Steelers run defense to face stiffest test against Ravens
Overlooked in the Pittsburgh Steelers sacking Andy Dalton a career-high eight times Monday night was that the defense produced its best performance stopping the run in a 27-3 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Opponents averaged 139 rushing yards against the Steelers in their 0-3 start. The Bengals finished with just 73.
By stopping the run effectively, the Steelers turned up the pressure on Dalton, sacking him eight times and hitting him 12 others for the defense’s most dominant showing of the season.
“We all gush and talk about how we want to rush the passer and get the sacks,” said defensive captain Cameron Heyward, who had 2.5 sacks against the Bengals, “but if you don’t stop the run and get off the field, you’re not going to get those opportunities. When we do get those opportunities, we salivate those moments. But we have to make sure we get more of them.”
The turnaround came at an opportune time for the Steelers considering the NFL’s top rushing team visits Heinz Field this weekend. The Baltimore Ravens, led by multi-dimensional quarterback Lamar Jackson, are averaging 205 rushing yards as the NFL season enters its fifth week.
The Ravens have rushed for 823 yards, a franchise record one quarter into a season. Mark Ingram, in his first season in Baltimore after spending the previous eight with the New Orleans Saints, ranks sixth in the NFL with 328 yards, and he is averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
Jackson is No. 15 with 238 rushing yards — or 20 fewer yards than the entire Steelers offense has produced.
Backup running back Gus Edwards has rushed for 148 yards – 9 more than Steelers leading rusher James Conner — and is averaging 4.5 yards per pop.
“They’ve got a lot of good players that can do something with the ball in their hands,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said.
For the Ravens, it all starts with the player who has the ball in his hands first. Jackson, in his first full season as a starter, has excelled at executing the run-pass option. Not only has Jackson averaged 6.6 yards when tucking the ball and running, he is tied for the NFL lead with 10 touchdown passes and ranks fifth in passer rating.
“Stopping the run is huge,” Heyward said. “He does so well with those naked boots outside, especially in the red zone. He does such a good job of extending play, and you’ve got to make sure everybody is keying on the running back and the quarterback. You have to make sure you hit him hard and legally.”
Given Jackson’s elusive nature, that’s often easier said than done.
“We have to make those tackles when we have one-on-one chances with him in space,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said. “He does a great job of making people miss. When you’re holding back, he’s going to make you miss anyway so you’ve got to take your shot and hope the cavalry is coming.”
The last time the Steelers faced a mobile quarterback, in the home opener, Seattle’s Russell Wilson secured a 28-26 win for the Seahawks by literally running out the final 5 minutes, 34 seconds. Wilson scrambled for runs of 9, 10 and 15 yards on the final drive.
“They are similar to an extent,” Heyward said. “Russ is top 3, I think. Lamar still hasn’t hit his ceiling. He’s approaching that territory.”
A factor on defense could be slot corner Mike Hilton, who has provided run support in subpackages this season.
“I feel like this is leaning toward my type of game,” said Hilton, who had five tackles against the Bengals. “They are a run-first type of team and (that allows me to) get in the box and let me make plays.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasn’t surprised to see the Steelers get back to basics and shut down the Bengals.
“It’s Pittsburgh Steeler defense,” he said. “They’re going to play run defense. They always have. It’s part of their DNA.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .