In many ways, the 2014 Steelers' defense can lay their woes at the feet of Mike Shanahan. Yes, it has all largely been his fault.
In Week 1, the Cleveland Browns entered the second half at Heinz Field on the precipice of a humiliating blowout, if not there already. But they leaned on their running game to spark a thrilling second-half comeback, and although it would ultimately fall just short, it was one hell of a spark.
The Browns well-executed zone running gashed the Steelers' defense to the tune of 183 yards and some ungodly YPC numbers for their running backs. In short, the Steelers' defense was thoroughly humiliated and the lesson was well and truly learned that stopping a zone run, especially the outside stretch, was going to be a problem.
The Browns' offensive coordinator, the mastermind behind what has been a surprisingly efficient offense, is Kyle Shanahan. No prizes for guessing, but he's Mike Shanahan's son. Some of you might recall that Mike Shanahan popularized zone running in the NFL way back when, in 1995 with the Denver Broncos. Shanahan Sr. and his offensive line coach Alex Gibbs employed a zone-running scheme to devastating effect, winning two Super Bowls and making household names out of running backs like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis. Thanks to their success, zone running is now featured in nearly every offensive playbook in the NFL.
Returning to the present day, Kyle obviously learned the tricks of the trade from his father (and another guy who we'll get to) and subsequently used those zone-running tricks to punish the Steelers in Week 1.
In Week 2, the Steelers were felled by the Ravens in a divisional curb-stomping. In the emergence of a trend, the Steelers gave up 150+ yards to another zone-running team whose offensive coordinator is the "other guy" I alluded to above, Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak's ties with the Shanahan clan go way back to when they were both coaching on the 1994 San Francisco 49ers team. When Shanahan went on to become the head coach of the Broncos in 1995, he would take Kubiak with him as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. This is when Kubiak would learn all he needed to know about a successful zone-running scheme, lessons he would keep with him and install when he got his first head coaching job, which just so happened to be with the Steelers' opponents tonight, the Houston Texans.
In a "ain't it funny how things work out" twist, Kubiac signed Mike Shanahan's son Kyle to be wide receivers coach during his second year on the job in Houston (2006). Kyle would further his instruction in the art of zone running while steadily working his way up toward the offensive coordinator's job, a position he would hold from 2008-2009, before stopping over in Washington with his father and, ultimately, humiliating the Steelers' defense again in Week 6 of the 2014 season.
In the early going of the Steelers' Week 6 tilt with the Browns, everything was going well with stopping the run. Through discipline and execution, the Steelers defense shut down the Browns' zone-running offense for the entire first quarter. But it all quickly went to hell. The final result was a 31-10 whipping, with the Browns racking up 153 yards on the ground.
So, in total, the Steelers have given up approximately a combined 556 yards in three games to teams who employ zone running extensively.
So what's the common theme here? It's Mike Shanahan; it's all his fault. Forget Cortez Allen as the scapegoat, it's Shanahan. Cam Thomas couldn't move a doctor's appointment? No matter, it's still Shanahan's fault.
But despite how terrible the Steelers' defense has been against this running scheme, and again especially against the outside zone stretch, they still have a chance to redeem themselves. They still have a chance to exorcise the demons of Mike Shanahan.
The Texans are a zone-running team and a good one at that. Sure they do other stuff, but owing to the legacy of their former head coach Gary Kubiak and the kind of roster he built, they're still primarily a zone-running team. They have one of the best one-cut runners in the NFL in Arian Foster and he's second in the AFC in rushing yards behind the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell.
I see no earthly reason why the Texans won't run the ball over and over and over, stretching it left and right until the Steelers defense steps up and proves they can stop it.
You only get so many chances in the NFL to prove a point and, if the Steelers allow another zone-running team to rack up 150+ yards, they will surely have failed to make theirs. Or rather, they will have made the point emphatically clear that they can't stop a zone run no matter how much time and coaching they commit to it.
In this sad scenario and as Halloween approaches, the ghost of the still-living Mike Shanahan continues to roam the sidelines haunting the 2014 Steelers defense, whilst Terrell Davis makes it into the Hall of Fame before Jerome Bettis.