The Pittsburgh Steelers have a run defense problem. They started off the season with one before seemingly getting a handle on it, but it’s back again, and in a newer, more concerning form. Early in the season, they were simply susceptible to allowing some big plays in the midst of otherwise solid play. now, the issue is death by 1000 cuts.
It has been an ongoing problem for weeks now, and Sunday’s game against the Patriots was no different, with Dion Lewis in particular being very effective at consistently churning out successful runs against the Steelers. He carried the ball 13 times, with nine of them going for at least five yards, giving him a success rate of just under 70 percent.
The Patriots quickly found themselves in a first and goal from the seven. Lewis got the handoff, and L.T. Walton was blown off the ball on the snap. It was largely this hole that allowed Lewis to cut inside. He then bounced off of a Mike Mitchell hit, and, with an assist from a blocker, spun forward for six yards.
On the next play, his teammate, Rex Burkhead, completed the deed from one yard out. The Steelers were in an entirely new goal line defense, with four linemen, two inside linebackers, one outside linebacker, one cornerback, and three safeties. It didn’t matter much, as the Patriots set up a caravan to the right through which the back wriggled.
Later in the quarter, on a second and eight, the Patriots exploited the six defensive backs on the field and only one inside linebacker, with William Gay being caught outside and Sean Davis doubled at the second level. It was a relatively easy nine-yard haul from that point.
Into the third quarter, facing yet another modified sub-package, Lewis picked up five on second and three. Vince Williams got checked in the hole. Javon Hargrave might have been held on this play to aid it, but Cameron Sutton’s shoddy tackling on the edge is what ultimately allowed the conversion.
Two plays later, with yet still another modified sub-package, Lewis earned himself six yards. With a couple of double teams to set up the middle, it was the back’s nifty jump cut that got him inside of Artie Burns on the edge and provided the forward momentum, despite the cornerback making the tackle.
Now late in the third, well, I suppose you’re getting the theme now. This time it was Rob Gronkowski with a late shift providing the interior pull block that opened up a hole for eight yards.
The Patriots capped off the game with an eight-yard score for Lewis. We finish off with a trifecta of ‘too little, too late’ tackles for Burns, again failing to close off the perimeter quickly enough, only this one got into the end zone. The perimeter blocking from the tight ends, in fairness, forced him to close further afield.
If the Steelers are going to continue to be pinched to death on the ground, then, needless to say, this is going to be a problem. The issue has surfaced primarily in the wake of Ryan Shazier’s injury, but it’s certainly not the only culprit.