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Run down: Steelers rush defense not up to standard

| Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011

One thing about Dick LeBeau: He knows all about statistics, especially when it pertains to his defense.

The Steelers' Hall of Fame defensive coordinator can just about recite every statistical category regarding his defense, whether it was from this year or any other year.

So when LeBeau says he's not too concerned about the falloff of his rushing defense heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Cleveland, you tend to take him at his word.

"I think we have done a good job against the run," LeBeau said. "We have done better jobs in the past. But total defense, we are playing pretty good."

Statistically, the aspect that LeBeau prides himself in the most hasn't matched the team's previous standards. The Steelers are ninth in the league in rushing yards per game, allowing just more than 100 on average.

A LeBeau-led defense has never been lower than third at season's end. They are allowing 40 rushing yards a game more than last year, have given up nearly as many 100-yard rushers in 15 games than they have over the previous seven years and have allowed three times as many 15-yard runs this year than they did all of last season.

"You are talking about one little part of the defense," LeBeau said. "You can pick out this little thing or that little thing. You are kicking a dead horse, my friend. We are leading the league in defense. If we have to get better, 31 other teams have to get better, too."

The Steelers are tops in the league in total defense thanks to pass coverage that is 42 yards per game better than last year. That, however, hasn't masked the fact the run defense has been lacking.

"Last year, we were run-stopping aliens," safety Ryan Clark said. "We acknowledge that it does have to get better. We know it has to get better. The time to correct it is over. It has to be done now."

Stopping the rush
The Steelers' rushing defense under the direction of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau since his return in 2004:
Year Rushes Yards Avg. NFL rank 15-yard gains
2004 357 1,299 81.2 first 16
2005 402 1,376 86.0 third 11
2006 408 1,412 88.3 third 8
2007 361 1,438 89.9 third 16
2008 390 1,284 80.3 second 4
2009 372 1,438 89.9 third 13
2010 333 1,004 62.8 first 5
2011* 409 1,627 101.6 ninth 16
* -- Projected

The Steelers flirted with becoming the best run defense the NFL has ever seen in a single season before missing out by a mere 34 yards last year. Such a high standard makes living up to that nearly impossible.

"That doesn't happen. You can't compare anything to last year," Clark said.

Even though LeBeau downplays it, the players know they have to be better at stopping the run.

"It's our style of ball. That's how we make teams one-dimensional, so we can attack the quarterback," safety Troy Polamalu said. "If you don't stop the run, you don't allow guys like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to rush the quarterback."

The Steelers are on pace for the fewest sacks since 2003.

"It hasn't been one of our better years against the run," linebacker James Farrior said. "We understand that. We still feel like we have a good defense, though."

Lack of personnel has been a problem, too. Defensive end Aaron Smith has missed the majority of the season, Woodley has missed five games and parts of two others, and Harrison was out for five games.

"It is a combination of everything," Harrison said. "We aren't fitting it up right ... all that stuff."

Giving up long runs also has been an issue. Last year, they allowed three runs of 15 yards or longer. This year, they have given up 15 of those rushes, and that's not including a 76-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice that was called back for holding.

"We haven't been fitting right, guys missing tackles," Farrior said. "Good defenses don't allow that."

Four of those long runs went for at least 25 yards. The Steelers haven't allowed that many long rushes in five years.

"Some of that is because of bad tackling in the secondary, I know a few cases from myself," Polamalu said.

An improvement in rush defense will be imperative, especially if the Steelers go on the road against possible playoff teams Houston, Denver or Oakland -- the top three rushing teams in the AFC.

"If you run the ball in the postseason, you can win," Farrior said. "If you can't stop the run, you are going to be in for a long day."

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