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How much does the Steelers run defense need to improve in 2022?

After giving up the most rushing yards in the NFL last season, and the most in franchise history, how much of an improvement will be enough?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

As the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 NFL season rolled on, their ability to stop the run continued to be an issue. Although they were in the top 10 in the NFL when it came to run defense early in the season, the Steelers saw themselves slowly falling to the bottom of the league after having four separate games where they gave up over 200 yards on the ground. By the time the regular season was over, the Steelers and surrendered 2,483 rushing yards on 498 attempts during their 17 games.

It was only the fourth time in franchise history the Steelers gave up over 2,000 yards in a season, and only the second time since the NFL merger. The last season the Steelers had surrendered more than 2,000 rushing yards was in 1989 when they gave up 2,008 yards. So to say that the Steelers inability to stop the run was at an all-time low, it has the data to support the statement.

But how important is it for the Steelers to fix the run defense in 2022?

When it comes to a new season every year in the NFL, the goal is always improvement. The Pittsburgh Steelers should not simply be looking to get better at stopping the run, they should be looking to be better on defense all around. They should also look to improve on offense, and on special teams. Improvement is always the goal.

When it comes to the Steelers record-setting season in rushing yards surrendered, how much did it affect their success? Obviously giving up a lot of rushing yards is not a good thing, but as much as I like to analyze various statistics the only one that ultimately matters is the number in the win column. And even though the Steelers gave up a lot of rushing yards, it wasn’t always at the cost of victory.

Looking at the four games the Steelers surrendered 200 yards rushing or more, they ended up going 2-1-1. The Steelers were victorious over the Tennessee Titans in Week 15 as well as the Baltimore Ravens in Week 18, the game in which the Steelers gave up the most rushing yards during the 2021 season. While the Steelers did fall in Week 14 to the Minnesota Vikings when they surrendered 242 rushing yards, they also tied the Detroit Lions when they stacked up 229 yards on the ground in Week 10. While the loss and the tie to teams who did not make the postseason in 2021 are very undesirable, taking down the eventual number one seed in the AFC as well as a division rival while still surrounding 200 yards in a game made for an interesting feat.

When it comes to the Lions game, it’s a bit of an anomaly as Ben Roethlisberger was ruled out due to going on the Reserve/COVID-19 List Saturday evening before the 1 PM kickoff on Sunday. But even in that game, the Steelers only surrendered 77 passing yards on the day.

So in today’s NFL, can a team still be successful while surrendering a lot of rushing yards throughout the season?

Although the Steelers were the 32nd as a team when it came to rushing yards in the NFL in 2021, they were 9th in the NFL when it came to passing yards surrendered. So even though the Steelers gave up a lot of rushing yards, holding down the amount of yards a team put up through the air was beneficial last season. So if the Steelers are to vastly improve in stopping the run, what will also be important is to not have a drop off in their pass defense.

Another interesting way to look at the Steelers giving up so many rushing yards last season is by looking at the number of teams they faced who were at the top of the NFL for the entire season when it came to rushing. The Steelers faced four of the top six rushing teams in the NFL in 2021 for a total of six games as they played both the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns twice since they are in the same division. So part of the reason the Steelers likely gave up a lot of rushing yards was because they were playing some of the top rushing teams. What’s even more interesting is the Pittsburgh Steelers went 6–0 in those six games facing the top six rushing teams.

Breaking it down even more, the Steelers played nine games against teams that were in the top 14 in rushing in the NFL in 2021. What happened to those nine games? They were the nine wins the Steelers had last season. The highest ranked team in terms of rushing yards in 2021 who the Steelers lost to were the Kansas City Chiefs who were ranked 16th. So the Steelers were 9–0 against the top 14 rushing teams in the NFL last season and were 0–7–1 against the bottom 17 teams in terms of rushing yards in 2021.

There are a number of theories that could account for this anomaly. Whether it be the Steelers gave up too many rushing yards to teams who don’t typically run the ball well or whatever explanation one may want to give, it does go to show that stopping the run is not the end-all it once was in the NFL. For example, if a team is leading by four points with less than a minute remaining in a game and must get a stop, are fans worried about being ranked last in run defense or are they thankful that their team is prepared to stop the pass?

So where do the Pittsburgh Steelers go from here? How much emphasis should they put on stopping the run in 2022?

Personally, I want the Steelers to get better at all aspects of a game, and stopping the run is an area that has a lot of room for improvement. But one thing I would not do is to ‘sell out’ to stop the run. Even giving up yardage last year, the Steelers still managed to win games through effective pass defense. They should not be complacent with being last in the league in rushing yards, but going from the bottom to the top does not have to occur in order to find success. It’s much more important in the pass-happy NFL for teams to have a good pass defense and seeing the Steelers falter in this way would likely cause much more harm.

Next season, I expect the Steelers to perhaps struggle to stop the run once again. Do I think they’re going to be giving up 200 yard rushing games? I surely hope not. Do I think they’re going to surrender a significant amount of yardage? I do. And it all comes down to the matchups.

Last year the Steelers had six games against four of the top six rushing teams in the NFL. In 2022, the Steelers have eight games against the top eight teams when looking at the 2021 rushing statistics. Not only do the Steelers still have two games against the third-ranked Baltimore Ravens as well as two more against the fourth-ranked Cleveland Browns, the Steelers also play the number one rushing offense of 2021 in the Philadelphia Eagles as well as the number two rushing team from last season in the Indianapolis Colts. While 2022 is a new year and these teams may not be the rushing juggernauts they were last season, all we have is last year‘s data to go on at this time.

So do the Pittsburgh Steelers need to improve their run defense for 2022? Absolutely. As I said before, teams always want to improve in everything moving forward.

How much do the Steelers need to improve their run defense for 2022?

This answer could be simple or complex. But to give my simplest answer that I can…

Enough to win games.

This was the topic of the most recent Steelers Stat Geek podcast, which can be heard here: