‘We Sucked Last Year:’ Mike Tomlin Recognizes Run Defense Issues

The often blunt Mike Tomlin is making no bones about the need for his team’s run defense to get better. A lot better. 32nd a year ago and historically poor, part of the Steelers’ winning formula in 2022 is improving its run defense. Appearing on Sirius’ Movin’ The Chains with the great Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan, Tomlin was frank about how bad the Steelers’ run defense was a year ago.

“Hey man, we sucked last year,” he told the show. “And part of fixing it is first acknowledging it. And then taking it personal.”

They were issues impossible to ignore a year ago. No team allowed more rushing yards per game (146.1) or a worse average against (5.0) than the Steelers. The problems were all over the place but revolved around a bad defensive line and poor inside linebacker play. Pittsburgh had no backup plan for losing Tyson Alualu five quarters into the season, relying on Isaiah Buggs’ frustrating play and Henry Mondeaux’s fish-out-of-water skillset in the middle before finding Montravius Adams late in the year. Pittsburgh routinely allowed 200 yards rushing, doing so against the Ravens, Vikings, Lions, and Titans. Somehow, the Steelers still posted a winning record in those games, 2-1-1, but the model isn’t sustainable. And Tomlin’s goal is to change that going forward, making sure everyone is involved and the entire field is defended.

“The point that I’ve been making to the guys, particularly in today’s game oftentimes you equate run defense to the front, the down line and the second level defenders in today’s game. So much of the run defense from a reputation standpoint and a ranking standpoint is predicated on secondary tackling and your ability to defend perimeter gaps and things of that nature. And so it doesn’t just fall on the bigs.”

Minkah Fitzpatrick cleaned up plenty of messes last year, preventing a terrible run defense from being any worse. But run defense is an 11-man job and Pittsburgh has historically had cornerbacks willing and able to play the run, from Ike Taylor to William Gay to Joe Haden and several others. Cam Sutton’s run defense has greatly improved over the course of his career while Levi Wallace is a solid run-stopping cornerback, though Ahkello Witherspoon is just a rung above liability in that category. Terrell Edmunds will have to improve his consistency while if Fitzpatrick’s tackle numbers fall after setting a team record by a safety a year ago, it likely means the run defense has taken steps forward.

“If we desire to be an elite run stopping team, it’s gonna take everyone, safeties, corners. And then not just lip service, but daily action.”

Tomlin expanded on the challenges of rule changes and a more perimeter run game brings.

“We’re talking about corners on crack/replace football. We’re talking about corners on toss sweep game and stuff, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s game. You can’t cut on the perimeter on either side of the ball, right? So you pull bigs out, the corner’s gotta negotiate. They gotta negotiate that…angry little men are a component of run defense in today’s game.”

Pittsburgh’s in a rough and tumble AFC North that has three great run games. The Bengals with Joe Mixon, the Ravens with Lamar Jackson and a great scheme, and the Browns with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and an excellent offensive line. It may be a pass-happy world but the North is still capable of winning on the ground, especially as the weather turns ugly this winter. Winning the North will be about what team runs the best and what team stops the run most effectively. That’s Pittsburgh’s mission.

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