A Closer Look: How the Steelers Stuffed Chris Johnson
Here are a couple of plays that explain how the Steelers held Chris Johnson to the second lowest yards-per-carry of his NFL career in Week 2.
It's first-and-10 for Tennessee with 5:16 to go in the second quarter. The Titans are lined up in an offset-I formation with a tight end on the right side of the line and fullback Ahmad Hall also offset to the right/strong side of the formation.
As you would expect on a first down against a base offense, Pittsburgh is in its standard 3-4 with five men at the line (three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers). And as he often does on first down, strong safety Troy Polamalu has lined up as, in essence, an extra linebacker, flanked out beside inside linebacker James Farrior on the strong side of the formation. If it is a pass play, Polamalu has the speed to still cover the deep middle, but he's also in position to cover the tight end.
At the snap, Polamalu seems to read the play before anything happens. He steps up to the outside of the tight end. Farrior, the left inside linebacker, is also reading run immediately as Vince Young drops backs. By the time Johnson takes the handoff, Farrior has taken three aggressive steps into the potential hole between the tackle and the tight end. Polamalu has stepped up further, crossing the line of scrimmage outside of tight end Craig Stevens. Polamalu's main goal isn't to make the tackle as much as it is to set the corner and ensure that Johnson has no choice but to cut back inside, where there is plenty of help. If Polamalu fails at this job, there's no one but Farrior to prevent a long gain, as cornerback Bryant McFadden has dropped back into deep coverage.
By stepping up, Polamalu also forces Hall, the fullback, to pick him up. By the play design wide receiver Nate Washington is slanting inside for what appears to be a block on Polamalu, but because Polamalu played the run so quickly, he's too late to get a block on the safety -- he pulls up and instead goes to look for McFadden.
Polamalu does as he had hoped and he meets Hall three yards in the backfield. By doing so, he has eliminated any hope of Johnson kicking the run outside.
But there's not much more Johnson can do inside, either. Left defensive end Aaron Smith met guard Jake Scott, who was trying to pull to help lead the play, a yard in the backfield and quickly drives him back further. Outside of him LaMarr Woodley has managed to slip off of Stevens' block, even though Stevens received help from right tackle David Stewart. Because Stewart was stuck helping out on Woodley, neither he nor Scott is available to pick up Farrior, who is now on the Titans' side of the line of scrimmage.
Polamalu has set the corner three yards in the Titans' backfield to Johnson's right. Woodley is two yards into the backfield, directly in Johnson's intended path. Smith is also two yards in the Titans' backfield on Johnson's left. And Farrior is standing in what would otherwise be the hole between Stewart and Scott.
Johnson does the only thing he can do and tries to slip between Stewart and Scott. But since no one is blocking Farrior, it's an easy tackle for him. Smith has also broken free of Scott's block and is around in case Johnson tries to slip inside of Farrior. And nose tackle Chris Hoke has beaten Eugene Amano, in case those two fail to wrap up Johnson. In the end Farrior takes Johnson down by himself for no gain.
At the point of attack, there were four Steelers' defenders filling any possible hole. Of the Titans' blockers, only Ahmad Hall could be said to have executed his block properly, but even in his case, he was only doing what Polamalu wanted him to do. All four of the Steelers' defenders at the point of attack executed their assignments well, and gained a jump on their intended blockers by reading the play so quickly.
You may think that this success came about largely because the Steelers' had three ex-Pro Bowlers filling those holes. But it's more complicated than that.
To get a better idea, take a look at one more play, this one from the third quarter. It's first and 10 again, with 5:40 to go in the third. Tennesse lines up with Chris Johnson seven-yards deep in the backfield in an I-formation. Fullback Ahmad Hall is flanked out three yards off the ball just to the outside of left tackle Michael Roos. Tight end Craig Stevens is also in the backfield, lined up four yards off the ball just inside right tackle David Stewart's left shoulder.
Pittsburgh is again in its base 3-4 defense, but because of the heat, they've gone extensively to the backups. The entire defensive line is the second-team with Nick Eason at right defensive end, Steven McClendon (in his first NFL game) at nose tackle and Ziggy Hood at left end. Starters James Harrison (ROLB) and Woodley (LOLB) are in the game, but the starting inside linebackers have been replaced by Keyaron Fox (RILB) and Larry Foote (LILB). Polamalu is lined up to Foote's left, again as essentially a fifth linebacker.
At the snap, Harrison immediately fires into the backfield. He is rushing the passer if it's a pass or sealing the outside if it's a run, so either way, fortune favors the bold. Since Vince Young is dropping back for what appears to be a handoff, Woodley on the other side has to be more cautious. He appears to have coverage responsibilities if it's a pass, but even if he was rushing, the risk of Young faking a handoff and bootlegging to Woodley's side would require him to stay home until the direction of the play becomes more clear.
Easson also fires off the ball and crosses the line of scrimmage to lay a quick lick with his hands on Roos.
Harrison's aggressiveness doesn't lead to a big play, but what it does do is erase Hall from the play. Faced with no other choice, Hall goes down to try to cut Harrison's legs out two yards into the backfield. All of that happens before Johnson ever takes the handoff.
At first, the Titans are also doing a pretty decent job on Eason, largely because Roose is getting double-team help from guard Leroy Harris. But when Harris lets go of Eason for a second, the squat DE gets leverage on Roos and begins to drive him backwards and to Eason's right -- towards Johnson who is trying to take this run outside.
It appears that Harris' job was to help Roos on Eason, then slide off to pick up Fox. But he doesn't have a chance of catching up to Fox, who has read the play quickly and has gotten to the outside of the Roos/Eason tangle to try to turn Johnson back inside. Stevens is also struggling to catch up with Foote, who is running at full speed, five steps behind Fox in a dash for the outside.
Making life even tougher for Johnson, Harrison has slid off of Hall's cut block and is now bearing down on Johnson from behind Johnson's right shoulder. Give Johnson credit for trying to make something out of nothing. He has no choice but to cut back, as Fox has taken away any lane to the outside. So he plants his left foot and cuts back inside. In doing so, Eason has managed to drive Roos far enough outside to run into Johnson. After that jab step to cut back inside, Johnson then bounces back outside again as Roos takes out Fox with help from Harris. That leaves Eason and Harrison unblocked, but it does buy Johnson a little time. The cutback also slows down Foote enough to allow Stevens to get a better angle to finally block him.
At this point, Johnson has done a very good job of turning nothing into something. Harrison was in the backfield with him before he ever took the handoff, but now Fox is being driven to the ground, Eason and Harrison are stuck inside of Johnson with the traffic of the Roos/Fox/Harris pileup to get around and Foote is being picked up by Stevens. Given Johnson's speed a dash to the sideline and a nice gain now looks possible.
But there's one problem: ornerback Ike Taylor is winning his battle with wide receiver Justin Gage. He never completely extricates himself from the block, but he does maintain outside leverage on Gage near the sideline. That forces Johnson to cut back inside once again, which drives him right back into the arms of Harrison. If he had managed to slip past Harrison, Foote (who has shed Stevens' block) and nose tackle McClendon are standing waiting to wrap Johnson up, and Polamalu and free safety Ryan Clark are the third wave behind them. At this point Johnson is surrounded by seven Steelers within five yards of him (not counting the blocked Key Fox). There are only three upright Titans.
The key to the Steelers' success against the run is more about discipline and assignments than any one or two star players. Often the player who makes the play fall apart doesn't get credited with the tackle, but in Dick LeBeau's system, everything starts with stopping the run. And stopping the run involves every defensive lineman and linebacker understanding his role and doing it well. It's a system that has worked for more than a decade, and it explains how the NFL's best back could be held to the second-worst yards per carry of his career.