While the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense has not necessarily been on a historical tear—even this season, they rank fourth in rushing yards per game and tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns allowed, but only 10th in yards per rush, 12th in explosive runs, and 13th in percentage of runs for first downs—the fact is that this area of the team has been better than was projected.
And they have also gotten better over the course of the season, which is no surprise, considering some of the changes that have had to be adapted to. Sean Davis moved into a new role, while Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, and rookie Terrell Edmunds were all introduced into the scheme, so there will naturally be a learning curve.
But they have been a solid run defense overall, especially on first down, on which they allow fewer yards per rush than any team in the league, which is huge, and a big change from last season. Setting teams back to start a series has helped them stay ahead of the sticks and set up more third-and-long situations.
Mike Tomlin was asked about the improvements made since the beginning of the season in this area until now during his Tuesday pre-game press conference in light of the team’s next game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Leonard Fournette, who ran extremely well against them—including five touchdowns—over two games last season.
“I just think it’s continually getting better every day and not only what we’re doing, but how and what it is individuals are doing fits within the bigger scheme of things”, Tomlin said. “I’ve said that repeatedly and I know it sounds cliché, but it all shapes up into being more consistent and more consistency allows you to have less breakout runs, which brings your average down, increases opportunities for splash. I think we’re better in all areas, and I think that that’s what’s creating it”.
To that point, while the Steelers have allowed six runs of 20 yards or more, two of them came in the season another, and another was on a wide receiver end-around in Week Two. On the flipside, they have created 27 stops for lost yardage against the run, averaging three per game, which includes a safety, and three of those plays came on third down.
Bostic and Vince Williams have been central to this process, Williams with 35 run tackles and Bostic, who plays fewer snaps, with 27. Bostic alone has five tackles for loss, and 18 of his 27 tackles against the run have gone for ‘stops’, or unsuccessful plays for the offense.
While the Jaguars’ running game hasn’t been as effective as it was a year ago, a big reason for that is because Fournette has missed most of the season. While this game against the Steelers be where they get it going again, or will Pittsburgh’s run defense hold up and keep their momentum moving forward?