I’m sure it has happened, but off the top of my head I don’t ever remember seeing it. In the Bill Belichick era, I don’t remember a team that has consistently run the ball at the New England defense all the way through the game.
This thought ran through my mind yesterday as I was re-watching the Pittsburgh Steelers relentless pounding of the Kansas City Chiefs. By game’s end, the Steelers had called 34 running plays against 32 passing plays. Although they never led the game by more than 8 points, 15 of their 24 second half plays were runs – 12 handoffs to Le’Veon Bell and 3 kneel-downs by Ben Roethlisberger. Bell finished the evening with 170 rushing yards on 30 carries (a 5.7 yard average).
During the regular season, the Steelers featured the fifth-most prolific passing game in the NFL. Their running game finished in the middle of the pack with a slightly above average 110 rushing yards per game (the league average was 108.9). There is – as they demonstrated last Sunday night – nothing average about their running game. While they mostly choose to attack through the air, they effortlessly switched to a ground-oriented game plan to take advantage of Kansas City’s pronounced weakness against the run – the Chiefs finished twenty-sixth out of thirty-two team in stopping the run as they allowed 121.1 rushing yards a game.
In fact, one of the characteristics of the Steelers’ current winning streak – which has now reached nine games – is an increased reliance on the running attack. In their 4-5 start, Pittsburgh averaged 90.7 rushing yards per game. During the winning streak, that number had improved to 143.8 yards-per-game. Over these nine games alone, Bell has amassed 1,172 rushing yards (146.5 per game as Le’Veon has only played in 8 of the 9 games) averaging 5.3 per carry and scoring 8 rushing touchdowns. Clearly, this is a team that has re-discovered its mojo.
As they prepare to focus that running prowess on the challenge that is the New England Patriots (and I believe that Pittsburgh is the last, best remaining chance to deny the Pats another ring) let’s take a few moments to recognize the interior of that stellar offensive line.
Drafted in the first round (the eighteenth player selected) of the 2010 draft, center Maurkice Pouncey is now the unquestioned leader of the offensive line. He will be going to his fifth Pro Bowl in seven seasons (missing the 2013 and 2015 seasons when injuries kept him off the field for 31 of the 32 games). He has twice been named First Team All-Pro. Savvy, gritty and relentless, his toughness rubs off on the rest of the line. Pouncey played very well last Sunday, but was overshadowed by the dominant play of the two guards.
Left guard Ramon Foster has never been named to the Pro Bowl and has been mostly unrecognized since Pittsburgh signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee before the 2009 season. He spent most of Sunday evening looking across the line of scrimmage at Kansas City’s much-decorated defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who has already gone to two Pro Bowls since his first-round selection in 2012. These matchups were won decisively by the undrafted Foster who enabled Le’Veon Bell’s night by repeatedly pushing Poe off the line of scrimmage.
And then, there is right guard David DeCastro. Picked in the first round two years after Pouncey, DeCastro was the engine behind the Steeler running attack. Le’Veon’s 30 rushes included 16 that went for four yards or more. In 13 of those 16, Bell scooted through a whole personally cleared by DeCastro. Whoever lined up against DeCastro or Foster that night spent the evening going backwards. It was as impressive a performance as you are likely to see.
Of course, in New England they will face much greater opposition. In fact, looking again at the KC defense, I see that it was handicapped from the beginning.
Many of Bell’s explosive runs came with Kansas City having only two defensive linemen on the field. The Chiefs actually spent considerable time in a 2-3-6 alignment. For about 90% of the game, Pittsburgh’s offensive tackles didn’t have a defensive lineman to oppose them.
Some of the rationale for these alignments – of course – was to inhibit the Pittsburgh passing game (which it sort of did as Roethlisberger finished with 224 yards passing). They may have been equally motivated by roster necessity as a rash of injuries forced the Chiefs into a lot of patchwork among the front seven. In fact, while the 2-3-6 alignment frequently included safety Daniel Sorensen, he played his 30 snaps as an inside linebacker. Seeing Daniel weighs in at 6-2, 208 pounds he was little match for the talented Steeler offensive line.
So New England will be tougher. How the Patriots will line up is one of the anticipated mysteries, but you can expect Belichick and his crew to come up will a compelling plan to slow down this passing game. But could they withstand the Steeler running game for the whole sixty minutes? It would take an uncommon commitment to the run, since it likely won’t meet with a whole lot of early success. But if Coach Mike Tomlin did decide to turn this into a line-of-scrimmage game, how would the Patriots hold up?
I don’t know. As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it tried.