No matter how pass-oriented the brand of football played in the NFL has become, a defense’s ability to stop the run will always be a profound asset—because it makes offenses that much more dependent upon throwing the ball, increasing predictability.
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers had no ability to stop the run last year, for a myriad of reasons that did, yes, include significant injuries. Getting one healthy nose tackle back isn’t going to be a cure-all, though, so this roster is going to have to look within and see how to right the ship.
“We know that’s not the way we roll around here. That’s going to be a big emphasis for us this year, is stopping the run”, third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith told Ron Cook and Joe Starkey on 93.7 The Fan yesterday. “Because once you stop the run, you’re getting in 2nd and long and 3rd and long, and teams don’t want to play in 3rd and long”.
“That’s just an emphasis for us this year as a group, being more physical”, he went on; “me as an individual being more physical, everyone just taking a look at yourself in the mirror, because when somebody’s running the ball down your throat, that’s intimidating”.
In case for some masochistic reason you wanted a refresher, the Steelers defense finished last in both rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per attempt allowed last season. In all, they gave up 2,483 yards on the ground on 498 rushing attempts, with 17 touchdowns, for a 5.0-yard average.
They surrendered more than 200 yards on the ground as often as they held opponents to under 100 yards—four times each. Granted, two of those 200-yard games went into overtime, but nevertheless, you shouldn’t be giving up 200 yards over eight quarters, let alone 70 minutes of football.
“You can’t let that happen again this year”, Highsmith vowed, even if it’s hard to imagine that this unit could possibly be as bad at stopping the run as they were last year. “I know I’m gonna do my part to make sure that edge is set and the ball goes back inside, so I’m just excited to see the leap that we’re gonna make this year”.
Just the season prior, the Steelers ranked in the top half of the NFL in all rushing defense categories, facing 414 rushing attempts (12th) for 1,783 yards (11th), allowing 13 touchdowns (7th) at 4.3 yards per carry (13th). In 2019, they ranked third in yards per rush allowed at 3.8, and were in the top 10 the year before that as well.
Of course, vowing and achieving are not one in the same. Every defense every year has the goal of stopping the run, but every year, some team doesn’t get the job done. Last year, the Steelers were at the bottom of the league in accomplishing this task.
With Tyson Alualu back and the defensive line better prepared to whether the loss of Stephon Tuitt, as well as hopefully improved play from the inside linebacker position, there is reason to be optimistic that things won’t be as bad. But could they possibly turn their run defense back into an asset as it once was after how poorly the 2021 season went?