Chances are, depending on your age, you’ve never seen a Pittsburgh Steelers run defense this bad.
Sure, injuries have played a role in some of the struggles at stopping the run, including the loss of Tyson Alualu early in the season, and the injury to Stephon Tuitt prior to the summer that has caused him to miss all season to this point.
But that can’t be the only reason the Steelers have struggled to stop the run. They’re missing assignments, losing gaps, losing containment, and looking absolutely lost at times against the ground game.
How that gets fixed this late in the season is anybody’s guess, but Steelers’ second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith believes there’s one solution that happens to be something the Steelers can control themselves: Being more physical.
“We just know we gotta be more physical…we’re not physical at all,” Highsmith told reporters Thursday during his weekly media availability, according to audio provided by the Steelers. “We know we gotta be better. We know we just gotta start faster. That’s the key in this game, this past game [against the Vikings] and that Bengals’ game. The reason we lost is because we didn’t start fast. And so that’s just the key coming out and really just, you know, being physical. Establishing a presence from the first snap of the game is just really the key.
“And so that’s just gonna be the key this week, stopping the run,” Highsmith added. “They still got good backs. They got a lot of weapons on offenses. So that’s just gonna be our key this week, first and foremost doing that [being more physical] is that the easiest thing.”
That sure sounds lovely coming out of the mouth of a young, second-year player, but that is the same message guys like Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt have been preaching for weeks, and yet there’s still no resolution when it comes to stopping the run.
“You gotta look yourself in the mirror and say, we gotta go out there and we gotta hit them in the mouth every play,” Highsmith added. “That’s something that Coach Tomlin talks about. There’s no meeting required for that. It matters by going out there and playing old school football, hitting people in the mouth, because that’s what football’s about. That’s just what we’ve talked about recently.”
To Highsmith’s credit, he’s been very physical against the run, setting the edge. He’s lost contain a few times, which has really hindered the Steelers’ ability to defend outside, but overall he’s doing his part. Being more physical at the point of attack could certainly help, but it’s fair at this point to question if the Steelers have the guys along the defensive line not named Heyward to be physical at the point of attack, not to mention the guys at linebacker in Devin Bush and Joe Schobert to set that physical tone coming downhill against the run.
A guy like Robert Spillane is expected to see playing time on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in his return from injury, and he certainly adds an element of physicality. Will that help stop the run? That remains to be seen. It certainly can’t hurt at this point, though, with this porous run defense.