The story of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense is an interesting one this season. The raw numbers, on the one hand, are ugly. They have allowed 418 yards on the ground through three games, the fifth-worst in the NFL, and that corresponds with the 102 rushing attempts against them (only two teams have faced more).
The logic is that teams are running against them because they’re having success doing it. Yet the rushing numbers get skewed in a hurry because they have allowed some big plays, most notably the 47-yard touchdown run for Rashaad Penny that was a result of a missed tackle by Anthony Chickillo in Week Two. Chris Carson also had a 19-yard run in that game.
Yet they already have seven tackles for loss on running plays, excluding kneeldowns, plus another 12 for no gain. The percentage of successful plays that they have allowed on rushes is somewhere between 35 and 40 percent, if I’m not mistaken, which isn’t bad territory.
But for whatever reason, teams are running the ball on them, and it’s working enough to get them to keep doing it. And so the defense is turning its attention to getting that sorted out, making teams know that they have to throw to win.
“Stop the damn run”, is what T.J. Watt said was the “number one” focus for the defense moving forward to play better. Watt himself has eight tackles against the run this year, which is sixth-most on the team. Devin Bush leads with 22.
Cameron Heyward invoked hints of Dick LeBeau in sizing up the problem. “You have to make teams one-dimensional”, he said.
“If they have to pass every down because they can’t run the ball, you have an advantage. Right now, you are able to run and pass on us. They are able to stay on schedule. We haven’t gotten guys enough off schedule. It has to be more consistent from here on out”.
The New England Patriots ran the ball 29 times against them in the season opener, the Seattle Seahawks 30, and finally the San Francisco 49ers 39 times. On 98 rushing attempts, they have allowed first downs on 25 runs, over a quarter of the time, with three touchdowns, and are allowing 4.3 yards per attempt. That even includes the two aborted snaps by the 49ers on Sunday.
Right now, the defense feels as though it doesn’t have any authority to control the narrative. They know teams can choose to either run the ball or throw it and feel comfortable having success with either one of them. But when you take one option away, it makes the other more predictable, and easier to stop.