Tim Benz: Who wins battle of Steelers’ bad run defense vs. Bengals bad run game?
It’s the matchup we’ve all been waiting to see.
The easily resistible force vs. the highly movable object.
Also known as the anemic Cincinnati Bengals running game vs. the leaky Steelers rush defense.
It’ll be the game within the game between two teams with a combined 0-6 record.
I know. I can’t wait either.
The Steelers rush defense is 27th in the NFL, allowing a gaudy 139.3 yards per game. Meanwhile the Bengals are last in the league in rushing offense with a 41.7 yards per game average and a putrid 2.4 yards per carry.
Something’s gotta give!
And if the Steelers lose, it could be Pittsburgh’s patience.
A frequent theme in the Steelers-Bengals rivalry has been the Steelers’ superiority in the ground game. There have been 13 matchups since running backs Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard were drafted by their respective teams in the second round in 2013.
Over that span, the Steelers have averaged 106.2 rushing yards per game against the Bengals, whereas Cincinnati averages 86.8 yards per contest against Pittsburgh.
Heightening that difference, in many of those games, the Bengals often have success in spurts in the running game but don’t stick with it effectively.
Look at Joe Mixon as an example. He has averaged 6.61 yards per attempt against the Steelers, but only 62.8 yards per game in his four contests against them.
As for Bernard, he has suited up against the Steelers 10 times. He averages 4.2 yards per carry, but only 25.7 yards per game against the Black and Gold.
Mixon is an interesting case in this game. He was hardly used in the first two weeks of the season, totaling a meager 27 yards on 17 rushes. But against Buffalo last week, new coach Zac Taylor seemed to discover his running back, getting him 17 touches for 94 total yards from scrimmage.
Given how the Steelers have been gashed by running backs from Seattle and San Francisco, one would have to assume that Taylor would be enticed to give the Steelers front a heavy dose of Mixon on Monday night.
“Too many times the pile has been falling forward,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the Steelers rush defense this year. “It’s better technique. It’s more physicality in terms of taking on blocks to minimize vertical holes so there isn’t more space when plays come to an end. Too many times (in the San Francisco game) the running backs were able to fall forward.”
Tomlin noted that issue is less about the quality of those who are making the tackle and more about how his defenders are combating blockers and minimizing space.
The Bengals’ offensive line is dealing with a lot of injuries. Jonah Williams is missing his entire rookie season with a torn labrum. Tackle Cordy Glenn has been in concussion protocol since the preseason. Tackle Andre Smith and guard Michael Jordan have been hit with injuries this year, too.
However, the Steelers have failed to properly exploit some backup players and some shaky offensive fronts in each of the first three games.
“Gap integrity is important,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “We’ve got to set the edge. We’ve got to get off blocks. You’ve got to be in your gap. Too many times we play hero ball and try to do too much.”
Other criticisms Heyward had of the overall run-stuffing technique?
Not using their hands well enough has been a factor. Heyward noted that the team has had a tendency to swim blocks too much and, as a result, winds up getting washed out too often. The front also needs to be more honest while playing the run instead of concentrating exclusively on getting upfield to the passer.
It’s not all about the defensive linemen and outside linebackers, either. The inside linebackers haven’t done a great job shedding tackles or filling gaps either.
But as Heyward said this week, he’d break the finger of anyone who was pointing it at someone else given how badly the collective team has been.
It’s not a matter of “who” or “how.” It’s just a question of “can.”
Can the Steelers finally stop the run against a team that is usually unable to get the task accomplished in that regard?
“Stop the damn run,” T.J. Watt grumbled when asked about improvements needed for the defense this week. “That’s number one. Stop the run.”
That’s easier said than done, T.J. If the Steelers have proven anything this year, it’s that.
Now it’s time to prove they can be the defense the franchise envisioned when this squad was constructed in the offseason.