The sacks and turnovers were spectacular last season, but there’s an even more significant element that needs to become a signature for the Steelers’ defense.
That would be stopping the run.
Assuming the NFL eventually gets around to playing again, the Steelers have to be better there. Because as good as their defense was in 2019, it wasn’t good enough.
The three-game losing streak that dropped the Steelers from 8-5 to out of the playoffs betrayed the fatal flaw, in the event anyone had forgotten.
The Bills ran for 130 yards in a 17-10 victory on Dec. 15 at Heinz Field.
The Jets ran for 85 in a 16-10 decision over the Steelers on Dec. 22 at MetLife Stadium.
And the Ravens amassed 223 yards on the ground despite a lineup littered with JVs and a passing attack that generated all of 11 completions and 81 net passing yards in a dark, rainy, 28-10 decision that ended the Steelers’ season at 8-8.
Other bloated rushing totals surrendered in games that got away included 99 yards to the Patriots on Sept. 8 (33-3, New England), 151 to the Seahawks on Sept. 15 (28-26, Seattle), 168 to the 49ers on Sept. 22 (24-20, San Francisco), 138 to the Ravens on Oct. 6 (26-23, Baltimore in OT), and 104 to the Browns on Nov. 14 (21-7, Cleveland).
Anyone else sensing a trend?
The Steelers also gave up 100-yard games on the ground but were able to work around it in wins over the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13 (132), Indianapolis on Nov. 3 (139), and Cleveland on Dec. 1 (106).
That was the glaring stain on an otherwise glittering statistical resume.
The Steelers finished No. 5 in the NFL in total defense. They ranked No. 3 against the pass. And they lead the league in sacks (54) and takeaways (38).
But they were 14th in rushing defense, at 109.6 yards-per-game against.
Even the Steelers’ No. 3 ranking in yards-per-carry against (3.79) wasn’t enough to adequately mask that deficiency.
At the end of the day it’s not how, it’s how many.
“We’ve got to be a better run-stopping defense,” defensive tackle and defensive captain Cam Heyward emphasized during a recent Zoom session with the media.
Hopefully, he means it to the degree he’ll be committed to doing something about it, along with everyone else involved.
Assuming the NFL gets around to playing again this season, the Steelers’ run defense will be challenged again.
The 2020 schedule includes six teams that finished in the Top 10 in rushing in 2019 _ Baltimore (No. 1), Tennessee (No. 3), Dallas (No. 5), Indianapolis (No. 7), Buffalo (No. 8), Houston (No. 9). Philadelphia (No. 11) and Cleveland (No. 12) landed just outside the Top 10, and they’re both on the schedule. And the Steelers will play the Ravens twice.
They’re also scheduled to go against four running backs who finished in the NFL’s Top 12 in yards from scrimmage last season despite their teams failing to crack the Top 10 in rushing _ Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (No. 3), Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette (No. 6), the New York Football Giants’ Saquon Barkley (No. 11) and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (No. 12).
And the Steelers will play Chubb and Mixon two times each in theory.
The run defense will be tested until it proves it can pass the test.
The offense needs to do its part, too.
The Steelers were No. 27 in points per game last season (18.06). The return of Ben Roethlisberger ought to help improve that. And more points should mean more leads more often, maybe even leads big enough to discourage Steelers’ opponents from running the ball.
But it won’t be as simple as re-inserting Roethlisberger into the lineup and picking up where the defense left off.
The onus will still be on the defense to become more proficient at consistently stopping the run, the way all truly great defenses must.
The unit can’t legitimately be perceived as dominating until that’s accomplished.
No matter how many times a fumble is recovered, a pass is intercepted or a quarterback gets sacked.
Image Courtesy of Getty Images.