The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Achilles’ heel—or at least, arguably, their biggest one—was the complete devolution of their run defense over the course of the year during the 2021 season. They finished with the worst run defense in the league, despite having two All-Pro players up front being a part of it.
There’s no simple answer for why things were as bad as they were last season. But the good news is that there is a simple answer about how to fix it. At least, that’s the approach that head coach Mike Tomlin is taking to address the problem.
When asked yesterday during his media availability at the annual league meetings yesterday how they can fix the run defense, his answer was concise, to say the least: “Whoop blocks and make tackles”. The Steelers, uh, struggled in both areas last year. Pressed for elaboration if it was indeed that simple, he responded, “Certainly”.
You can offer a host of qualifiers, if you’d like. The absence of Stephon Tuitt the entire season, the early-season injury to Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush coming back from a torn ACL, Joe Schobert trying to work his way into the defense after being acquired in August, the surprise retirement of Vince Williams, even: all of these things had an impact on the run defense.
But Tomlin doesn’t want to hear excuses for anybody who was on the field. And he also acknowledges a global shift in how the run game of offenses work as the quarterback position becomes more intimately involved in that aspect, whether they are carrying the ball themselves or not.
“I just think particularly in today’s game, when you talk about stopping the run, you better acknowledge the defeating of blocks and making tackles”, he said. “Quarterback mobility is a more significant part of the game than it’s ever been in today’s game. Matter of fact in 2021, I think the yards per rush in the NFL was the largest it had ever been. It wasn’t because teams are running the ball more effectively, it’s because they are utilizing the quarterback as a runner. So now you’re playing 11-on-11 football, so do the math. Guys have to be defeat blocks to make tackles in today’s game to be effective at stopping the run”.
The Steelers allowed six individual 100-yard rushers last season, with the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook rushing for 205 yards (with Mason Cole blocking for him). They allowed Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to rush for 90 yards, while Tyler Huntley of the Baltimore Ravens rushed for 72 yards. Lamar Jackson also rushed for 55 yards, while Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills both had 40-plus yards.
As a team, the Steelers allowed more than 200 rushing yards four times, while holding opponents to under 100 rushing yards four times. Of the latter four, three were 93 yards or more. In all, they allowed nearly 2,500 rushing yards, at five yards per carry, both the worst marks in the NFL.
It’s time to start whooping blocks and making tackles, something Tuitt and Alualu can both do.