I wanted to take the opportunity to elaborate on some points that I made in my MMQB. The two glaring issues going on with the Steelers right now having to do with the 2-2 start are the offensive line and the lack of run defense. I’m not as worried about the 2-2 record as some fans are. It’s not a horrible spot to be in, especially for a team that played 3 out of their first 4 games on the road. It is, however, not the best spot to be in a competitive conference like the AFC or the AFC North division where the Ratbirds are just waiting in the wings to dethrone us as the perennial champs. But, after a quarter of the season, what is the biggest issue needing turned around at this point? I think it’s the run defense. Here’s why.
The Steelers are currently ranked 22 out of 32 at stopping the run. Last season, the Steelers held the #1 ranking in the rush defense for the majority of the season allowing a stingy average of 62.8 rushing yards a game. The most frightening statistic might be the fact that going into this season the Steelers had allowed just one 100+ yard rusher against then in 50 previous games. So far this season, they’ve allowed two 100+ yard rushing games out of four.
Even though this has clearly turned in to a passing league, rushing is still the key to consistent victory. Control the line of scrimmage and you control everything. On a positive note, the Steelers rank #1 against the pass so far after 4 weeks. Troy Polamalu ranks #1 on the team with the most tackles. He and our other Safety, Ryan Clark, account for the majority of the tackles for the defense so far. Another glaring issue, besides the lack of takeaways, is the fact that the Steelers are averaging just 3.5 sacks a game. Ike Taylor has stepped up big time so far this year by showcasing himself as a “shut-down corner”, aiding in the success of our pass defense. But, if the d-line and linebackers aren’t controlling the line of scrimmage and not getting to the quarterback, the secondary is forced to step up and prevent the long plays that could be crushing us right now.
I for one, am used to the offensive line being talked about as sub-par for the past several years. After going to 3 Super Bowls in the past 6 years and walking away with 2 Lombardi Trophy’s, I’ll take the criticism of the offensive line. I understand that Ben makes their job all that harder with his mobility when they might not even know where he is while they’re trying to hold their blocks, so if their man gets free they could be leading him right into Roethlisberger without even knowing it. Ben holds onto the ball to long and the offensive line is weak. This is what we’ve been griping about for the past 6 years. What I’m not used to seeing, is runs like the 42 touchdown run Arian Foster got against us last Sunday.
The Steelers defense has a big test coming into Heinz Field this Sunday against Chris Johnson and the Titans. Johnson, who held out the majority of the shortened off-season and training camp in contract negotiations, has just 199 rushing yards so far and the Titans are ranked last in rushing. This is no reason to think that this might not be Johnson’s break-out game. Arian Foster was seeing his first significant playing time of the season against the Steelers and he produced 155 rushing yards. Last season, the Titans came into Heinz Field in Week 2 and the Steelers defense forced 7 turnovers and halted Johnson’s then streak of 100 yard rushing games at 12, holding him to 34 yards on 16 carries.
I’m not trying to minimize the issues on the offensive line. The injuries have hurt an already weak line and Ben is wearing a walking boot already in Week 5. It would be very unrealistic to think that the addition of Max Starks back to the line would make a major impact right away, he had his first practice in 11 months on Wednesday. I know the importance of correcting the issues, or at least improving the issues that have plagued the offensive line so far this season. Ben’s health and longevity of his career depends on how protected he can be. But, I’ve been a Steeler fan all my life and I have a soft spot for a tough defense. Trust me, as readers and my fellow writers know, I will throw down with anyone who questions my quarterback’s ability to lead a team to success. Maybe I’m just a traditionalist when it comes to the Steelers. But while I believe whole heartedly that Ben is without a doubt an elite quarterback and we don’t have 3 Super Bowl appearances in the past 6 years without him, our defense is what the Steelers are known for.
I don’t subscribe to the “The Steelers Defense is too old” mentality just yet either. Ziggy Hood has been just as ineffective as Aaron Smith at controlling the line, stopping the run, and allowing the LB’s and safeties to get to the quarterback. Maybe all the criticism so far will inspire a turnaround. The defense certainly started last season inspired by having to go the first four weeks without Roethlisberger and spending the rest of the season under a microscope for their “illegal hits”. I know the solutions are a bit more technical than, “They just need to get fired up”, but geez, they seriously need to get fired up.
This Sunday the Steelers defense will play without Aaron Smith and James Harrison. Harrison will be out for weeks recovering from eye surgery for a broken orbital bone. No time like the present for the rest of the defense to step up and quiet all the critics.
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