When you are a team that is 8-0, just about any complaint that you might have will largely come down to splitting hairs, but with that said, it is undeniable that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense over the course of the past two weeks has been nothing short of disappointing, allowing nearly the same yardage total over that span as they did in the first six games.
There are a lot of factors involved in this, and personnel is certainly a huge one. They have not had Tyson Alualu and Mike Hilton out there, and they are two of their best run defenders playing critical roles in that phase from different areas of the field.
One thing, however, that the players have been talking about a lot is gap integrity, which has become of heightened importance because of the number of younger players running in the system right now, whether it’s linemen like Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis, linebackers like Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith, or defensive backs like Justin Layne and Marcus Allen.
Gap integrity and its breakdown isn’t just about making mistakes, of course. A lot of times, it’s intentional, especially the more experienced and confident you get. You leave your gap when you think you can make the play, especially a splash play, and all great players are prone to doing that.
“Within our run defense, guys have just got to be in their gaps, simple as that”, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We rely on everybody being in their gaps and having gap integrity, and when we don’t do that, it puts us at risk. I can relate to one play where I made the play, but I shot the guy and I put the other guy in my gap. I can put the defense at a risk if I don’t make that play, and that goes for anybody on our team. If we’re gonna take these risks, you’ve got to make the play”.
Nobody strives to be more gap-sound than Heyward, whom you can often see keeping an eye on what everybody else is doing and filling a gap when he notices somebody else bouncing out of his to make a play, but even he talks about going for the play himself. It is a big part of their defense, which is why they have so many tackles for loss, but it comes down to doing it judiciously.
“That’s always gonna be a part of defense. You feel like you have a nugget and you can make a play at a certain time and you can go inside or you can go out of your gap, and that includes me”, outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you think it’s going to. You just have to trust that everybody’s going to do their job, be in their gap. That’s the way to play sound football. You can’t be selfish taking yourself out of your gap to make somebody else’s play”.
With the recent struggles, perhaps they put greater emphasis this week on gap integrity being the number one and number two priorities. We’ll see what their strategy is by the time that they take the field, but a Cincinnati Bengals running game without Joe Mixon may entice them to ad lib for the sake of making plays. And that’s perfectly fine—when you actually make it.