Opponents finding rare running success against Steelers

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There was a time when teams wouldn't even try to run against the Steelers. It wasn't that long ago.

By the end of the 2010 season, opponents had all but given up thinking they could run against the Steelers. Cincinnati attempted only 12 runs in a December game, Cleveland 13 a few weeks later and Green Bay just 11 in Super Bowl XLV. That year, the Steelers set an NFL record (since the 1970 merger) for fewest rushing attempts against them with 333.

A lot has happened since then to a team that, in the past decade, has had a top-three run defense eight times.

This season, opponents are running more often and with greater success. They are breaking off long runs. And they are producing 100-yard rushers, something rarely allowed by the Steelers for a decade.

“That team (in 2010),” linebacker Larry Foote said, “we had Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton. … We had some guys that, I don't care who you were, you couldn't run against.”

Throw in James Harrison and James Farrior along with a younger Brett Keisel, and the Steelers didn't allow a 100-yard rusher or a run longer than 25 yards, and they let only two opponents rush for more than 100 yards.

Fast forward to 2013. The names have changed along the front seven, and so has the success against them.

Even after holding Buffalo, a solid running team, to 95 yards last week, the Steelers are 27th in the NFL against the run, giving up 127 yards per game. Opponents are averaging 10 more carries per game than three years ago. In addition, their yards-per-carry average and number of long plays have skyrocketed.

“When we have the run-stoppers that we've had here traditionally, people couldn't run, no matter how many we had in the box,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Even if there were seven, they couldn't run it. If there were eight, they couldn't run it. Cornerbacks played the pass constantly. Safeties were able to stay deep. When you have problems stopping the run, other people feel like they have to come in and do different things. That's when it gets hard.”

Stopping the run — namely, the inability to stop it — has been linked to wins and losses this season.

In the six games in which an opponent rushed for more than 100 yards — Tennessee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minnesota, Oakland, England — the Steelers lost. In the three games in which the Steelers allowed fewer than 100 yards — N.Y. Jets, Baltimore, Buffalo — they won.

“It's a mindset,” Foote said. “We have been bringing guys in here that — no matter what — they want to stop the run.”

Foote said he believes the team's problem doesn't rest with physical ability as much as with its mental approach. Before this season, new starters Steve McLendon and Jason Worilds combined for 11 starts. Two rookies — Vince Williams and Jarvis Jones — have started, as well.

New faces, new problems

The ever-changing personnel has been an issue.

The Steelers didn't re-sign Casey Hampton because they were content handing the run-plugging responsibilities to McLendon. McLendon, though, hasn't performed up to expectations.

“We have young guys, but we always have young guys,” he said. “I need to get better, take up more players so the linebackers can flow better.”

Of the 168 run plays McLendon has been on the field for, 139 have resulted in fewer than 6 yards. Teams are averaging 4.4 yards per carry when McLendon is on the field and 3.9 when he isn't.

“I take it personal,” McLendon said. “I really take it personal. I feel like if I play better, then the team plays better. I am not beating myself up over it, but I am saying, ‘Steve, you have to do better.' ”

McLendon isn't the only new face on the defense.

When Foote tore his biceps in Week 1, the Steelers were forced to go with Williams, a sixth-round pick, at the pivotal run-stopping inside linebacker position. Worilds and rookie first-round pick Jones have split time replacing Harrison.

“It's been inconsistency as a unit,” Worilds said. “Everybody is taking their turns messing up. We will have a span of good plays, then somebody will mess up. It is frustrating because we know we are good. We know we have the talent.”

The result

The turnover in personnel has led to uncharacteristic long runs.

Allowing such plays had been a rarity during Dick LeBeau's second stint as Steelers defensive coordinator. Before this season LeBeau's defense gave up 30 run plays of 25 yards or longer, with seven coming from a quarterback or wide receiver. This season the Steelers defense has allowed runs of 93, 60 and 55 yards.

“If we stop the big plays, that will make the difference,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “You can't allow the big plays and expect to win games.”

It could be as simple as stopping the long runs. You take away those three plays — Terrelle Pryor's 93-yard run, Adrian Peterson's 60-yard run and Matt Forte's 55-yard run — and the Steelers would rank 12th against the run.

“We have to execute better,” first-year starter Cameron Heyward said. “If there is a mistake, we have to run to the ball and clean it up. We have to continue to work on that and be a ‘D' that swarms.”

Hitting the century mark

The long runs also have contributed to something that previously rarely was seen with the Steelers: 100-yard running backs.

From end of 2007 through 2010, the Steelers allowed one 100-yard rusher (Ray Rice in 2009) over a span of 57 games. Under LeBeau, the Steelers have allowed 13 100-yard rushers in 166 games. Three of those came over the past six contests.

“We've got to make sure we get back to our fundamentals,” LeBeau said. “We've gotten away from those too far. That's on me. We are leaving too many windows, and we are getting hit in some of those windows. We are going to close them up.”

Holding Buffalo's Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in check last week was a start.

“We stop the run, and we will win,” McLendon said. “It is that simple.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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