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Rush defense must return to dominant self

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By the numbers, the Steelers have had a long standing tradition of great rush defenses. After a sluggish 2013, the Steelers defense will look to return to its place among the best run stoppers in the NFL.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The kings of the run.

That phrase accurately described many of the Steelers defenses of the past, and hopefully will describe the 2014 Steelers.

I specifically remember that  phrase used by various sports broadcasters back in the late 90's. The Steelers were especially stout against the run in those days and would continue to be (for the most part) during the Bil Cowher era. After allowing 4.2 yards per rush in 1992, Cowher's defense allowed a feeble 3.4 yards per carry in 1993 and '94, 3.6 in '95,3.4 in '96, 3.3 in '97 and 3.4 in 1998. Pittsburgh won four division titles during that span while advancing to three AFC Championship games and appearing in Super Bowl XXX.

Facing NFL rushing champ Emmitt Smith and the "Great Wall of Dallas", Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Brenston Buckner, Ray Seals, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson, and Willie Williams held Dallas to 56 yards on 22 carries in that game, rounding out a putrid 2.2 yards per carry. Taking away his 23 yard carry early in the game, Smith rushed for 26 yards on 17 tries.

Two years later, Broncos running back Terrell Davis scored a short range touchdown in Week 15 in Pittsburgh. Dick Enberg, NBC's top football play-by-play man at the time, quickly announced to the audience: "That's the first rushing touchdown allowed at home by Pittsburgh's defense in the last 60 quarters." If you do that math, that's exactly 14 whole games in which Pittsburgh's defense did not allow a rushing touchdown at home. I have no idea if that's an NFL record, but regardless, that's pretty impressive.

The kings of the run phrase wasn't just in regards to the defense. Pittsburgh's offense traditionally was among the league's best running the football as well. In 2001, while the Steelers rush defense allowed just 3.5 yards per carry and a mere five touchdowns, Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart and the rest of  Pittsburgh's rushing attack totaled 2,774 yards on the ground and 17 touchdowns with an average of 4.8 yards per carry.

When people talk about the 2008 Steelers defense being statistically one of the best ever, they aren't kidding. Let's first revisit that 2001 unit that helped Pittsburgh go 13-3 and finish just seven points shy of advancing to Super Bowl XXXVI. That defense allowed 2,942 yards passing with 19 touchdowns and 16 interceptions; still strong numbers but mortal nonetheless. The '08 squad, anchored by Defensive MVP James Harrison and future Defensive MVP Troy Polamalu, allowed just 3.3 yards per rush and seven touchdowns while also unleashing one of the most devastating pass defenses ever.  Despite facing both Manning brothers and Dallas gunslingers Tony Romo and Phillip Rivers that season, Pittsburgh permitted just 2,511 passing yards and 12 touchdowns while collecting 20 interceptions. Given that we're in the golden age of passing, that's astounding.

An unfortunate trend occurred at the turn of the century. The Steelers defense allowed 4.0 yards per carry in '99 and 4.3 in '00 as the team missed the playoffs both seasons. Even in the advanced passing age we live in today, if you stop the run, your percentage for success rises significantly.

Those that would argue that the 90's Steelers rushing success was simply because teams ran the ball more in those days as compared to today would be surprised by the statistics that prove otherwise. The '97 Steelers team that allowed 3.3 yards per rush faced 403 carries. The 2013 Steelers allowed 4.3 yards per rush-the most by a Steelers team since the '99 squad that went 6-10 allowed the same number-on 433 attempts. The '13 Steelers also allowed 18 rushing touchdowns, while Pittsburgh's offense scored just nine rushing touchdowns while averaging 3.5 yards per rush on 394 attempts. Given those numbers, an 8-8 record doesn't sound that bad.

Pittsburgh's brass has taken notice of this slide, and took serious action this past offseason. The Steelers drafted two defensive linemen along with linebacker Ryan Shazier with their first pick. The team also hopes that an improved Cameron Hayward- who started 13 games last season-will help restore Pittsburgh's once feared rush defense.

On offense, the addition of former 1,000-yard back LeGarrett Blount and second year back Le'Veon Bell should revive Steelers running game in hopes of making Pittsburgh the kings of the run once again.