We might sound like a broken record but we’ll be talking plenty about the need for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense to improve in 2022. Not just by a small step either but by a leaping bound. After finishing dead last against the run a year ago, Cam Heyward knows as well as anyone how much better things must get. That starts with the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday and in speaking to reporters before practice, Heyward outlined keys to the game, via The Trib’s Chris Adamski.
“They do a really good job of not only being in the A, B, and C gaps,” he said. “But it transfers out to the C, D, and E gaps that our corners have to fill. Our linebackers have to fill. Even sometimes I have to fill when I’m in an over front. Those are things we have to be a lot more clean on this year. It comes down to team run defense.”
The Bengals’ zone scheme allows the ball to get out on the perimeter, a trusted and proven back like Joe Mixon using his vision to find the open lane. Those are the gaps Heyward’s talking about, the C, D, and E gaps, and the Steelers’ over front shifts Heyward outside shade of the tight end, often helping turn the run back inside. Here’s an example from 2017 of the Steelers’ over front with Stephon Tuitt over the outside tight end in the D gap.
At all levels, the Steelers’ run defense failed last year. The d-line, the linebackers, the secondary. That’s how you wind up with a historically bad run defense, worst in franchise history, allowing 5.0 YPC and regularly giving up 200 yards on the ground. Mixon was one of many backs to run over the Steelers, averaging five yards per rush and 90 yards in the first meeting before exploding for a career-high 165 yards and two touchdowns in the rematch later in the season. Heyward realizes that can’t happen again.
“They want to get Mixon on DBs. They feel like that’s a win. But we don’t want to give it to them when it’s 1v1. We want to corral it, be ready for the cutbacks, just play physical.”
We’ll have a Bengals’ offensive scouting report tomorrow on the site, breaking down all the keys and tendencies of a potent Cincinnati attack. But week-after-week, the Steelers’ priority will be stopping the run. If they can’t be a top ten unit, it’ll be another long and frustrating season.