We've watched NFL offenses change their approach to scoring points within the past few years. The days of ground-and-pound football were with big passing plays downfield. Quarterbacks are expected to lead their team to victory using their arms. The Steelers are familiar with football's new trend. He found favor in George Pickens, who terrorized defenses with a spectacular throw downfield.
Defending the run is still a vital part of the game. Offensive coordinators work hard to disguise their play calls. They sprinkle in rushes to catch defenses off-guard. Terryl Austin's defense stood its ground against opposing rushers last season. They ranked 10th in run defense rating (70.3), but desire to improve for the new campaign.
Steelers couldn't rely on linebackers in run support last season
Maintaining an elite rush defense is noteworthy, but expected in Pittsburgh. The franchise developed its reputation by playing smash-mouth football.
Terryl Austin's unit finished well compared to other groups around the league. He had players from different positions contributing to defeating opposing rushing attacks. Mikah Fitzpatrick was the furthest man from the line of scrimmage but earned the highest run defense grade (82.2).
Weakness in the second level caused the Steelers extra heartache during the 2022 campaign. Loses to the Patriots and Browns exposed Pittsburgh's linebackers. Devin Bush and Myles Jack were supposed to be the best tandem Pittsburgh fans witnessed in quite some time. Instead, they struggled to fill run gaps - leading to extended drives for the opposition. Austin's starting backers ranked within the bottom ten players in run defense rating, combining for a 54.25 average.
Steelers use the off-season to improve their linebackers
Lack of physicality allowed rushers to earn more yards than fans were accustomed to witnessing. Exhibitions against the Browns, Bills, and Patriots were lost due partly to a lack of run support. Austin's unit combined for a 50.1 rating in those games. Linebackers failed to flow to the football - creating running lanes for professional sprinters.
An off-season search for a solution to a poor rush defense pointed the Steelers in the right direction. They signed Cole Holcomb to a 3 year $18 million contract. They hope he can clog the middle. He earned a 69.4 run defense rating last season - 15.15 points higher than their Bush and Jack tandem.
Only time will tell how productive the Steelers' defense will be this season. Their improvements present new faces a chance to shine. Elandon Roberts will be someone to keep an eye on. He knows to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and could become an enforcer in gaps on the line of scrimmage. Roberts earned an 89.2 pass rush rating last season. He recorded five sacks and 70 tackles.
I expect the Steelers to improve on both sides of the ball this season. Their coaches are top-tier and rely on their veterans to set the tone. It's an honor to wear a Steelers uniform. Even newcomers understand and respect the franchise's history. They will come in focused, willing to raise the bar for seasons to come.