As we all know by now, the run defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers was absolutely abysmal in 2021, ranking dead last in the league, yielding a hair over 146 YPC. They gave up the most rushing yards at 2,483 and also gave up 5.0 YPC, both of which also ranked dead last. Their season was encompassed perfectly in the team’s Thursday Night Football loss to the Vikings back in December, in which Vikings’ Pro Bowl running back literally gashed the defense in every sense of the word. It was apparent early on the type of game Cook would have, as he took his first carry for 20 yards, followed by carries of 30 yards, 16 yards, and a 29-yard touchdown. You get the picture, as he ran for 205 yards on 27 carries and two scores, averaging 7.6 YPC and routinely running free deep into the secondary.
With a team that prides itself on physical defensive play, and stopping the run, last season’s defense was a far cry from the early 2000’s versions, when Kimo von Oelhoffen, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith formed a brick wall unit up front that, if wasn’t ranked #1 against the run, wasn’t far behind.
So what went wrong last season? First and foremost, the injury bug took a heavy toll along the line, where two of the three starters missed basically the entire year, with recently-retired Stephon Tuitt sustaining a knee injury, coupled with the tragic loss of his brother, and Tyson Alualu suffering an ankle injury in the second game. All-Pro Cam Heyward was often the recipient of double-teams and still responded with double-digit sacks with ten, while also grabbing his second career interception.
However, the rest of the line was a disappointment, with rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk showing flashes and midseason free agent pickup Montravius Adams also playing well, as he was rewarded with a new contract this offseason. The line overall seems to be a question mark, as we now see age begin to become a factor, as Heyward just turned 33 and Alualu 35. The team invested draft capital with the third-round selection of DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M, who was talked about by many as a first-round pick. Youngsters Loudermilk and Leal are already getting ready for bigger roles this season, after Loudermilk reportedly bulked up to 310 pounds after entering the league at 274, while Leal, who weighed 283 at the NFL Combine, is now up to 305.
Inside linebacker play was a big issue last season too, with Devin Bush and Joe Schobert constantly getting swallowed up by defenders, often due to the line not holding up their end of the bargain with blockers. Schobert is now gone, and Bush, who’s now another year removed from ACL surgery, hopes to regain the elite playmaking skills he flashed as a rookie. It usually takes players recovering from those types of knee injuries roughly a year to regain their prior form, with former MVP running back Adrian Peterson seeming to be the anomaly, as he ran for 2,097 yards during the 2013 campaign after coming off a torn ACL. Ultimately though, the inside linebacker play was horrific last season, so the team went out and signed tackling machine Myles Jack from the Jaguars, as he and a hopefully improved Bush should form quite the tandem.
This had effects on the back end as well, with playmaker extraordinaire and newly-extended free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick being forced to take on more tackling responsibilities, and he led the team with 84 solos. However, this took away from his ability to freelance, and this was evidenced by him only having two picks. Basically, the run defense’s woes seemed to go hand-in-hand with problems in other areas on that side of the ball. If the front seven can negate the big runs that did them in last year, it’ll allow the playmakers to do what they do best: run, tackle and make plays. The defense as a whole was a strong point last year, after leading the league in sacks for a fifth-consecutive season. The unit also featured the AP Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record with 22.5, so it’s not as if this is a bottom-of-the-barrel unit.
One can finally look at the ineptitude of the offense last year, as they frequently put themselves behind on the scoreboard and were forced to play catch-up. With a running game that also ranked near the bottom, due to offensive line issues, this was made much more difficult. If the offense is more efficient this season, it should have a ripple effect on the defensive side of the ball. With a renewed emphasis on the ground game, led by Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris and several offensive line upgrades, perhaps they’ll be able to grind out games and play with a lead for a change. This makes it much easier to play defense, because number one, longer drives by the offense equals more time for needed rest on the sideline. When getting gashed on the ground, this obviously drains the clock and thus, keeps the defense on the field longer. On a unit featuring All-Pro’s at every level, the thought of keeping them fresher, especially late in games, should instill fear in their opponents.
The look of the team next year should be one that helped usher in Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie, with a punishing ground game and smothering defense. As the team looks to transition from the Big Ben-era, those two should help out one another in big ways. And an improved run defense that can only go up from it’s dead-last ranking should help out ten-fold.