Steelers have best run defense ever, so far

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The Steelers have lost both of their starting defensive ends to injuries for various lengths of time, yet their defense continues to treat running backs as if they were tree limbs fed to a wood shredder.

For the only time in NFL history, a defense has not allowed more than 75 yards rushing in any one of its first eight games. That Steelers run defense has allowed just 58.25 yards on average, which at the midway point of their season is on pace to beat the 2000 Baltimore Ravens' 16-game NFL record of 60.625.

They have another half-season to go, and they will play two of the best running teams in the league between now and Christmas -- No. 2 Oakland (162.2 ypg) and the No. 4 New York Jets (148.0).

They probably will not have defensive end Aaron Smith back for either, and defensive end Brett Keisel will miss his third game in the past four tonight with a hamstring injury. Smith always has been a major factor why the run defense is so consistently good, so it may not hold up in the second half the way it did through eight games. That is why coach Mike Tomlin is holding a roster spot for him, for a possible playoff run.

They have done it against some of the best runners the NFL has to offer. Atlanta's Michael Turner, fifth in the league, had 42 yards against them on 19 carries. Tennessee's Chris Johnson, sixth in the NFL, had 34 yards on 16 carries. No. 11 Ray Rice of Baltimore had 20 yards on eight tries. No. 13 Peyton Hillis of Cleveland had 41 yards on 12 carries.

"Statistically, the numbers are very good," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Just a couple years ago when we were No. 1 in everything, we were a tremendous rush defense team. I think there's a lot of football left to play but these guys are doing a good job against the run."

Offenses often try early, then give up.

Said Troy Polamalu, "They're not giving up but they are changing their tact; they're passing to run the ball. That's why you seen a lot of high percentage passes like these 'now' passes that you're seeing. They'd rather throw 'nows' than run against our defense."

The Patriots do a lot of that, throwing 'nows' or quick, short passes instead of handing off to a back. New England ranks 15th in the NFL with an average of 107.1 yards per game.

"They're getting Fred Taylor back so I'm sure they're going to try to run the football,'' said defensive lineman Chris Hoke. "Everybody tries to run the football and then they figured, 'Hey, we have a better chance throwing the football.'"

Taylor is both a footnote and a blow to that Steelers rush defense.

Ray Rice is the only back to top 100 yards against them in the past 42 games; he ran for 141 against them last Dec. 14 in Heinz Field, a Steelers victory. Taylor was the previous runner to do it with 147 on Dec. 16, 2007, when Jacksonville won in Heinz Field.

Tackling the tackle and other questions

Questions: Where would the Steelers be right now without Flozell Adams? Why don't they pay more attention to tackles in the draft? Why haven't they extended the contract of Willie Colon?

And one more that goes against everything "The Blind Side" told us: Is it really that important to have a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle to be successful?

Without Adams, they would be starting Tony Hills and Jonathan Scott at the two tackles. Rookie Chris Scott, who has practiced a total of three weeks since he went on physically unable to perform list to open training camp because of a broken foot, would be No. 3.

The last starting tackle they drafted was Colon, in 2006 in the fourth round. Maybe Chris Scott, a fifth-rounder this year, will develop. But the Steelers have paid little attention to what many believe is the second-most important position on offense.

They have drafted no tackles above the fourth round since Trai Essex in 2005 and he is now a starting guard and emergency tackle.

They have drafted more tight ends in the first three rounds since 2005 than they have tackles -- 2-1 with Heath Miller in the first round in 2005 and Matt Spaeth in the third round in 2007. Drafting Spaeth was a curious move because they knew Miller was going to be their top man forever and they were using a third-round pick on a player who would never be more than their No. 2 tight end.

In the meantime, they ignored the tackle position. Kevin Colbert has done a great job in his position the past 10 years and has two Super Bowl rings to show for it, and it may not have been his sole decision to ignore offensive tackles in the draft. He also has found good value at that position in the second through fourth rounds counting Essex, Colon, Max Starks (third, 2004) and Marvel Smith (second, 2000).

And perhaps the strategy has been correct because they've had good success while basically ignoring the position. Make that great success, if you include how they've ignored the left position throughout their history.

Over the past 13 years, the Steelers have, in the first round, drafted one center, two guards and one tight end, but no tackle. The last time they drafted a tackle on the first round was 1996, Jamain Stephens, both a right tackle and a bust. They last drafted a good tackle in the first round in 1992, Leon Searcy, another right tackle. The last time they drafted a left tackle in the first round was Tom Ricketts in 1991 and two weeks into training camp they moved him to guard. The next previous tackle they drafted on the first round came before Chuck Noll -- 1968, when they drafted Mike Taylor of Southern California with their first pick and he too was a bust. His last season was Noll's first, 1969.

The Steelers then have never --- in the history of their modern football -- drafted a good left tackle in the first round. They drafted precisely one good tackle in the first round and Searcy fled after four years as soon as he became a free agent.

Colon may follow Searcy's path. They probably will lose him unless they overwhelm him with an offer between the end of the season and the start of free agency, if it ever starts under the cloudy CBA. There is no way a new CBA will keep Colon as a restricted free agent one more year.

But who says you need to find good tackles in the first round and who says you even need a Pro Bowl left tackle to protect the quarterback or right tackle for that matter? In their recorded Pro Bowl history that goes back to 1951, the Steelers have had one left tackle make that all-star game, Marvel Smith -- once in 2004.

They haven't exactly been well represented with right tackles either. Frank Varrichione made four Pro Bowls in the 1950s, Larry Brown made one and Tunch Ilkiin two in the 1980s, and Smith had his one. That adds up to eight total Pro Bowls for Steelers tackles over the past 60 years. Mike Webster made nine by himself.

Maybe they know what they're doing, and maybe having a nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle is not all it's cracked up to be, because no team has won more Super Bowls than the Steelers' six. And during all those championship seasons, they did not have one tackle make a Pro Bowl.

Go ahead, run!

Best defenses vs. the run entering Week 10:

Team Ypg.

1. Steelers 58.3

2. Giants 80.9

3. Bears 83.9

4. Jets 87.4

5. Chargers 89.4


Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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