The Pittsburgh Steelers defense was pounded on the ground for much of the first two weeks of the season, giving up 191 yards in the season opener and another 157 in the Thursday night loss four days later.
In the first game against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers allowed two rookie backs to run over them repeatedly in their first career games. Terrance West rushed for 100 yards on only 16 carries, while Isaiah Crowell had just five carries for 32 yards, but he was able to put two of those carries in the end zone.
In all, the Steelers allowed the Browns to gain 6.2 yards per rush on 31 rushes, which also included two end arounds by wide receivers for a total of 18 yards, allowing multiple explosive plays on the ground.
Four days later against the Baltimore Ravens, the defense did do better, holding Baltimore to just 4.4 yards per rush on 36 attempts. While that figure still isn’t very good, it was an improvement, and it was also thrown off-balance by a late 41-yard rush by Justin Forsett.
Without that one run, the Ravens would have only averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Still, Bernard Pierce nearly became the second 100-yard rusher against the Steelers in two weeks, rushing for 96 yards on 22 carries.
Over the course of the past two games, however, the Steelers have only allowed a combined 105 yards on the ground, averaging just 52.5 yards per game, split across 30 rushing attempts in total.
In other words, the Steelers defense has only allowed 3.5 yards per play on the ground over the course of the past two weeks, so the defensive line is obviously doing something right, at least when it comes to playing the run.
The longest rushes allowed over the course of the past two weeks went for 19 and 15 yards. No other running play reached double-digit yardage.
The Steelers found particular success in their run defense this past Sunday, when they held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to just 63 yards on 20 rushing attempts for just 3.2 yards per play. Nearly a third of that yardage came on an end around by a wide receiver.
Tampa Bay’s two running backs, Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey, combined for 42 yards on 18 attempts for a dismal 2.3 yards per carry. And three of those yards came on a touchdown run by Martin on which a glaringly obvious hold was missed.
It’s also worth noting that the Steelers have played with the lead for substantial amounts of the last two games, which resulted in the opposing teams putting the ball in the air more frequently, though that doesn’t necessarily account for the poor performance on the ground. So has this improvement been a matter of circumstance, or is the run defense legitimately improving a quarter into the season?