Each year, the Pittsburgh Steelers goal is clear. Win a Super Bowl. But the best way to do that, as the organization always preaches, is winning the AFC North. Do that and then go chase a Lombardi. So how do you take that first step and win the North? By stopping the run.
It’s been a tough offseason in that regard for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Mike Hilton, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, and Steven Nelson are all gone. Four quality run defenders. The surprise of getting Tyson Alualu back won’t cure all those problems. But man, it sure is nice.
Alualu returning is one less problem the Steelers have to worry about. They don’t need to hope Carlos Davis and/or Isaiah Buggs can battle it out and properly replace him. If Alualu keeps up the level of play he showed last season, he’ll form a strong defensive line front next to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Run defense starts up front. Yes, it’s an era where teams are in nickel and dime more than they are base 3-4. But they were in base over 36% of the time in 2020, their highest rate since 2015, and it was the second most used package.
Steelers' personnel groupings, 2020.
Nickel: 39.2% (389 snaps)
3-4: 36.6% (363 snaps)
Dime: 17.9% (178 snaps)
3-5: 2.9% (29 snaps)
Amoeba: 2.3% (23 snaps)
Goal Line: 0.9% (9 snaps)
4-4: 0.1% (1 snap)
Ran more base this year than any other (since 2015). 3-4 isn't dead.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) January 18, 2021
Focus just on the AFC North – the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals – and that number changes even more. Including the Wild Card loss, the Steelers were in their base defense 44.1% of the time in those seven games.
Anyone who tells you base defense is dead isn’t paying attention. And doesn’t know who the Steelers have to face. They deal with Lamar Jackson, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Joe Mixon twice a year. Baltimore had the #1 rushing offense in 2020. Cleveland finished third.
Statistically, the Steelers’ run defense was in a much worse place when Alualu was on the sidelines than when he was on the field. Here’s the breakdown.
Base/3-4 Run Defense
With Alualu In: 2.91 YPC
With Alualu Out: 4.85 YPC
Night and day difference. And that’s even knowing Alualu played much worse after suffering an MCL sprain mid-year against the Baltimore Ravens. He missed just one game but returned with a brace and clearly wasn’t 100%.
Make no mistake, the Steelers’ run defense is in a much worse place than it was a year ago. And it wasn’t like they even did a good job stopping the run against the Ravens and Browns when they had all that talent. But at least they won’t have to figure out who their starting nose tackle is. Now they just need to figure out the rest.