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Exploited Steelers defense to see more of the same against Ravens

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, 7:36 p.m.
Bears running back Jordan Howard stiff-arms the Steelers J.J. Wilcox in the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago Il.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Bears running back Jordan Howard stiff-arms the Steelers J.J. Wilcox in the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago Il.
Steelers running back Le'Veo Bell gets tackled by the Browns' Christian Kirksey and Jamie Meder on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at FirstEnergy Stadium Cleveland Ohio.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veo Bell gets tackled by the Browns' Christian Kirksey and Jamie Meder on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at FirstEnergy Stadium Cleveland Ohio.

He counted too many missed tackles, too few defenders staying in their assignments and too much open running room.

What Keith Butler witnessed Sunday afternoon in Chicago left him ticked off.

Except the third-year defensive coordinator didn't use the G-rated version of that phrase Thursday to describe his frustration with all three levels of his unit — line, linebackers, secondary — after the Steelers allowed 220 rushing yards in a 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears.

“I don't think anybody was exempt,” Butler said. “If I was coaching the outside linebackers, I'd have been (ticked) off. If I was coaching the inside linebackers, I'd have been (ticked) off. If I was coaching the D-line, I'd have been (ticked) off, and the secondary also.

“All of us are (ticked) off about how we played.”

For three-plus hours at Soldier Field and again during next-day film study, Butler watched Bears running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen run the same style of play so frequently it appeared like it was on an endless loop. They would run wide left, then cut back inside. They would run right, then cut back inside.

The stretch play, no matter which direction it began, finished with the same result and contributed to Howard rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns and Cohen adding 78 against the Steelers.

“It hurts your pride,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said.

Thing is, the Steelers' pride will be tested again this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. In a league in which teams copy the success of others, the Ravens have no need to alter their game plan to duplicate what the Bears did.

“They (already) do a lot of the same things the Bears are doing,” Butler said. “There's not much difference there. They've got good running backs. You know they're going to run the football on us.”

Where the Bears used Howard and Cohen to wear down the Steelers, the Ravens have three options they have used to craft the NFL's fourth-most rushing yards this season.

Javorius Allen leads the Ravens with 152 yards rushing, followed by Terrance West with 128 and Alex Collins with 124 and a 7.8 yards-per-carry average.

“They've got backs that can do it all,” said safety J.J. Wilcox, who could start because of injuries to Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell. “They can do it from the (shotgun), under center, they can catch out of the backfield. They've got a great group of backs.”

The Steelers will try to stop Allen, West and Collins from duplicating the collection of long runs the Bears executed. Howard had seven runs of at least 11 yards. Cohen had the two longest gains of the game, 26 and 36 yards, the latter almost turning into a 74-yard game-ending score.

“Usually, those plays are minimized with good tackling,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Those are the six- to eight- to 11-yard gains that you might see in the run game from time to time. Really, our biggest issue in those instances … we weren't good tacklers.”

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier led the Steelers will 11 solo tackles but admitted he was as guilty as any other defensive player.

On Howard's game-ending 19-yard touchdown run, Shazier was caught out of position and recovered too late to stop the runner from speeding to the end zone. Too many other times, tacklers whiffed on trying to bring down the ball carrier.

“Guys were trying to thud guys down more than trying to wrap them up and then take them down,” Shazier said.

Dupree was more pointed in his assessment.

“We were all trying to make the big hit, and everyone wanted to knock somebody out,” he said. “It's going back to the fundamentals. We can't go for kill shots. You can go for kill shots and wrap up at the same time.”

Until the Steelers show they can stop the stretch play, expect the Ravens to run it repeatedly with their trio of backs.

“One thing about the NFL, if you don't fix it, people are going to continue to pinch that sore,” Shazier said. “We know we're going to have to fix that problem from last week and just be ready for it.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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