Of the many aspects that plagued the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense last season, it was their run defense that was their most damaging.
As talented as they were along the defensive line a year ago, their ineptitude in the trenches resulted in them finishing 29th in run-stop win rate (28%) and last in rushing yards allowed (2483). This year's version of the defensive line is just as talented, perhaps even more so with the return of veteran lineman Tyson Alualu and the addition of Larry Ogunjobi and rookie DeMarvin Leal in this year's NFL Draft.
This past Thursday, the Steelers' run defense took another step backwards in their loss to the Cleveland Browns. Led by All-Pro running back Nick Chubb, the Browns amassed 171 yards on the ground. This marked the third game this season in which they allowed 100 or more rushing yards.
One may say that their inability to stop the run is due to constantly being on the field. As valid as this may seem, it is simply the result of the Steelers' defensive line losing battles in the trenches. When viewing them on film, it was not just a matter of fatigue from spending too much time on the field. In essence, they were losing battles throughout the majority of the contest, which ultimately resulted in an embarrassing showing against the Browns offense.
Losing On The Counter/Power
In this sequence, the Browns are showing an 11 personnel package with an overload on the right side. The Steelers' defense is showing one of their many hybrid fronts, featuring linebacker Malik Reed positioned in 7-technique and defensive back Terrell Edmunds beside him to help support the run.
Considering the overload on the right side, the objective of the Browns in this case was to seal everything inside, the pulling lineman to get to the second level. In this case, the Browns offensive line and receivers do a good job of sealing both Reed and Edmunds inside, giving Browns All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio an open lane where he easily takes cornerback Levi Wallace out of the picture. Running back Nick Chubb breaks through Ahkello Witherspoon's poor tackling attempt and continues on; the result is a 36-yard gain. Had Edmunds not been pushed back as far as he was, it would have likely given enough space for Devin Bush Jr. to fill in and make a play. Note that this took place in the first quarter, so fatigue did not play a factor in their inability to win this battle.
Alualu Struggling In The Trenches
For veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, Thursday night was not one of his best performances. In the past, Alualu has shown the ability to stand his ground in the trenches. Alualu is generally good at keeping his pad level low and using his natural strength to win one-on-one battles. This was not the case on Thursday night. If anything, Alualu seemed physically overwhelmed at times, as he was often pushed back a healthy amount of yards by the Browns' offensive line. Here is one example.
In this instance, Alualu is seen shaded on the Browns center's inside shoulder in 1-technique. When the ball is snapped, the Browns center wastes little time displacing Alualu from his stop, creating a nice gap for Chubb to take advantage of as he cuts inside and pounds his way to a first down. This type of occurrence happened often to Alualu in the second half, which made him a major liability to the team's run defense.
Little To No Resistance
In this zone blocking sequence, the Browns' offense loads the line of scrimmage with tight ends beside the left and right tackle and wide receivers on opposite sides. The Steelers' defense is showing a hybrid front with no nose tackle but rookie DeMarvin Leal playing in 3-technique and Chris Wormley playing in 4i-technique on the opposite side. Ideally, if the Steelers' defense wins upfront, then the linebackers on the second level can shoot their gaps and potentially make a stop.
The key term in this is "winning upfront," as this was not the case. When the ball is snapped, Leal is easily moved out. Meanwhile, linebacker Robert Spillane attempt to fill in the gap is stymied by one of the Browns' lineman who picks him up and seals him. Fellow linebacker Myles Jacks is stopped in his tracks by the Browns' left guard. The result is a nice gap which Kareem Hunt accelerates through and picks up an easy first down. The manner in which the Steelers defensive front was manhandled in this sequence is concerning to watch.
The success or failure of a defensive unit ultimately starts upfront. If one were to extrapolate their incredible defensive output in Week 1, the fact is that the Steelers defense looks like an average unit. Their inability to win upfront has nothing to do with the absence of TJ Watt, as this was a problem last season when he was healthy. This could be a matter of both coaching and having the right personnel on the field that can get the job done in the trenches. Simply put, if the Steelers cannot remedy this problem, they will be in for a long and disappointing season.