Key to fixing “garbage” Steelers defense is stopping the run

The Steelers are usually known for being a run-stuffing defense.

In all three of their losses this season, that hasn’t been the case.

In order to fix the current defensive situation, the Pittsburgh Steelers have to get back to basics: and that means stopping the opponent’s running game.

Following Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots, LB Ryan Shazier told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Pittsburgh’s inability to stop the run in recent games has caused them problems defensively:

“We’re normally known for stopping the run, but, if teams feel like they can get 100 or 200 yards rushing on us every game, they’re going to continue to run. If we keep playing like this, they’re going to keep doing this. We have to make sure when we come back we’re going to force them to stop running the ball and do whatever we want them to do. Right now, they can do whatever they want to do. and that’s going to hurt us. We’re going to continue to lose if that happens.”

To the casual fan watching on TV, that may seem more obvious than it really is.

In order to take away the tight end threats of the New England Patriots (read: Rob Gronkowski) the Steelers employed an extra defensive back to shadow “Gronk”. In most cases, that player was slot corner William Gay, who followed the Patriots star TE all over the field.

Gronk still got his touchdown in the game, but was limited to only 4 catches on 4 targets. The Steelers defense did their job, but found it difficult to both, cover the pass threats, and stop the Patriots rushing attack, led by LeGarrette Blount. Whenever the Steelers attempted to stop the run, they would use sub packages with Lawrence Timmons. The Patriots coaches countered with passing the ball, which forced the Steelers to sub out a linebacker for a defensive back, which then favored the running game.

It was a constant chess match throughout the game, one in which the Patriots successfully ran for 140 yards: the second opponent in as many weeks to top 100 or more on the Steelers.

A week earlier the Miami Dolphins put up 222 yards on Pittsburgh’s defense.

As no surprise, both games were losses.

When the Steelers run defense, in Shazier’s words, looks like “garbage,” Pittsburgh usually ends up with a check mark in the loss column.

This season, all three teams which have beaten Pittsburgh have posted 100 or more rushing yards: the aforementioned Dolphins and Patriots, as well as the Philadelphia Eagles, who registered 125 yards against the Steelers in Week 3.

The Steelers defense has held teams to 55, 46, 87 and 72 rushing yards in their 4 victories thus far. Likewise, the Steelers gave up 100 or more rushing yards in 8 games last season: Pittsburgh lost 5 of those 8, one of those being the AFC Divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos.

The shift to stopping the run is a paradigm to past Steelers defensive units, which were adept to run-stuffing, but susceptible to the pass. Part of the reason Pittsburgh didn’t cede 100+ rushing yards to opponents in 9 of their 16 regular season games last season was due to a leaky pass defense, which gave up the 30th most yards in the league.

This year, the Steelers appear to be having difficulty stopping both as of late. They are 28th in passing defense, and 16th in rushing defense, after allowing 362 rushing yards over the last 2 games, and forcing zero sacks in both contests.

Part of the blame has been placed on missing DE Cameron Heyward over those last two games; losing a team captain is a crushing blow to any unit, but the Steelers shouldn’t fold over the loss of one player.

The good news is that the Steelers should get Heyward back shortly. The bad news is, they still have to find a way to stop leaking yards on the ground and in the air.

Some of that may occur if they can force pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers defense has been timid in sending blitzes in 2016, tied for dead last in the NFL with 8 sacks, after finishing third in 2015 with 48. With Heyward coming back, and the eventual return of last year’s first round draft pick, OLB Bud Dupree, coming off of Injured Reserve, the Steelers may be able to get back to imposing their will on opposing quarterbacks.

Paired with their returns is good timing: 3 of the next 4 opponents have had trouble protecting their quarterback this season. Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens has been sacked 17 times this year, while the Cleveland Browns have failed to protect any of the six signal callers they’ve had this year, ceding 21 sacks. The Steelers Thanksgiving Night opponents, the Indianapolis Colts, have allowed QB Andrew Luck to be hit like a pinata, for a league-worst 25 sacks.

The defense will be tested with a myriad of run-heavy offenses: the Browns have gone over the century mark in all but 2 games this season, while Week 10’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, features a stout offensive line that’s paved the way for rookie of the year candidate Ezekiel Elliott. (Dallas has failed to not run for at least 100 yards this season.)

Conversely, the Ravens have only put up 2 100+ yard rushing performances, and the Colts have a single game in which they’ve hit the century mark on the ground.

This bodes well for the Steelers to get back to business and shutdown the opponents run game. If they can get healthy on the defensive side of the ball, and start dictating the pace of the opposition by stuffing the run, they may be able to start forcing obvious passing downs; keeping essential personnel on the field, which also allows for better opportunities to get to the quarterback.

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