Five for Friday: There's power in running the ball

Did the Steelers discover something last week against the New Orleans Saints?

The Steelers ran the ball 43 times against the Saints, gaining 217 yards.

How outside the norm was that? They hadn't gained more than 200 yards on the ground in a game since 2016 in Buffalo.

How outside the norm was running the ball 43 times? Their previous high this season had been 31 attempts in a 24-20 loss to the Jets, while the Steelers hadn't topped 40 carries in a game since running the ball 43 times for 152 yards in a 29-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Oct. 22, 2017.

It's no secret that the more a team runs the ball in a game, the more often it wins. After all, most teams certainly aren't going to run the ball when they're losing.

But there's also an old adage that there are three things that can happen when you throw a pass and two of them – an incompletion or, worse, an interception – are bad.

And the odds of something bad happening when your quarterback happens to be a rookie – as the Steelers have with Kenny Pickett – are likely even higher.

Given how defenses have adjusted in recent years, running the ball now makes more sense than ever in the NFL.

In recent years there has been a glut of smallish run-and-hit linebackers come into the NFL as a result of the spread offenses used in college football. To combat that, college coaches moved their safeties to linebacker. Defenses got smaller, but they also got faster.

And that has trickled down to the NFL.

As a result, it's more difficult to throw the ball effectively than ever before. Through 10 weeks, NFL offenses are averaging 11.0 yards per completion. That's the lowest average since 1933 – the same year the Steelers were founded by Art Rooney Sr.

But, with all of those smaller bodies on the field and defenses as a whole playing nickel about 65 percent of the time across the board, running the ball is easier than ever before. NFL teams are averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season, the highest average in league history.

The biggest difference has been in power runs. Last season, power runs – those that employ getting a hat on a hat and running straight downhill – averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. This season it's 5.3 yards per attempt.

Counter runs, another that uses a man blocking scheme, are going for 5.2 yards per carry this season after they went for an average of 4.4 yards per attempt a year ago.

Why is this important?

When the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Bears two weeks ago for a 2023 second-round draft pick, the immediate questions centered on how the Steelers would replace him in the offense.

"It could be the nature of the matchup, us and them. It could be the Claypool discussion, the redistribution of snaps if you will," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "There's a lot of variables in the discussions about what personnel groups we'll use and to what extent we use them."

Last Sunday against the Saints, much of the time, the replacement for Claypool was blocking tight end Zach Gentry, who played 43 snaps, or about 51 percent of the time. Pat Freiermuth still played 58 snaps, meaning the Steelers had two tight ends on the field a lot of the time. Even third tight end Connor Heyward played 17 snaps, while fullback Derek Watt was used on six offensive plays, while Miles Boykin, the team's biggest and best-blocking wide receiver, played a season-high 14 snaps.

The 6-foot-8, 280-plus-pound Gentry, in particular, brings a presence to the offense.

"Zach doesn't look like most tight ends," Tomlin said. "He looks like a lot of 4-3 ends. So that's why guys like Zach are employed. They're less dynamic in the passing game, but their efforts are appreciated in more subtle ways. More subtle ways to the naked eye, not those of us that are in the business."

The Steelers clearly decided bigger was better -- at least against the Saints. There's little that's subtle about a 280-pound tight end blocking as part of an offensive line that averages 316 pounds for a 240-pound running back such as Najee Harris.

That's about as subtle as the quarterback screaming the play to the other team prior to the snap. But it worked.

The Steelers ran the ball more effectively than they had at any other time this season. That package should be a staple moving forward.

Get Harris running straight downhill, where he can use his size and power to the best of his ability.

That also allows you to wear the other team down while keeping your own defense standing on the sideline where it can stay fresh for the weighty downs at the end of the game.

• How tough a time are NFL teams having stopping the run this season?

Remember that in 2021, the Steelers had the NFL's worst run defense, allowing 146.1 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry.

This season, four teams are allowing more than 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, led by the Giants, who are giving up a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry.

Seven teams are allowing 140 or more rushing yards per game. Last season, that total was two.

Despite that, the Steelers are now allowing 108.0 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rushing attempt, both of which rank sixth-best in the league.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• If Pickett had five passing touchdowns and six interceptions right now, would his critics feel differently about how he's playing?

Pickett has two passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. And two of his interceptions came on a Hail Mary and a ball that clanged off Claypool's hands and into those of a defensive back.

Pickett's current passer rating is 68.8. But if he had thrown the ball into the end zone rather than run it and those two interceptions that were not necessarily his fault were taken off his ledger, his passer rating would be 78.2.

That's still not great, but it would put him in line with the 80.1 Mitch Trubisky has posted this season. And the Steelers are averaging about 40 more yards per game with Pickett at quarterback than they did in Trubisky's starts.

• The Steelers have had three games this season in which they haven't thrown an interception or turned the ball over. They've won all three.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Taking care of the football is paramount to winning.

• Remember in the offseason when the entire AFC West was going to make the playoffs this season?

That doesn't appear like it's going to happen. In fact, if this playoffs began this week, there would only be one team from the AFC West, not surprisingly, the Kansas City Chiefs, that would be in the postseason.

The Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos have been two of the more disappointing teams in the league this season.

It just goes to show that you don't win in the NFL simply by acquiring big-name players. This isn't fantasy football. A player fitting into a certain system is always going to be a huge factor in the NFL.

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