On the second episode of Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp All-Access, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin talked to KDKA’s Rich Walsh about the importance of stopping the run and the potential of added pressure with the NFL’s highest-paid defense.
“It’s super important,” Austin said about stopping the run. “I know everyone thinks hey, it’s a pass league, it’s a pass league, but if teams are running on you they have everything open. They have play-action pass, they have regular pass, they’re just gonna dictate the game to you,” he said.
In order to stop the run after a year in which the Pittsburgh defense ranked dead-last in the NFL, Austin preached getting back to the basics.
“We just have to get back to fundamentals and basics, making sure we’re fitting things up right, making sure our communication is good so we don’t have open gaps,” he said. “There’s going to be a big emphasis on it. We have to get better in that area.”
Pittsburgh’s run defense was abysmal last season. A lot of that could be attributed to Tyson Alualu’s injury and Stephon Tuitt missing the season, but the inside linebackers just looked lost on a lot of occasions and running backs were able to get past the second level and into the secondary, which led Minkah Fitzpatrick to lead the team in tackles. It wasn’t as if it was just a case of playing against stud running backs, as pretty much anyone who touched the ball against the Steelers last year had a chance of breaking off a 5+ yard run.
While Pittsburgh was able to somewhat make up for it with their pass rush and pass defense in general, there’s no excuse for a defense as talented as the Steelers to be as bad as they were against the run. It has to improve this year, and if it takes getting back to the fundamentals as Austin said, then that’s fine.
Anyone who watched the Steelers the last few years knows what the pass defense is capable of. Even though they don’t have a ton of star power outside of Fitzpatrick in the secondary, Pittsburgh’s pass rush can help force quarterbacks into bad throws, and the cornerback unit is a bit underrated this year in my opinion. None of that will matter this year if Pittsburgh again struggles to stop the run. It needs to be the biggest thing they focus on at camp, and I’m glad that Austin said it’s an emphasis.
After Fitzpatrick’s extension, the Pittsburgh defense also became the highest-paid unit in the NFL. Austin said that doesn’t add any extra pressure.
“It’s the normal pressure that you always have which is to get a defense out there that’s gonna help us win games and get in the playoffs and have a chance at a ring.”
With a young offense that is going to need time to fully gel, the onus will be on the defense to keep Pittsburgh competitive early on. Obviously, defense will be their calling card this year as it has been the last few seasons, but without Ben Roethlisberger and with turnover along the offensive line and in the wide receiver room, the defense has to put the Steelers in a position to win. They’ve done it before, notably during the 2019 season after Roethlisberger went down, and with a new quarterback under center and an offense that doesn’t really resemble the ones of 2020 or 2021, they need to do it again.
I have a lot of faith in the Steelers’ defense this year. It’s a veteran group that knows their struggles against the run simply cannot happen again in 2022. If they figure out what went wrong last year and take steps to address it now, which seems to be the case, they’ll be at least a top-20 unit on the ground. I think Myles Jack is a major upgrade over what they got out of Joe Schobert last year as well, especially when it comes to stopping the run.
I fully believe this defense can make the Steelers competitive in what will no doubt be a tough conference, and I’m looking forward to seeing if that will end up being the case.