I won’t bore you with all the details about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ terrible run defense. At least, not until a little later in this article. But it’s been horrible, miserable, and historically bad, giving up 242 yards in Week 14 to Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings. While the issues are multiple, Keith Butler took the heat for their performance, telling reporters Thursday he must be a more effective coach.
“I will tell you this, I gotta do better job coaching than what I’ve done in order for us to get better in terms of stopping the run,” he said in audio provided by the team. “Because I hate the crap. 200 yards, how many times we ever done that since I’ve been here? It hadn’t been a lot. Hadn’t been a lot that our rush average is what it is right now. Not in the 19 years I’ve been here it’s been like that. Does it bother me? You’re dadgum right it bothers me. We’re going to do our best to make sure we don’t do that crap no more.”
Let’s answer those questions. Butler was hired in 2003. From 2003-2006, the Steelers didn’t allow 200 yards rushing to an opponent once. The first time it happened came in 2007, allowing 224 yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It didn’t happen again for another nine years. Since 2016, it’s happened eight times in the regular season, including twice this season against the Lions and Vikings. Since 2019, it’s happened four times. So Butler is right this is becoming a disturbing, frequent occurrence after being unheard of for most of his Steelers’ tenure.
The “rush average” stat is even worse. Pittsburgh is allowing 4.97 yards per carry this season the worst number in franchise history, and by a considerable margin. As we noted a week ago, here are their top five worst years from a YPC allowed standpoint.
That 2021 figure is unsurprisingly the NFL’s worst. The road doesn’t get easier the rest of the way. They’ll play the Tennessee Titans’ run-heavy offense Sunday though Tennessee will at least be without star RB Derrick Henry, who might have flirted with 300 yards if he suited up. Pittsburgh’s final two games come against strong running teams in Cleveland and Baltimore. To the Steelers’ credit, they minimized those run games in their first meetings.
Pittsburgh’s run defense issues are multiple. As Butler explained, some of it is schematic, some of it is execution.
“I don’t wanna see those holes again if I don’t have to. One or two of them we were in the stuff that we didn’t want to be in those situations. And some of it was that we didn’t play it correctly, you know? So it was a little bit of both. Little bit of coaching, little bit of playing.”
The “stuff we didn’t want to be in” is referring to one play where the Steelers were in their 2-3-6 dime defense on second down due to the Vikings using four wide receivers on the field. It created a five-man box for the Steelers’ front and a big running lane for Dalvin Cook, who burst through for a long run. Pittsburgh has spent the entire season talking about the run defense getting better. While hopefully the unit will get healthier with the return of guys like Robert Spillane, Carlos Davis, and maybe Joe Haden, the Steelers haven’t found a way to overcome long-term losses of guys like Mike Hilton, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu.