The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night in the Wildcard Round of the NFL Playoffs. Many didn’t expect Pittsburgh to make the playoffs given everything that needed to break their way last Sunday to qualify as the seventh and final seed in the AFC. Entering Week 18, Pittsburgh needed to beat the Baltimore Ravens, have the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Indianapolis Colts, and have the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders not tie. After a wild sequence of events, all these scenarios broke Pittsburgh’s way, leading to them qualifying for the final playoff spot.
Pittsburgh’s odds to enter the playoffs heading into Week 18 were put at 10%, giving them a slim chance to get in. Several factors can be tied to their performance on the field this season, including the declining play of QB Ben Roethlisberger and the makeshift offensive line Pittsburgh put together this offseason, leading to spotty pass protection and poor play in the running game for a majority of the 2021 campaign.
On the defensive side of the football, the exodus of FAs Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, the release of Steven Nelson, the retirement of Vince Williams, and the losses of Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt due to injury left Pittsburgh down six starters from last season. Because of this, the play of the defense dropped off compared to recent seasons, especially in stopping the run. According to Pro Football Reference, Pittsburgh allowed 2,483 yards on the ground (138 YPG) and 5.0 YPC, both ranking last in the league. For context, Pittsburgh has allowed four teams to rush for over 200 yards this season and 24 runs of 20+ yards which comes out as the most such runs in over a decade.
Part of the problem has to be identified with the lack of personnel out of the field as Tuitt hasn’t played a snap all season and Alualu played less than five quarters of football before going out with an ankle fracture. Giving their strengths upfront as establishing the LOS and holding the point of attack, taking them out of the lineup for the likes of Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Henry Mondeaux will lead to a drop off in expected success against the opposing running game.
Still, Loudermilk and Wormley have had their moments this season, filling in admirably for Tuitt and Alualu. When going to the second level of the defense, the play of the off-ball linebackers has been uninspiring to say the least. Devin Bush has struggled mightily at times this season, seeming lost with his assignments, and lacking that aggressive edge he showed in his first season-and-a-half in the league. The question marks surrounding Bush and his recovery along with the retirement of Vince Williams and the poor play in coverage by Robert Spillane prompted Pittsburgh to trade for Joe Schobert from the Jacksonville Jaguars. While Schobert hasn’t been terrible, his play hasn’t warranted the $9.7 million cap hit he’s scheduled for in 2022.
Thus, a priority has been the outcry of Steelers fans and national analysts alike to improve on both sides of the football in terms of the running game: improving the offensive line to be more effective at establishing the run while improving the trenches and the play of the LB core to better stop the run on the defensive side of the football.
Currently, Pittsburgh expects to get Tuitt back next season and Alualu is also signed through 2022. Both would undoubtedly help shore up the defensive front, but questions remain as to whether Alualu will potentially retire as he will be 35 by the start of next season. Tuitt’s future in Pittsburgh is also uncertain, having dealt with an apparent knee injury that sidelined him the entire season along with mourning the death of his brother. Should one or both be off the roster, Pittsburgh would likely need to address the position in free agency or the draft despite the play of Wormley and development of Loudermilk this season.
LB could also be high up on the Steelers’ radar this off-season giving the concerning play of Bush this year heading into an offseason with Pittsburgh will likely decline his fifth-year option. Joe Schobert also isn’t a lock to make the roster in 2022 if Pittsburgh feels like they can save cap space by moving on from him for a comparable replacement or even an upgrade via the draft or free agency. All this being said, Pittsburgh likely has a decision coming up as to whether they should prioritize the DL or the LB core this offseason giving the current landscape of both position groups.
Given Pittsburgh’s affinity for drafting LBs early in the draft and the potential of having Tuitt, Alualu, or both return next season, I personally lean toward the Steelers prioritizing LB this offseason. That obviously could change quickly depending on who the team retains or loses at either position, but Pittsburgh has always prided themselves in stellar play from both their inside and outside linebackers since adopting the 3-4 defense. They have not been able to recover from the loss of Ryan Shazier several seasons ago, still searching for that field general in the middle of the defense that can play the pass as well as excel against the run.
There is no doubt that the Pittsburgh Steelers need to prioritize improving their run defense this offseason after what has been a historically bad season in that area. With the potential of getting some key guys back in 2022 as well as the talent pool available at the DL and LB positions in the 2022 NFL Draft and FA pool, there should be no excuse for Pittsburgh to turn this ship around. Still, it will be interesting to watch how Pittsburgh goes about fixing what they know is their current weakest aspect of their football team over the next several months.
What are your thoughts about the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense? Do you think that the team has been a victim of circumstance given their injury woes and the losses of key contributors from last season? Do you think that Pittsburgh needs to improve their current personnel, and if so, what position would you prioritize? What names are you going to be looking at via the draft or free agency as potential targets? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!