The Pittsburgh Steelers had an extraordinarily bad run defense in 2021, ranking last in the league in both total rushing yards allowed and in rushing yards allowed per carry. In all, teams rushed for 2,483 yards against them on 498 attempts, averaging five yards per carry, with 17 touchdowns.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that ‘there’s no other way to go but up’ from such a truly bad season against the run. And this is a team that finished 11th, 14th, and sixth against the run in the three years prior to this past season—ranking third in yards per carry in the year they allowed the 14th-fewest rushing yards.
There were a lot of reasons for why the run defense was as bad as it was last season, and it’s pretty easy to run down a handy list. Even readily able to do that, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert wasn’t looking the other way in regards to their performance in this area the last time he spoke to the media.
“We’re not going to make excuses”, he said, via transcript. “I think we would have been better had we had Stephon and Tyson [Alualu] and a healthy Devin Bush”, he added, saying he believes Bush can play better for them in 2022.
“When you look at the defensive front seven, obviously with Stephon not being available, losing Tyson Alualu when we did, Devin Bush coming off a serious knee injury, Vince Williams deciding to retire. As coach says ‘you’re adding parts to a moving train’ when we added [Joe] Schobert from Jacksonville. It’s different and it didn’t come together as good as it could have”.
It is important that he ended that thought as he did. While it’s true that the Steelers experienced numerous variables that made it more difficult for them to play stout run defense, it is more than plausible that they could have performed significantly better than they actually did, even under the circumstances.
They allowed more than 100 yards on the ground in 14 of their 18 games played last season, including the playoffs, and that includes four games in which they surrendered more than 200. Even the four games in which they held a team to under 100 rushing yards saw totals of 96, 96, and 93 yards, with a low of 53 in the week two loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
They only won two of the four games in which they held opponents to under 100 rushing yards. And they only lost (or tied) two of the four games in which they allowed opponents to rush for over 200 yards. The only one of them that they lost was against the Minnesota Vikings.
What does that mean? Certainly not that the run defense is not a problem, since it unquestionably is. But perhaps it indicates that the defense isn’t as far away as it might seem. They held three of the four opponents who rushed for over 200 yards to 16 or fewer points. If they can get healthy, re-sign a couple key players, and maybe add one or two new starters, this could be the unit we have thought they should have for years.