The Pittsburgh Steelers’ rushing defense through the first six games of the 2023 season has left a lot to be desired. The Steelers have given up an average of 142.3 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 28th in the 32-team NFL.
They’re not doing any better on a per-carry basis, with opposing rushers averaging 4.7 yards per run against the Steelers, which is 27th in the league.
Even worse, those stats have come despite playing just one of the top 15 NFL players in rushing yards so far this season. They played Christian McCaffrey, the current league leader with 598 yards, in Week 1. McCaffrey helped the 49ers gash the Steelers to the tune of 188 yards rushing. The Cleveland Browns, featuring the last game of the season for All-Pro Nick Chubb before his injury, did even better the following week, piling up 198 ground yards.
The Steelers have tightened things up since then, but the impact of those early big totals will be felt on the team’s season-long numbers for a while now.
But they will once again face a talent at the top of his game this week when the Jacksonville Jaguars and running back Travis Etienne come to town. Etienne is fourth in the league in rushing so far this season with 504 yards on 127 carries, and he’s third with seven rushing touchdowns. He’s also fifth in receiving yards among running backs, with 24 catches for 196 yards.
When it comes to all-purpose yards among NFL running backs, McCaffrey is No. 1 and Etienne is No. 2. If Etienne can do to the Steelers what McCaffrey did in Week 1, they won’t have much of a hope of coming away with a victory on Sunday.
“He can really explode,” Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said on Thursday. “He’s got tremendous speed, and for not a real big guy in terms of how some of the running backs are in the league, he runs behind his pads, and he’ll run through arm tackles in a heartbeat. The guy is impressive.”
Most NFL running backs are closer to the size of Chubb (5-foot-11, 227 pounds) or Las Vegas Raiders rusher Josh Jacobs (5-foot-10, 232 pounds). Etienne is wiry in comparison, checking in at 5-foot-10, 217 pounds. The Jaguars will move him all over the field to try to get him into mismatches, or create mismatches elsewhere for receivers Christian Kirk and Calvin Ridley, similarly to the way the 49ers use McCaffrey.
With McCaffrey in Week 1, the damage came on the ground. He rushed for 152 yards and contributed just 17 receiving yards. Obviously, that kind of stat line won’t work for the Steelers this week. But they can’t sell out so strongly to the run that they’re turning receivers, whether that’s Etienne or someone else, free.
“You have to pick your poison,” Austin said. “They have enough speed and everything at the skill positions that you can’t double everybody. You can’t allocate doubles to everybody. So, somebody at times has to hold up in coverage, and we just got to pick and choose when that happens.”