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Old 09-23-2007, 06:41 AM   #1
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Default The next great challenge for the Steelers' defense

The next great challenge for the Steelers' defense
Sunday, September 23, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The names read like a Pro Bowl roster:

LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor.

Not counting Willie Parker, they were about the best running backs the AFC had to offer last season. They included the top two runners in the NFL, three of the top four in the AFC and all of them with more than 1,100 yards rushing.

Not one gained 100 yards against the Steelers when they played them, including two games apiece by Rudi Johnson and Jamal Lewis.

That's nothing new, of course, because the Steelers enter today's game against San Francisco at Heinz Field with a stretch of 27 games without allowing a century runner, including playoffs. They've allowed just one to hit 100 yards against them in the past 52 games.

Today comes another challenge for them in the person of Frank Gore, who led the NFC with 1,695 yards rushing last season for San Francisco.

"What did he have, 1,600 yards last year? He's a good running back," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "We'll have our hands full."

They hope their hands are full from tackling Gore. The last runner to rush for 100 yards against the Steelers was Edgerrin James in the 11th game of the 2005 season in Indianapolis when he ran 29 times for 124 yards. The last previous runner to do so was Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson in the fourth game of the 2004 season. That's also the last time an opponent ran for 100 in Heinz Field. Johnson ran 24 times for 123 yards in a Bengals loss to the Steelers.

The stretch of 52 games with one 100-yard runner allowed compares to the great defenses in Baltimore which went 50 games, including playoffs, with no 100-yard rusher from the end of the 1998 season to near the end of the 2001 season. The Ravens' streak was the longest since Philadelphia went 53 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher from 1989-92.

The Steelers have played a 3-4 defense for the past 25 years and almost always go into games with their first goal to stop the run.

"There are two schools of thought and they've been around since when I played," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Some coaches believe in just get off and get upfield and penetrate and play the run on the way to the quarterback. A lot of people coach that way and a lot of systems are built on that.

"We of course belong to the latter school which is you have to stop the run every week. That's how I think you win. I think you have to run the ball and stop the run."

It helps, LeBeau noted, to have the personnel to pull it off. The Steelers have what may be the best-three man line in the game, starting with Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and one-time Pro Bowl end Smith.

"That's what we do, stop the run," said Hampton. "It's definitely a point of pride and we go out with the intention of not giving up 100 yards."

It's probably no coincidence that Cleveland's Jamal Lewis looked to be over the hill when he ran 11 times for 35 yards in the opener against the Steelers. In his second game, Lewis ran 27 times for 216 yards against Cincinnati. The Steelers even used a new defense to help stop Lewis, trotting out a true four-man line in passing situations to give them more beef up front.

"It's been a tradition around here for a long time, before I even thought about being a Pittsburgh Steeler," said free safety Ryan Clark, in his second season here after coming from Washington as a free agent. "That's what they've been doing, stopping the run. That's what we're built on -- defense."

It's not just the front seven who are involved, either. Steelers cornerbacks, unlike many of their contemporaries around the league, must tackle or, to put it in football terms, come up and support the run.

"That's just part of the job when you come here," Smith said. "You have to tackle. I don't think a lot of teams do that with their corners."

The tradition stretches longer than the current streak. The Steelers have allowed 13 runners to gain 100 yards since 2000, fewest in the NFL. Baltimore is second with 18.

"We don't think about that,'' Hampton said of the streak. "We just go out there and try to shut it down the best we can. Hopefully, we can keep it up forever.''
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