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How Big of an Issue is the Steelers Run Defense?

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Steelers ILB Devin Bush

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers had big problems stopping the run in 2021, and for most of the offseason, their plans have been intention about getting better in that regard in 2021.

The Steelers brought in defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, linebacker Myles Jack, made a change at defensive coordinator to Teryl Austin and brought in former head coach Brian Flores to add to the coaching staff.

Then they went out in the preseason opener and gave up 6.1 yards per carry to a Seattle Seahawks team with basically no passing threat and with projected starting running back Chris Carson having suddenly retired mid-summer.

The likes of DeeJay Dallas (10 carries, 73 yards) and Travis Homer (four carries, 41 yards) carved up the Steelers defense even worse than it was throughout 2021. The 6.1 yards per carry represented the worst defensive rushing performance the Steelers had in 2021, when the Browns did it on Jan. 3.

So much for improvement.

“Our o-line was firing off the ball tonight, so hats off to those guys,” Dallas said. “It didn’t really matter who was in there … they work hard and it showed tonight.”

Now, the Steelers did not play any of their projected starting front five, with T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi and Cam Heyward all sitting out. It’s also not likely that if Austin and Flores have big structural changes to make the team defend the run in mind that they would have revealed them in preseason Game 1.

But don’t expect Mike Tomlin to take that exit.

“The standard is the standard and we were below the line,” Tomlin said, cutting off my question about whether or not he’d give the unit’s performance an asterisk based on the available personnel. “We’ve got to get better there.”

They do, and while it will be illustrative to see how much better then unit can be when those five return, it’s also troubling that Devin Bush and Robert Spillane both struggled when in the game at inside linebacker. That’s the continuation of a bad trend for Bush from 2021, when Pro Football Focus gave him a 27.2 grade (out of 100) against the run.

It’s also against the grain for Spillane, who has generally been a solid run-stopper in his pro career. 

The Steelers front will get better when the starters arrive, and Myles Jack, when he played, was solid. The performance of the team’s other inside linebackers, and the backups at outside linebacker, continues to be a trouble spot for the team’s run defense.

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