The Pittsburgh Steelers were gashed on the ground by their opponents’ running games during the first two games of the season. Over the next three games, however, the numbers began to die down significantly.
This resulted in triggering a false positive that the Steelers had ‘fixed’ their issues in the running game, which proved not to be the case last Sunday when the Cleveland Browns were able to rush for 158 yards on the ground.
While the Browns were held to a comparatively respectable but still not good 4.2 yards per carry, they also surrendered three touchdowns on the ground, including one against a defensive front that included four defensive linemen and five linebackers.
It’s proven obvious that the Steelers have had trouble defending against quality zone blocking systems, of which the Browns have among the best.
So, too, does the Steelers’ next opponent, the Houston Texans. And they will be asked to stop Arian Foster without nose tackle Steve McLendon, their best run defender.
Foster has been back to his old self this season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 106 carries for 513 yards to go along with five rushing touchdowns. That’s two more rushing touchdowns than the Steelers have as a team.
Worse, Foster has also added another 131 yards through the air, giving him nearly 650 yards through five games played.
Foster and the Texans offensive line will certainly be a test for the Steelers’ defensive line, and they’ve already been put at a disadvantage by having their best answer taken away from them.
They will likely have to rely on playing Cam Thomas at nose tackle, who has unquestionably delivered sub-par performances through most of this season, both at defensive end and at nose tackle.
While McLendon may not command double teams the way Casey Hampton once did, the difference is that he is able to beat his individual blockers and make many plays on his own. Thomas does not. In fact, he has a propensity to get blown off the ball, even when he’s not the last player out of his stance at the snap.
The Steelers may turn to rookie sixth-round draft pick Daniel McCullers to absorb some of those snaps. The problem is that he is probably not best suited for handling an experienced zone blocking scheme when so much of his early success has been predicated on winning his individual battles through sheer size and strength.
He may be able to block off a running lane or two, but overall, there’s a strong chance that he’s simply rendered a non-factor.
We saw last week that the Browns’ running game picked up in the second half after McLendon exited the game with a shoulder injury. We now appear to be set for a full game of that nature, unless the nose tackle’s replacements can exceed expectations.