The Pittsburgh Steelers running game has been erratic in 2017. There is no doubt about it. Yes, Le’Veon Bell is leading the league in rushing by 118 yards. However, he also has 47 more carries than anyone else, and his 3.9 yards per attempt is grouped in with Matt Forte, Latavius Murray and Isaiah Crowell. It is fair to say there should be more expected out of Bell.
However, most of this does not come back on Bell. There are times where his style is an issue. He waits behind the line, his lineman do not know which hole he is going through, the communication can be messy.
It does not help that they do not have a formidable blocker at tight end, though.
Pittsburgh Steelers need Vance McDonald to get healthy
Jesse James has been an issue this season. The team knew that in training camp, and traded for Vance McDonald. Injury and adjusting to the playbook has been an issue in getting McDonald on the field this season. However, when he is on the field, he has been successful. It is not a coincidence that the three games that featured the most Vance McDonald this season are the only three games Bell has ran for over 100 yards.
The biggest difference between James and McDonald is athleticism. With McDonald, the Steelers are able to pull, and use him in the run game to break long runs. James is just not that same player. For a while, the Steelers did not really pull with James much. However, it makes the run game predictable. If James is on the right, the Steelers usually run right. So, with McDonald out, the Steelers have been trying to pull with James more. It has not been successful.
Below, you see James pulling right to left. However, for some reason, he gets caught up looking into the secondary, and it looks like he gets drawn into the middle of the field by Vontaze Burfict. However, at the end of the play, you can the see cornerback come in off of the edge to tackle Bell for a two yard run. Had James pulled, and not got caught up looking into the secondary, that cornerback would have been picked up, and the edge would have been open for Bell. That would have helped boost his yards per touch totals.
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The play below is on the final drive of the game. It is pretty clear who James is responsible for here. However, he is slow to get over, he gets blown up, and he ends up on the ground with Bell beside him shortly after.
McDonald has been a bit more successful. While James was watching the second level, McDonald was getting to the edge and freeing it up for Bell. This is how you turn eight yards into 20. He finishes off one player, and pushed 49, Daniel Sorenson, back to where he has to adjust, buying Bell and extra yard or so.
Notice the difference in speed between James and McDonald as they get across the line. McDonald gets there quick, hits the hole and works C.J. Mosley, one of the best linebackers in the NFL to get Bell extra yards.
The difference is not just athleticsm and pulling. McDonald is straight up a better blocker. This again is a play from the final drive of the game. An emotional game in which the Steelers fought all the way back to tie the game with a chance to win. On first and ten with 2:42 left, Jesse James puts in this effort.
Bell gets caught from behind by the player that Jesse James brushed by in his attempt of blocking. Again, limiting the big ones. Below, McDonald is in a similar situation. He helps seal off the edge, and then gets off of that block to help push the safety away in the second level.
With Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell and now Ryan Shazier, the health, and the loss of Vance McDonald in the lineup has not been talked about. However, it could be an upgrade equally as important, and one that sparks the running game for a final stretch.