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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: Can Steelers' stout run defense hold up against Panthers?

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, 6:15 a.m.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are on a short week preparing to face Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Nell Redmond/AP
The Pittsburgh Steelers are on a short week preparing to face Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Here’s the most interesting matchup on the field for Thursday’s Steelers game against Carolina.

It’s the Steelers’ run defense against the Carolina run game. Let’s take a look at a few facts before we dive in.

The Steelers’ improved run defense is the most under-discussed positive of their 2018 turnaround.

OK, that was an opinion. But here are some facts to back it up.

Right now, coordinator Keith Butler’s run defense is sixth in the league, allowing a meager 90.3 yards per game. It also ranks ninth at 4.1 yards per attempt. Opposing teams aren’t even trying to run against the Steelers often — the team has only 178 rush attempts against. That’s the lowest number in the AFC.

Furthermore, the Steelers are particularly good at stopping the running backs of other teams. As low as some of those numbers may be, they become even more impressive when you realize that Cleveland Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor scrambled for 77 yards in the opener against the Black and Gold. And Sammy Watkins busted off a 31-yard reverse the next week for Kansas City.

So, 108 of the Steelers’ 722 yards allowed on the ground weren’t even designed handoffs to running backs. The most yards on the ground gained by a back was 75 by Kareem Hunt in Week 2.

“It’s a multitude of things,” defensive end Cam Heyward said of the Steelers’ success stopping opposing ground attacks. “Better technique. We’ve been tackling better. Multiple guys to the ball. We’re just executing.”

Conversely, Carolina has one of the best rushing attacks in the game. The Panthers’ 143.9 yards per game is just a few percentage points behind the Rams for the league lead. Their 5.2 yards per attempt are best in the league, along with the Chargers and Broncos. Like the Steelers, they have 11 rushing touchdowns. That’s third best in football.

On top of that, the Panthers have lost just one fumble.

Individually, Christian McCaffrey is 14th with 502 yards. And no quarterback has more rushing yards total than Cam Newton’s 342.

Perhaps, unlike other opponents, the Steelers won’t be able to bully these Panthers off of their run game.

“You want to make a team one dimensional. But they are a great running football team,” Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic said. “They are a team that wants to run the ball. So, we have to be a team that’s in place to stop it.”

Mike Tomlin spent a lot of time this week praising offensive coordinator Norv Turner for how he has used McCaffrey as a partner in crime for Newton. He said that from the standpoint of both the running game and the passing game.

Whether we are speaking in terms of the read option game, check down throws, base handoffs, or more elaborate deployment as we have seen in Pittsburgh with Le’Veon Bell and James Conner, those two have become hand-in-glove, based on Tomlin’s description.

Prediction?

The Steelers haven’t allowed more than 100 yards rushing in a game since the Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. They’ll allow at least that much Thursday. Likely more. But the Steelers still win 25-22.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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