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Why the fix for the Steelers run defense is more than just Stephon Tuitt

The Pittsburgh Steelers run defense was bad in 2021, but it isn’t just an easy fix.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud organization, and the history of the organization has been built around the defense since the 1970s. The Steel Curtain, Blitzburgh, the vaunted defenses of the early 2000s. All of these defenses were based on a very specific principle...stop the run.

Dick LeBeau used to preach to his defenses how job No. 1 was to make a team one-dimensional. Once you stopped the run, you had the opposition right where you wanted them. It was an opportunity for you to pin your ears back and get after the quarterback when they were in obvious passing situations.

Anyone who watched the 2021 defense knows this unit was far from a dominant run defense. In fact, they were the league’s worst when it came to stopping the run. Just look at the rush defense statistics and rankings for 2021:

Run Defense
Yards Per Game: 146.1 (32nd)
Rush Yards: 2,483 (32nd)
Average Per Rush: 5.0 yards (32nd)

What might be even more astounding, other than the last place ranking in all of the above categories, was how the run defense was actually a Top 10 unit after the first quarter of the season. It was the Sunday night game vs. the Seattle Seahawks which seemed to be the straw which broke the camel’s back. After that game, the run defense went from good, to average, to bad to even worse.

Now, with the offseason in full swing and the 2022 league year about to begin in just a few weeks, many are looking at one player to help come back and be the cure-all for the run defense.

That player would be Stephon Tuitt.

While Tuitt is a tremendous player, and his body of work speaks for itself, the issues in the run defense are far more than one player. Just last week General Manager (GM) Kevin Colbert spoke about the run defense, and what needs to happen for the unit to improve.

“When you look at the defensive front seven, obviously with Stephon not being available, losing Tyson Alualu when we did, with Devin Bush coming off a serious knee injury, with Vince Williams deciding to retire.” Colbert said.

As Colbert speaks, you can see the near perfect storm of what truly ailed the Steelers’ run defense last year. Tuitt was never able to play, Alualu was lost in Week 2 for the season and Devin Bush never regained his 2020 pre-injury form. But that doesn’t mean the Steelers didn’t at least try to band-aid the unit together.

“As Coach (Mike Tomlin) says ‘You’re adding parts to a moving train’ when we acquired (Joe) Schobert from Jacksonville. It’s different, and it didn’t come together as good as it could have.” Colbert added. “There were some games when it was very good, and there were some games when it wasn’t. And that goes back to the consistency, or lack thereof, that I mentioned earlier.”

There were games when the Steelers’ run defense stood tall, mainly against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens as well as the Cleveland Browns, but the games where things went wrong far outweighed games where it went right. Either way, the team knows what they need to do this offseason to fix the issues, and it goes far beyond just Tuitt’s potential return.

“We’re not going to make excuses.” Colbert said. “I think we would have been better had we had Stephon and Tyson and a healthy Devin Bush. I know Devin can play better because he has played better albeit when he was younger and healthier, and it’s not usual for someone coming off an ACL to not be 100 percent right away. We’re hoping that he can come back and have a better 2022.”

In our society, everyone wants to point the finger at one person and blame them for anything which goes wrong. The same can be said about fans of football. The Steelers’ run defense was awful, so people want to play the blame game.

Blame Keith Butler!

Blame Tuitt’s absence!

Blame Devin Bush!

The fact remains football is the ultimate team sport. You need all 11 players doing their job to reach success. For Devin Bush to be at his best, he needs a dominant defensive front to keep offensive linemen from climbing to the next level and taking him out of the play. For the defensive front to be dominant, they need to have their top players available to them for the full season.

All of these factors, and more, were the reasons why the Steelers’ rush defense was the last in the league. It wasn’t just Tuitt. It wasn’t just Bush. It wasn’t just injuries. It wasn’t just coaching. It was all of it combined.

Moving forward, the hope is the team gets Tuitt back from his year away from the team, they hope Alualu can pick up where he left off before breaking his leg in 2021, they hope Bush can re-gain his form in the early stages of 2020, and the hope is the addition of Brian Flores and promotion of Teryl Austin can help get the run defense back on track.

It is a tall task, but one thing is for certain, if the Steelers have championship aspirations in the future they’ll have to see better results from their run defense next season.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the new league year and the 2022 NFL Draft.