Turning around Steelers’ 0-3 start begins with stopping the run
The point of emphasis this week is so engrained into the psyche of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive players T.J. Watt would not allow a reporter to finish asking the question.
“How does the Steelers defense get to being what it wants and needs to …”
“Stop the damn run!” Watt interrupted. “That’s No. 1 — stop the run.”
It became clear during an open locker room session Tuesday — two days after the Steelers lost their third consecutive game to open the season — the defense believes stopping the run is best way it can play a part in snapping the Steelers out of their funk.
“Gotta stop the run,” safety Terrell Edmunds said. “That’s a big emphasis right now.”
For prior versions of the Steelers defense, stopping the run was not only emphasized but was their identity. For the better part of a decade, opposing offenses would not bother putting much of a rushing attack into their gameplan. If they did, it was often abandoned after a few futile attempts.
The Steelers finished among the top three in the NFL in rushing defense 11 times from 2001-12.
They are 28th in the league at 139.3 yards per game this season after the San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 168 yards in a 24-20 victory Sunday.
“We’ve got to set the edge. We’ve got to get off blocks,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said, “but you’ve got to be in your gap. And too many times, we’ve tried to play ‘hero ball’ and tried to do too much. When this defense is doing all right, we get stops. When we don’t, we’re an average football team.”
The Steelers, by their record, are worse than average. And they’re a worse-than-average defense against the rush, too.
But in the modern NFL proliferated by passing offenses and protected quarterbacks, does that matter as much?
The Steelers insist a stout run defense still means something.
“You’ve got to make teams one-dimensional,” Heyward said. “And if (opponents) have to pass every down because they can’t run the ball, we’re at an advantage.”
Stopping the run, Edmunds said, “opens up quarterbacks to trying to throw crazy passes, you could say. And that’s when tips and overthrows come about. And that’s when big plays (for the defense) happen.”
The Steelers aren’t necessarily being victimized by the big rushing play. It’s been more of a slow bleed. Opponents have managed just two carries of more than 19 yards against the Steelers (both by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2). Pro Football Focus likewise paints a rosier picture. It rates the Steelers’ No. 7 in run defense.
But the Steelers problems, in part, have been more of volume. Though they rank tied for 13th in yards allowed per carry (4.1), only two teams have allowed more rushing attempts (102).
Opponents are rushing 48.11% of plays, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. That’s partially a function of being behind so often through three games.
The Steelers believe that stiffening against the run will result in them leading games more often.
“We still believe we have a lot of good guys on our defense,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “So for us, it’s a lot of not just stop the run but be dominant.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .