Joe Kuzma started this concept a week or so ago based on the game show “The Weakest Link”. Each week the idea is to highlight the area that we here at Steel City Underground view as the potential weak spot in the Steelers armor.
Based on last week’s game against the Bears, you might think that the Steelers run defense would be an easy call out as the “Weakest Link”, but I think those issues were primarily based on execution and not lack of talent. What I think has become increasingly clear as a problem spot, and one that I anticipate being a really difficult area for the Steelers to address this week is their rush attack.
This week’s “Weakest Link” is the Steelers running game.
Going into this week’s games, the Steelers are the less than proud owners of the league’s twenty-ninth worst running attack.
How bad is it?
The Giants, who have absolutely no offensive line, and the Cardinals, who lost an elite runner in David Johnson to injury and are relying on Chris Johnson (23 carries for 61 yards for the season) are the only two teams who are worse. (Green Bay is tied for 29th with the Steelers.)
Here are the unavoidable truths of the Steelers running game at this early point in the season:
|Yds per Game||TDs||Long||First Downs||First Down %||20+||40+||Fumbles|
About the only positive stat in that line is that at least they haven’t fumbled.The Steelers, with Le’Veon Bell available for each game, have averaged only 69 rushing yards per contest. They have amassed a single rushing touchdown, and the longest run of the season is for a whopping 15 yards. They have managed only 13 first downs in 3 games via the run.
Bell has accumulated 180 rushing yards for the season (an average of 60 per game). He achieved this on 52 attempts for an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Last season, if you remember, Bell wasn’t available until the fourth game of the season because he was serving a suspension for the first three games. However, during those first three games, the Steelers were able to rush for 300 yards, an average of 100 yards per game. And that was with a dismal 29-yard effort against Philadelphia in game 3.
In Bell’s first 3 games back last season, he ran for 263 yards on 48 attempts, for an average of 5.48 yards per carry. That’s almost a 2-yard difference per carry from last season to this season.
More concerning, however, is the stat line Bell had against Baltimore in the first matchup of the season. 32 yards on 14 carries for an average of 2.29. Baltimore is never easy to run against. In fact, if you look at Bells rushing yards for the first 6 games he played last year, the lines look like this:
What I’m pointing out here is that it really wasn’t until late in the season that Bell really started to get on track. Following up those six games, the next six looked like this:
If you take away the anomaly of that first game back against the Chiefs, Bell did not run well until his sixth game back. Yes, there is some truth to them limiting the run against some of these teams because of falling behind, especially the Dolphins game. However, it’s also true that an inability to run lead to many short drives that allowed them to fall behind. Catch 22.
That brings us to this week against the Ravens.
The Ravens are currently ranked nineteenth in rush defense. They have been allowing 112 yards per game on the ground, which is unlike the Ravens defense we are used to seeing. Missing Brandon Williams for some of that time certainly is part of the issue (Williams is currently listed as “Questionable” for this weeks game).
However, if you look a little deeper at those numbers you will see that last week in London the Ravens were gouged for 166 rushing yards by the Jaguars. Prior to that, neither the Bengals or the Browns were able to top the 100-yard mark (77 for the Bengals, 93 for the Browns). The stat line in the Jaguars game is also slanted because Corey Grant was able to bust a 58-yard run that, if you take off the books brings the line down to only 108 yards: Leonard Fournette had 59, Chris Ivory 17 and Grant 17 (minus the 58 yarder).
The Ravens run defense doesn’t look as scary as you would expect. If Brandon Williams plays, it will be a little more daunting, but neither the Bengals or the Browns have looked like powerhouse running teams to this point in the season. If the Steelers are unable to run the ball against the Ravens, that will put all that much more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing attack. The good news is that after last week, the Ravens are ranked dead last in passing defense. That’s what happens when you let Blake Bortles abuse you.
In my view, the Steelers need to try and establish the run, but give James Conner a little bit of love as a change of pace. Let the contrasting styles of Bell and Conner keep the Ravens guessing. The run game doesn’t have to be phenomenal, it just has to keep the Ravens honest enough to allow Ben and the receivers enough time to expose the Ravens secondary, and keep the pass rush off of Ben’s back. It’s a big early-season divisional game, and the Steelers really need to come back from this a winner to try and bring some positivity back into the narrative.
Hopefully, after the game, we won’t be saying “Run Game – You are the Weakest Link”.
But right now, that’s what it looks to be.