Here’s something I’m sure none of you expected: according to Pro Football Focus, the Pittsburgh Steelers currently own the second-best run defense in the NFL. They use their own metrics in order to make their determination, but in the site’s quantification of data, only the Chicago Bears so far have played the run better than has Pittsburgh.
The Steelers’ conventional metric are less impressive. They currently rank 12th in rushing yards allowed per game at 97.8 (only five teams average below 90 yards per game). Their average gain of 4.2 yards per carry allowed is exceedingly middle of the pack, in a four-way tie for 14th. While only 10 teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns, and their 22 percent of rushes resulting in first downs is somewhat favorable, they have given up four explosive runs to date as well.
What does PFF have to say? Frankly, I can’t make a ton of sense of it. They cite two statistics in the article, neither of which are among the top five. According to their data, the Steelers have allowed an explosive run on 9.5 percent of runs, and that is only 18th in the league. Their stuff percentage of 27 percent is in the top 10 at seven, but how that translates into the second-best in the league is unclear. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, rank better in both categories but feature at four on the list.
The rankings are based entirely on the site’s team run defense grades, and indeed if you look at their team statistics, the Steelers are listed with a run defense grade of 90.1, while the Bears have a grade of 91.4, and no other team has a grade of 90 or better.
The Steelers’ highest-graded defensive player is Stephon Tuitt. The defender with the highest run-stop percentage on the team is T.J. Watt, recording a run stop on 15 of his 18 tackles against the run on 113 total snaps on running plays. His run-stop percentage of 13.3 actually ranks third among all defenders with at least half of their teams’ defensive run snaps.
Among defensive linemen, Tuitt is the Steelers’ highest player of rank at number 12 (exclusively among linemen, not all defenders). He has nine run stops on 11 tackles against the run among a total of 97 run snaps played, for a run-stop percentage of 9.3. Cameron Heyward, who ranked high in his category last year, has a run-stop percentage of just 4.2, barely in the top 50.
The team doesn’t actually have any off-ball linebackers who fit the snap threshold, but among those with 40 percent of the snaps, Vince Williams ranks 10th at the position and Jon Bostic ranks 18th. Each of them have 11 run stops, Williams on 98 snaps against the run and Bostic on 108. Mike Hilton ranks fourth among cornerbacks with three run stops on 48 snaps.