Depending on how you look at things, the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers might have a great run defense. Then again, it might not be that great.
Here’s what they’re good at: the Steelers are sixth in the NFL in yards per carry against, slightly down from their highest ranking of the season , which was third, but still very, very good. They’ve allowed 4.09 yards per carry. Four NFL teams have allowed over five yards per attempt. So an an average, per carry basis, the Steelers are very good.
In the red zone, they’re even better. The Steelers have allowed six rushing touchdowns this season, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL.
But of course, those statistics come with caveats. Teams haven’t needed to run the ball against the Steelers because they have had the league’s sixth-worst pass defense. Yes, they’re stopping rushing touchdowns, but they’re giving up passing one. The Steelers have allowed the most passing TDs in the NFL, with 24.
Even on Sunday, against an Atlanta team that basically couldn’t pass, the Steelers were unable to keep the clamps on the Falcons rushing game. Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier combined to rush 12 times for 112, letting the Falcons claw back into the game after the Steelers took a 19-6 late in the third quarter.
If you take a subjective, not an objective look, the Steelers don’t hold up quite as well. Pro Football Focus has the team’s run defense graded as just the 10th-best in the NFL. Good, but probably not great, according to the graders over there.
So are they good? Great? What happened against the Falcons? And what comes next?
Let’s start with the aftermath of Atlanta, where the Falcons threw for 167 total yards and Marcus Mariota had a 72.7 passer rating, yet they were still able to run the ball effectively in the second half and make a game out of what probably should have been a rout.
Part of the problem was a lack of success on first down. When the Falcons got behind the chains, they had very little success against the Steelers, running or passing, but when they got into 2nd and reasonable, they were a lot more dangerous.
“That was a big goal all week to get them behind the chains, which is hard to do for a team that sticks to the run,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said. “We knew they loved to run the ball, even on third down. We never really got to the point where we could truly pin our ears back until the last drive.”
“We’ve just got to tighten up a little bit more,” inside linebacker Myles Jack added. “Credit to them, because that’s what they do. They kind of lean on people and we let them do it. But I feel like at the end of the day, we got the win and we held it off as long as we could.”
The Falcons are good at running ball. They’re second in the NFL in total rushing yards and fifth in yards per carry. But the Steelers don’t exactly have the luxury of letting that be the reason for Atlanta’s success on Sunday.
This week’s opponents, the Baltimore Ravens, are right behind the Falcons at third in rushing yards and are even better with a 5.2 yards per carry. The Steelers play the Ravens twice over the season’s final five games. They also play the Las Vegas Raiders, tied with the Ravens for second in yards per carry, and the Cleveland Browns, who are fourth in overall rushing yards.
In four of the remaining five games this season, the Steelers will face a rushing offense that could rightfully be described as great. The run defense is going to be front and center in the team’s fight to remain relevant in the playoff picture throughout the month of December.
“It’s probably going to be the most important thing that we do these last five weeks,” defensive tackle Chris Wormley said. “If we win out, we’re most likely in the playoffs. That’s kind of our goal, but we’re focused on stopping the Ravens this week and stopping that rushing attack that they have.”
The Ravens aren’t really like most teams. Baltimore’s leading rusher is quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has 764 yards on 112 carries (6.8 yards per attempt). But their running back room can be solid, as well. Kenyan Drake, Justice Hill, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins have combined to run 217 times for 964 yards, a four-headed monster that takes the place of the bell cow back that some teams use.
Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, who will likely replace Jackson this week while the latter is dealing with a PCL sprain, can tote the rock, too. In 11 career games, he has 67 carries for 358 yards (5.3 yards per carry).
“They’re one of the few teams that have major quarterback mobility that have done a consistent job of making sure that that mobility isn’t lost when their starter goes down,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday. “They’ve always got quality backups that are capable of delivering the schematics that they choose to employ. Quarterback mobility is going to be an issue in this game regardless of who’s playing. We’d better be sharp in that area.”
Maybe the best answer to the question of whether or not the Steelers have a great defense is that we’re about to find out. If they can shut down the four dominant rushing attacks remaining on the schedule, they will have certainly earned that mantle.
“We’re in the thick of it,” Heyward said. “After the season or whenever, then we’ll look at it.”