are clearly not. With a four-man rush that leaves 4 defenders in what looks like man coverage, and Joe Mixon is completely un-covered.
Burrow finds Mixon and it’s a nice gain. The Bengals notice the Steelers focus, though, and come back to their running back later in the drive.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 2:06.
Joe Mixon is the running back but lined up at the bottom of the screen.
Notice Devin Bush moving with Tyler Boyd, focused more on handing off Boyd to the outside zone than covering Mixon. There’s a good reason for that. . .
Look at Burrow’s eyes. He’s looking at Boyd until he is already in his throwing motion, watching Mixon with his peripheral vision until just before he releases the ball. Burrow knows the Steelers are focusing on shutting down his receivers, and he uses that against them. It’s a great play by Joe Burrow to take advantage of the Steelers focus on defense.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 0:48.
Samaje Perine is the running back.
Two plays later the Bengals take it a big step farther, calling this play that is purely designed for Samaje Perine. Every receiver runs to block a defender, Tyler Boyd pulls Robert Spillane across the play, and the right guard comes out to find Devin Bush who is in man defense on Perine. The left guard gets downfield to make the last block needed and the Bengals go up by seven exploiting the Steelers concerns over the wide receivers.
Dave’s note: Notice the Bengals lineman is four yards downfield. Why was that not called?
The Steelers adjusted, but the Bengals next drive saw three straight passes to Tee Higgins beating the Steelers man coverage without the extra focus they were giving on the first drive. The Steelers, mid-drive, had no recourse but to switch to a zone defense.
This drive was the most important in the game to me. The Steelers tried to adjust to the Bengals offense twice in a very short span of time.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 9:23.
Joe Mixon is the running back.
Just a simple dump off against a zone defense that is rightfully scared of Tee Higgins. Myles Jack makes the tackle, but it still gains 7 yards.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 8:01.
Samaje Perine is lined up farthest to the bottom of the screen.
The empty set allows the Steelers to send Myles Jack out wide to cover Perine without worrying about a run play. Jack is a solid but not great cover linebacker, and the Bengals run a simple route pattern to give Perine space for 6 easy yards on first down.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 6:46.
Samaje Perine is the running back.
With the Bengals moving the ball steadily against their zone defense, the Steelers go back to man again. A well-executed route from Tyler Boyd gets in the way of Robert Spillane (#41), and he ends up missing the tackle. Spillane’s miss is bad, but look at the other defenders. A good number of them are watching the play or jogging towards the ball, especially Arthur Maulet (#35). Compare Maulet to Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has to come much farther to get involved, but is actually running to the ball.
Steelers vs. Bengals, 4th quarter, 4:35.
Samaje Perine is the running back.
The Bengals went away from throwing to their running backs from the middle of the 2nd quarter to this play, which is almost identical to the previous touchdown play above. A route gets in Myles Jack’s way, and Samaje Perine is able to put it into the end zone for the Bengals final touchdown of the game.
The Steelers initial approach to defending the Bengals was to focus on the wide receivers and hope pressure got to Burrow quick enough to prevent him from getting the ball to his running backs in space. The Bengals offensive line did just enough to give Burrow time to find the open players, and the rest of the game was really just the Steelers trying to cover for the mismatches in personnel the Bengals kept attacking.
The Steelers corners could not stop Tee Higgins without help. That help came at the expense of being able to cover the running backs. Joe Burrow had enough protection to keep finding and exploiting the mismatches.
That’s a recipe for giving up 37 points to a good offense.

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