Most of the offseason attention has been on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ask Keith Butler what the most pressing issue is though, and he’ll answer the team’s run defense. That was his response in a brief sitdown with Missi Matthews during rookie minicamps, pointing to the playoff loss specifically as proof Pittsburgh hasn’t stopped the run well enough.
“We have to stop the run,” Butler said. “If you look at where we got eliminated, in the Jacksonville game, we didn’t do a very good job against the run, and we’ve got to be able to play the run better than we did in that last game in particular.”
Jacksonvlle rolled their way to 164 yards on the ground, a healthy 4.7 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns by Leonard Fournette. T.J. Yeldon tacked on a fourth. The only other time they allowed that many rushing touchdowns in a playoff game was 1984, a 38-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Other losses were just as ugly. The first meeting against the Jags was somehow worse, the Steelers giving up over 230 on the ground, though 90 of that came with the game already decided. In Week 3 versus Chicago, the Bears ran all over Pittsburgh, another 222 yards on the ground. They didn’t have to throw the ball once in overtime on their game-winning possession. Even though New England didn’t put up nearly as gaudy numbers, they averaged 4.1 yards per carry and two scores on the ground.
“If you look at our stats over the year, the running game hurt us a little bit. We gave up a little more of an average than we were used to giving up around here.”
Butler’s comments are spot on though they’re hollow if he doesn’t fix things.
While Pittsburgh’s yards per game allowed numbers finished in the top ten, they fared much worse in more telling categories: tied 27th in YPC allowed (4.4) and tied 22nd in rushing touchdowns given up (14). They haven’t been that bad in touchdowns since 2013 and you have to go all the way back to 1999. to find a year where they ranked worse in yards per carry.
Most of that improvement will have to come in-house. The Steelers didn’t draft a linebacker and didn’t take a defensive linemen until the 7th round. Jon Bostic has big shoes to fill in replacing Ryan Shazier at Mack linebacker. Largely though, the talent to improve is there. It’s about playing team defense, having sound technique, communicating, and not missing as many tackles. Those are the keys to fixing the run defense.