View Full Version : Steelers' Ferocious Run Defense Proving Nearly Impenetrable

01-01-2011, 02:12 PM
Steelers' Ferocious Run Defense Proving Nearly Impenetrable
By JJ Cooper

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau doesn't build poor run defenses -- in his nine years as the Steelers' coordinator, he has yet to lead a group that has finished worse than third in the league in run defense. But even in his long run of success, he's never had a group stuff the run as well as the 2010 Steelers.

With just one game left in the 2010 season, the Steelers are proving to be one of the best run defenses in NFL history. In a season where no other team has allowed less than 90 yards per game on the ground, Pittsburgh is giving up 64.1. The difference between the Steelers and the second-ranked Chargers' yards per game is less than the difference between San Diego and the 20th-ranked Bengals.

This year's Steelers defense may not be as impressive overall as the team's 2008 group (which finished first in the league in run, pass and total defense), and it's a step below the Steelers' 1976 unit that ranks among the best defenses of all time (along with the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears). But when it comes to forcing teams to give up on running the ball, this year's group has few equivalents.

When it comes to run defense, the Steelers are a notch above the rest of the league this year. Here's a look at them and their closest competitor in several rushing stats.
Category Steelers Next Best
Yards/Attempt 3.0 3.6
Yards/Game 64.1 90.3
Rushing Yards 961 1,354
20+ Yard Runs 1 4
Rushing TDs 5 5
First Down Pct. 17.4 17.7
Yards per game isn't the only way that this year's Steelers are standing out. With a strong effort this weekend, Pittsburgh could become just the fifth team in the past 20 years to allow less than 3.0 yards per carry (Pittsburgh currently is exactly 3.0 ypc). And because of that success (and the Steelers ability to jump out to leads), teams have often given up even trying to run against Pittsburgh. Over the past 25 years, only the 1991 Saints defense (20.9 attempts against) has faced fewer than 21 rushing attempts per game. Pittsburgh could equal or better the Saints' mark if Cleveland has 18 or fewer carries on Sunday.

A lot of the credit for the Steelers ability to stuff the run is because of LeBeau's scheme. The foundation of every LeBeau defense is to take away the running game. The theory is that, by stopping the run, Pittsburgh will get its opponent into a lot of second- and third-and-long situations. To do that, Pittsburgh plays a lot of zone defenses with the cornerbacks lined up off the line. Very rarely will Pittsburgh ask a cornerback to play bump-and-run defense on first or second down. The reason is simple -- Pittsburgh's cornerbacks are expected to play a vital role in ensuring that all runs are funneled back to the inside; it's nearly impossible to do that if you are trying to handle a man in bump and run coverage. This play against the Titans gives an example of how hard it is to get outside against Pittsburgh.

Here's a look at how team's No. 1 backs have fared against Pittsburgh this year
Week Rusher Yards Yearly Avg
Wk 1 Michael Turner 42 87
Wk 2 Chris Johnon 34 88
Wk 3 LeGarrette Blount 37 78
Wk 4 Ray Rice 20 76
Wk 6 Peyton Hillis 41 78
Wk 7 Ricky Williams 48 45
Wk 8 Chris Ivory 7 62
Wk 9 Cedric Benson 54 71
Wk 10 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 87 62
Wk 11 Darren McFadden 14 89
Wk 12 Fred Jackson 59 60
Wk 13 Ray Rice 32 76
Wk 14 Cedric Benson 19 71
Wk 15 LaDanian Tomlinson 49 51
Wk 16 Jonathan Stewart 71 57
The Steelers also need excellent play from their outside linebackers to make the run defense work. It happens that James Harrison is arguably the league's best run-stuffing outside linebacker. He and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley do an excellent job of "setting the corner," which, once again, makes it nearly impossible to bust big runs outside.

It's been working extremely well this year. Pittsburgh has allowed one run of longer than 20 yards all year (a 24-yard run by Michael Bush in Week 11). They've allowed only one other run all year longer than 15 yards.

The Steelers have managed to avoid facing the NFL's leading rusher Arian Foster or No. 2 rusher Jamaal Charles, but they have faced a rather impressive group of backs this year. As the chart at right shows, very few running backs have been able to to come close to their yearly average against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh has managed to pull off this feat despite losing starting defensive end Aaron Smith for 10 games, starting defensive end Brett Keisel for five games and nose tackle Casey Hampton for a game. Strong safety Troy Polamalu has also missed two games.

In the past, Smith's absence has proven to0 much for the Steelers' run defense to handle (the Steelers gave up 130-plus yards rushing in three of the final four games of the season in 2007 after losing Smith). But this year, 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood and veteran Nick Eason have played capably in Smith and Kiesel's absences.

Pittsburgh's run defense may not be enough to carry the team to the Super Bowl (its pass defense and porous offensive line will determine if the Steelers can advance through the AFC). But it is a pretty safe bet that run defense will not be a problem for Pittsburgh as the playoffs move along.

01-01-2011, 02:16 PM
I don't understand how Green-Ellis got 87 yards. That was the worst coached game of the season on all levels.

01-01-2011, 02:39 PM
I don't understand how Green-Ellis got 87 yards. That was the worst coached game of the season on all levels.

He got a bulk of those yards early in the game too. The Patriots pretty much passed the rest of the game to rub it in.

01-01-2011, 02:39 PM
time for the pass defense to follow