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‘We’ve Got To Be Able To Run The Ball’: The Only Prescription For Mr. Chubb Fever Is More Bell Cow


The Pittsburgh Steelers executed precisely nine designed runs on 61 plays against the San Francisco 49ers in their season opener. Only a third of them were successful plays—all of them by Najee Harris, three of his six—but it goes without saying that’s not how the Steelers envisioned the game unfolding. Nor must it be representative of the future, particularly going up against the Cleveland Browns and their running game.

“Obviously playing Nick Chubb, we’ve got to be able to run the ball at a high level and not have our defense out there for so many reps”, TE Connor Heyward told reporters on Saturday, via the team’s website. “We know we can hand the ball to Najee [Harris] and Jaylen [Warren], and as long as we’re blocking, get positive yardage”.

Now that’s the catch, isn’t it? The Steelers need to be blocking up the run in order for the ground game to be successful, at least on a consistent, sustainable basis. Sure, the quality of the back can mitigate some blocking issues, but even that only goes so far.

The Steelers, for what it’s worth ranked 24th in the NFL in the first week of the season in run-block grading by Pro Football Focus—they ranked 32nd in pass-block grading as well. LG Isaac Seumalo and LT Dan Moore Jr. in particular did not fare well in their estimation, so the left side of that offensive line certainly has to step up this week.

That won’t be easy against a stout Browns defensive front featuring the lives of Myles Garrett, Za’Darius Smith, and Dalvin Tomlinson. The Steelers have some talent in their defensive trenches as well, though that doesn’t currently include Cameron Heyward, out for a while with a groin injury.

It would be a tall order to ask the Steelers to outrun the Browns, but it does happen. They have actually done well to contain Chubb in three of the past four games while putting up a showing on the ground of their own, and they are 3-1 in that time—you can guess which games they won.

Going back to Chubb’s rookie year in 2018, the team that won the rushing component on offense won the game every time, barring the tie game in 2018. Both teams rushed for over 150 yards, though this was the first game of Chubb’s career, before he was a starter or even a significant contributor.

The Steelers compiled 41 rushing yards in their season-opening loss to the 49ers, the second-fewest in the NFL for opening weekend. But they also had the fewest carries in the NFL against the second-most pass attempts.

That ratio was largely dictated by game circumstances, the offense consistently going three-and-out and the 49ers consistently scoring, but they must find a way to do better and to find balance. Give the ground game a chance to establish itself. Whether a drive takes two minutes or ten, it doesn’t matter, because the points count the same in the end zone.

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