By: Parker Abate, @parkerabate
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-4 in the first round of the NFL playoffs during Ben Roethlisberger’s career. It is no secret that the Steelers have struggled running the ball this year, but it has become part of the dynamic, strategy and identity of the offense. Steelers fans everywhere have seemed to accept quick screens as the running game. History however, shows that the Steelers must establish a run game, especially in their first playoff game of the year to be successful.
In the four first round games that the Steelers have lost since the 2004 playoffs, they have averaged 87.5 yards running the football. The six wins resulted in just over 153 yards on average on the ground. The offense has only eclipsed that number once this season (Week 3 against the Houston Texans).
In addition, Roethlisberger averaged 26 passing attempts per game in the wins and a whopping 46.25 in the losses. The veteran QB has not gotten any younger since the Steelers last playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017 and the offense doesn’t just have to successfully run the ball to win this weekend, but to make a Super Bowl run. Keeping the ball away from the likes of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes will be critical to any kind of deep playoff run. Of course, the Steelers need to take care of business against the Cleveland Browns first.
There has been speculation as to whether Steelers third-string quarterback, Joshua Dobbs may be active this weekend to be used in a package similar to what we saw last weekend against the Browns. Dobbs rushed twice for 20 yards. James Conner also averaged four yards per rush last weekend. It is imperative that the Steelers find a way to successfully run the ball so Roethlisberger can throw the ball down field a bit more as he did in Week 16 in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts. A mix of Conner, Dobbs and some end-arounds to Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson may be enough to get the run game established and open up the field.
Just as there are offensive trends in the last ten first round playoff games, the other side of the ball will have to do its job for the Steelers on Sunday as well. In those six first-round wins for the Steelers since ‘04, the defense has allowed just an average of 62.5 opponent rushing yards. In the four losses, that number nearly doubles to 121.
That leads us into the defensive responsibilities this weekend against the Browns. The Browns, who are appearing in their first playoff game in 18 years, were third in the NFL this season averaging 148.4 yards per game running the football. That rushing attack, of course, led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb did not play in the first meeting between these two teams back in October and Hunt only managed 40 yards. Last week the two combined for 145 yards and a touchdown.
It seems like forever since Vince Williams and Robert Spillane have taken the field together, but this should provide a more sturdy, run-stuffing game plan in order to limit the Browns’ rushing attack. Making Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield throw the ball often will only help the Steelers’ defense in Mayfield’s first playoff game.
This all seems easy. I expect the defense to come to play and stuff the run. The offense running the ball… well Steelers fans shouldn’t hold their breaths as it hasn’t been a focal point for the latter half of the season. Hopefully head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner have a plan to establish the run game early and catch the Browns off guard. History says that will lead to a Steelers win and divisional playoff game berth.
What do you think the key to victory is this weekend? Let me know in the comments below!