Steelers' maligned run defense turns to Chiefs' Kareem Hunt
As the Steelers try to work out the kinks in their running game, they face another opponent that has experienced no such difficulty.
The Kansas City Chiefs and rookie sensation Kareem Hunt present the biggest challenge to the Steelers' maligned run defense this season when the teams meet Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.
Hunt, a third-round draft pick from Toledo, leads the NFL with 609 rushing yards. No other runner has surpassed 500. The Steelers, meanwhile, rank No. 28 in rushing defense, having given up 222 and 231 yards rushing to Chicago and Jacksonville, respectively, within a three-week span.
Hunt's emergence has helped the Chiefs build a 5-0 record and one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL.
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said the way the Chiefs use Hunt is similar to the way the Bears used Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen and how the Jaguars used Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory to great success against his unit.
“He's built low to the ground and has real good vision,” Butler said Thursday. “He sees the backside of cuts. He really keeps it tight to the offensive linemen's blocking and finds ways to get downhill. He's an impressive runner in those terms. He's going to be a challenge.”
Hunt provides the Chiefs a dimension they lacked in January when they lost at home to the Steelers in the AFC divisional playoff round. In the 18-16 loss, the Chiefs were held to 61 yards on the ground, with Spencer Ware leading with 35 yards.
The Chiefs let oft-injured veteran Jamaal Charles walk in free agency, then drafted Hunt in the third round with the No. 86 overall pick. The Steelers selected former Pitt running back James Conner with the No. 105 selection.
“We looked at the running back position thoroughly in draft preparation,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We drafted James Conner, and he was comparable in a lot of ways. He's a talented runner, has a definite run demeanor. I'm not surprised by what he's doing.”
Hunt was supposed to share carries this season with Ware, but the plan was scuttled when Ware suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Hunt showed he was up to the challenge of being a feature back.
Hunt has brought the splash back to the Chiefs running game, breaking runs of at least 50 yards in each of the first three games. He leads all running backs with 18 carries that have gained at least 10 yards, and he is averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, conversely, is averaging 3.6 yards.
Hunt also has helped the Chiefs improve from No. 26 in red-zone touchdown efficiency in 2016 to No. 4 this season.
“He does a good job in the scheme,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “He's able to make it down the field, and he's explosive enough to make big plays.”
After facing a straight-ahead runner last week in Fournette, the Steelers expect the Chiefs to use Hunt on the type of stretch plays the Bears used to frustrate the Steelers in the third week of the season.
“It's more about lateral movement,” Tuitt said. “You have to have quick, elusive guys to be able to do the things they need to do.”
The Chiefs have found that with Hunt. Now, it's up to the Steelers to find a way to stop him.