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The Duo run play re-emerges for the Steelers in their preseason win

The Steelers offense provided plenty of excitement in Friday night’s 27-17 preseason victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was impressive in his lone series, going 6-7 for 70 yards and a touchdown pass. Pickett showed great poise, appearing calm, patient with the football and fluid in his reads. His touchdown throw, a 33-yard dart to George Pickens on a dig route, showcased excellent vision and an ability to drive the football that emerged late last season.

The dig route Pickens caught was an addition to the second-year receiver’s repertoire. Pickens was confined mostly to running sideline routes last season, but quickly showcased an ability to operate in the middle of the field. His run-after-the-catch skills were on full display as well, as Pickens faked a Tampa safety out of his shoes at the 10-yard-line before galloping into the end zone.

Pickens’ teammate from last season’s draft class, Calvin Austin III, also made a splash. In his long-awaited debut, Austin III caught a 67-yard touchdown pass from Mason Rudolph on a straight Go route. He also turned the corner on a couple of jet sweep runs for big gains. Austin generally ran by and around the Tampa defense like they were high school kids. The challenge ahead will be for him to do it against starters, not backups. Still, it was exactly what fans wanted to see from the diminutive speedster.

Lost in the excitement generated by the passing attack was a quietly impressive evening for the run game. The numbers weren’t outrageous — 92 yards on 26 carries — but the manner in which the Steelers accumulated those yards was impressive. The starting line knocked its defensive counterparts off the ball while the backs, absent Najee Harris, who hardly played, hit the holes with a mixture of patience and urgency. Those two traits defined the 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter by Anthony McFarland Jr. that put the Steelers ahead 14-7. McFarland took small, quick steps in attacking the line. Then, once he located a cut to the outside, immediately accelerated and outran the cornerback to the end zone:

It was a nice run by the fourth year back, whose athleticism has always been tantalizing but who has yet to carve out a regular role for himself in the offense. Equally tantalizing was the play design on which McFarland scored. The scheme, commonly known as Duo, was once a staple of the Steelers run game. They ran it consistently when Le’Veon Bell was the team’s feature back. Any Steelers’ fan who can picture Bell patiently hopping his way towards the line, waiting for a cut to emerge, is picturing the Duo play. It’s a scheme that allows blockers to remain on double teams against defensive linemen for as long as possible, attempting to push them into the laps of the linebackers. The running back reads the backer as the two engage in a football version of a game of chicken, each waiting for the other to commit first. If the backer plugs the B-gap, the back will break outside. If the backer plays over the top, the back will jam the run up the middle:

You can see in the diagram how the back has a three-way go on the play. He can bang it up the middle, bend it to the back side or bounce it play side. There is no pre-determined hole. Instead, the back reads the near linebacker and attempts to make him wrong by cutting away from his leverage. As far as versatility goes, it’s an extremely useful play.

The thing that makes Duo so interesting for the Steelers is its nature. With its condensed formation, double team blocks and even its use of wide receivers as interior run blockers, Duo is the epitome of a physical football play. Pittsburgh got away from the scheme the past few seasons, in part because they didn’t feel it married well with the running style of their backs, who were quicker to the hole than Bell and less likely to wait out the linebackers. But they also moved away from Duo because they weren’t physical enough up front to run it. The Steelers saw significant turnover as veterans Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva all reached the end of their careers. The transition of the line, and the search for a quality position coach once Mike Munchack departed following the 2018 season, led to some down years. The run game was neglected as the Steelers leaned heavily on Ben Roethlisberger to carry the offense. It bottomed out in 2020 and 2021, finishing 32nd and 29th in the league in rushing yards, respectively.

Last season, the run game re-emerged in the wake of Roethlisberger’s retirement. The Steelers invested in the line by bringing in competent starters James Daniels and Mason Cole, and they found a quality replacement for Munchack in veteran coach Pat Meyer. By mid-season, the unit started to gel. The Steelers averaged 146 rushing yards per game through the final nine weeks, which was fifth best in the league over that span.

This off-season, Pittsburgh doubled down on the run game. They drafted massive tackle Broderick Jones from the University of Georgia in Round 1; selected his equally massive teammate, tight end Darnell Washington, in Round 3; signed starting guard Isaac Seumalo away from the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles; and added quality depth in Nate Herbig and Le’Raven Clark. Their intentions are crystal clear. The Steelers are going to run the ball right at teams. The re-emergence of the Duo scheme is an ideal fit for that philosophy.

Duo will not diversify the rushing attack. It’s still a zone scheme, which is what the Steelers do. Pittsburgh used some sort of zone design on 76% of their runs last season, which was the second highest frequency in the league. Unlike the inside zone play, however, Duo allows linemen to stay on the play-side double team longer, creating an emphasis on physicality at the point of attack. That should bring comfort to football purists who have been clamoring for the Steelers to return to their smash-mouth roots.

If Friday night’s pre-season game is any indication, Pittsburgh will still throw the ball more than they run it. That’s NFL football in the 21st-century. With the weapons Pittsburgh has on the perimeter, and the growth their quarterback has made, why wouldn’t they? But they are now built to run the ball in large doses, too. By reinvesting in the Duo scheme, they intend to do so in the most physical way possible.

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