The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been surprising many this season, coming up with slash plays and limiting the points on the board allowed. While they have given up a lot of yardage through the air, the top-10 ranks in rushing yards per game and per carry have come as a pleasant surprise, indeed.
If you’re looking for somebody who isn’t as pleased by the turnaround in the running game, however, you needn’t look far: just turn to the defensive line coach.
John Mitchell, who learned the game from Paul Bryant and has been on the Steelers’ coaching staff for over two decades, is not beating his chest after holding the Cleveland Browns to 15 rushing yards on 14 attempts.
He is not celebrating the Steelers’ fifth-ranked 93 rushing yards allowed per game, nor the sixth-ranked 3.8 yards allowed per carry. The mere five explosive runs in 10 games is nothing to celebrate. The three rushing touchdowns is three touchdowns too many.
“I’m never happy with the run defense”, Mitchell told Mike Prisuta for the team’s website. “I think when coaches get happy they get fired”. Considering he is in his 22nd season with the Steelers, that’s a lot of unhappiness.
To be clear, he had nothing against the 15-yard run defense against the Browns last week. But he wants to see that every game, week in and week out. He wants to get that out of his defense every time it’s on the field.
To be sure, the Steelers have given up some yardage on the ground this year. In four of the 10 games, the defense has given up over 100 yards on the ground. against the Baltimore Ravens—admittedly, in an overtime game—they were trampled for 191 yards.
Two weeks ago, against the Oakland Raiders, the game in which they gave up their first and only run of 40 yards or more thus far, the ground game yielded to the tune of 139 yards. In Kansas City two weeks prior, it was 138 yards. Even the 49ers put up 111 yards on the ground.
In every other game, to be fair, the defense has held their opponents to 80 yards on the ground or less, three times allowing no more than 55 yards.
There has really been two games more than any that Mitchell would love to hold up as a proof of concept. While he concedes that today’s NFL is “a passing league”, he adds that “if you don’t stop the run you don’t have a chance”.
Against the Bengals, the defense allowed just 78 yards on the ground, and held Andy Dalton to 218 yards through the air, and Cincinnati finished with 16 points. In St. Louis, a 71-yard rushing performance yielded just 187 yards from Nick Foles as the defense allowed the Rams just six points.
Mitchell did make one admission in favor of his guys. Acknowledging that “we have a lot of guys who haven’t played together”, the veteran coach said, “I think they’re coming together, learning how to play together, and you get that in practice every day…They’re doing a much better job and I think it’s showing up on Sunday”.