Scenario: The Pittsburgh Steelers will finish the 2014 season among the top 10 teams in fewest rushing yards allowed.
Why it will happen: It rarely does not happen. The results of 2013 (1,849 yards allowed, 21st in the NFL) are an aberration from the typical Steelers' defensive success. It was also the first time the Steelers' run defense finished out of the top 10 since Mike Tomlin became the head coach in 2007, and it was the most yards they allowed on the ground since 2003, the last time they finished out of the top 10.
Certainly, history alone doesn't tackle ball carriers. The commitment the team has made over the years to stopping the run has always resulted in an average of less than 100 yards per game. Rest assured, that will be an emphasis in training camp this July.
A reassertion of that philosophy is needed, but the team also brought in new horses to pull that sled. Cam Thomas, a free agent acquisition this offseason, looks to fill in the role of Al Woods, who signed with Tennessee this offseason, and second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt already shows, at a young age, the kind of strength and technique necessary to anchor the right defensive end position. The return of Sean Spence and the first round selection of Ryan Shazier can succeed behind a stronger defensive line, leveraging their vision and speed to flow to the ball carrier.
Why it won't happen: Thomas wasn't brought in to play every down, and Tuitt is still a rookie playing a position very few rookies ever have played under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Even with a boost in strength and athleticism, there's a learning curve at work, and that could mean taking a few lumps particularly early in the season. While free safety Ryan Clark isn't the athlete newly signed Mike Mitchell is, Clark was a smart and strong run supporter. Mitchell will be a victim of that learning curve as well.
The reality may simply be the Steelers will just face more rushing attempts than most of the rest of the league. With a pending suspension to Josh Gordon in Cleveland, the Browns may simply run the ball 40 times a game. Baltimore brought in the zone rushing scheme with new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and Cincinnati drafted another running back with a high pick and has said they plan to emphasize the run more this season.
With rushing attempts dwindling around the rest of the league, the four teams of the AFC North may simply run all over each other, thus creating something of a statistical aberration. That doesn't speak to the likely success or failure of any of those teams, just that they may see more rushing yards against them because that's the weapon of choice of their most common opponents.
Keys: The return of a bigger Steve McLendon may be at the root of success or failure for the Steelers. McLendon is a quick, explosive player, but he's added bulk this offseason in an effort to help handle the growing dominance of interior offensive lines in the AFC North. McLendon will be on the field in early down running situations, and if he's able to win a large amount of his 1-on-1s, it will discourage running the ball while he's on the field. That can lead to a reduction in yards allowed.
McLendon was a solid, not dominant, player in 2013, but if he's able to step up his game enough to help provide support for the transitioning defensive line, the retooled linebackers group and secondary can help put a huge dent in their rushing average over the last two seasons.