This may not exactly come to you as a shock, but over the course of the first three weeks of the season, no defense in the league has had a harder time stopping running backs from having success in the passing game than have the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Courtesy of the abundantly useful Pro Football Reference, the Steelers have faced the fifth-highest number of targets to running backs over that span (25), have allowed the fourth-highest number of completions (21), given up by far the highest number of yards (290, when the nearest is 235), and are one of four teams to allow more than one touchdown reception to the position, with nobody having more than two.
If that were not enough, only three teams have allowed more than the Steelers’ three rushing touchdowns allowed, and they have allowed it on fewer touches than anybody else higher on the list. Their five total touchdowns allowed to running backs ranks as the fifth-most in the league—and they have only allowed a total of six touchdowns thus far this season.
As we know, of course, the bulk of this has come after the catch, although that is virtually always the case when we are talking about running backs, who routinely receive their passes at or near, if not behind, the line of scrimmage.
Recent examples, however, have been dramatic, as Eagles running back Darren Sproles exploded against the Steelers, who gave up their only two plays of at least 40 yards of the season to him on Sunday. The bulk of the yardage on his 40- and 73-yard receptions against Pittsburgh were after the catch yards.
Bengals running back Giovani Bernard also holds two of the eight longest plays that the Steelers have allowed this season with receptions of 24 and 25 yards, the latter of which went for a touchdown after he forced two missed tackles on Pittsburgh’s rookie defenders.
Between just Sproles and Bernard alone, the Steelers have allowed 15 receptions on 17 targets for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Now, it should be acknowledged that these two running backs are among the shiftiest and most accomplished pass-catchers at the running back position currently in the league.
With that said, it should not be dismissed that the team is clearly having a major problem with respect to preventing opposing running backs from getting involved heavily in the passing game, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that they are missing tackles, which is producing this significant YAC yardage.
We have already written about that factor following the loss to the Eagles, but it must remain a point of emphasis, and that is especially the case for this week as they prepare to play the Chiefs.
It sounds more and more likely that Kansas City is going to have the services of Jamaal Charles, whose resume need not be touted in this regard. Even without Charles, the Chiefs have completed 20 of 13 passes to running backs this year for 239 yards. The Steelers will have their hands full again on Sunday, whether it is with Charles or Spencer Ware.