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Mike Tomlin tries his best to explain the Steelers lackluster run defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers face another tough task of slowing down a run-heavy Panthers team in Week 15.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

When the Pittsburgh Steelers came out of their Week 9 bye, there was a lot of positivity coming from the team. The offense wasn’t turning it over, and the defense was taking it away. The offense was running the football with a level of consistency not seen in Pittsburgh in a long time, and the defense was standing up against the run.

That last aspect of the team, the defense stopping the run, is the latest facet of the team which seems to be faltering. Coming off the bye it looked like the team’s run defense had been shored up, but the past three weeks the defense has surrendered over 100 yards. The Week 14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was when the run defense’s woes seemed to hit its crescendo.

Take a look at the number of rushing yards allowed since the bye:

vs. NO: 29
vs. CIN: 62
at IND: 110
at ATL: 146
vs. BAL: 215

When you give up 215 yards on the ground, there are some questions which need answered. Mike Tomlin attempted to answer some of those questions on Tuesday during his weekly press conference.

“Often times, when you’re not successful it’s both the schematics and it’s performance, and I’d say it was both.” Tomlin said when asked about the run defense struggling, particularly vs. Baltimore. “I thought they won the war of attrition as the game wore on. I thought the pile fell the direction that they desired to. So, what could be second-and-eight was second-and-six. You do that consecutively, what could be third-and-four is third-and-two, and those downs are played out differently in the National Football League. I think over the course of time, I thought that was the state of it, increasingly so. We can do a better job of getting them in position to minimize that pile, we’ve got to come off blocks a little better and we’ve got to understand the weight of possession-down ball when you’re playing someone that’s playing the attrition game. You win a third-down-and-seven — we had a third-down-and-seven that we had a break down, they had a 25-yard gain, the drive extended, they ran the ball some more, they end up getting a field goal on that drive. We win that third-and-seven, we’re on the sideline. Those attrition plays that we discussed, whether or not that pile is falling forward and things of that nature, doesn’t exist.

“We’re very much going to be in that style of game again this week with the way Carolina is playing. So, we’ve got some schematic work ahead of us, we’ve got some physical work ahead of us. The pile needs to fall in the direction in which we desire it to fall. Outside of that attrition component of discussion, you’ve got to win the weighty downs. You win the weighty downs, good defenses spend a lot of time on the sideline not playing plays. That’s kind of the discussion regarding the attrition component of what transpired last week.”

The Carolina Panthers are a team which average 124.9 yards per game on the ground, which has them ranking 13th in the league. Not necessarily ground-breaking numbers, but the Panthers have seen a lot of success on the ground in recent weeks. The last two weeks the Panthers have had tremendous days in the ground game.

vs. DEN: 185
vs. SEA: 223

Tomlin knows the challenge which lies ahead, having to face yet another team with a ground-and-pound running style.

“We’ve played two run-centric teams with quarterback mobility. So, you play two teams like that, you’re going to have somebody ringing up yards on you in the running game.” said Tomlin. “If we played two teams that featured the passing game, you could be talking about six quarters of passing yards. So, I’m not desensitized to it, but I just understand it’s the nature of the style of ball we’ve been playing of late, and we’ve got another game that could be very similar this week. It does have our attention.”

What was the most disheartening aspect of the Steelers’ most recent loss was how the entire stadium knew the Ravens were going to run the ball, especially when third string quarterback Anthony Brown entered the game, yet the Steelers couldn’t stop it.

Is this a sign of the Steelers’ struggles? No, according to Tomlin it is just a part of the game.

“No. It’s football.” Tomlin said. “The ball snaps, you kick butt, or you get your butt kicked. Football is a legitimate humble man’s game. Those that participate in it, particularly at this level, playing and coaching, there’s not a lot of room for arrogance, man, because everybody gets their butt kicked every now and then in this thing. Whether it’s plays or sequences, hopefully not games, but it’s a game for the legitimate humble. We don’t talk about that enough.”

When you throw in the fact the team will be without Chris Wormley, who tore his ACL in the Week 14 game, the rest of the season, it just adds another dynamic to a struggling unit.

“It’s significant, but each week, man, we look at the guys that are available to us and we put together schematics to highlight who’s available.” Tomlin said of losing Wormley. “We work to minimize who’s not, so this week won’t be any different. We’ve had weeks where others are unavailable, and we’ve leaned more toward him, and so he’s going to be unavailable and we’re going to lean more toward others and their skill sets and what they might be able to provide us.”

It looked as if the Steelers’ run defense woes which plagued the team in 2021 were behind them. Unfortunately, that trend has seemed to creep up on the team once again. Is this a sign of things to come, or does it speak more to the quality of the team’s they’ve played and their running attack? This week’s game in Carolina will be very telling.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they press on throughout the 2022 regular season.