A number of defensive issues crippled the Steelers last season. The lack of a turnovers, lack of a consistent pass rush and an inability to prevent big plays all contributed to the defense’s woes.
But perhaps the biggest problem, the one that directly affected all the others, was a porous rush defense. The Steelers were ranked 21st in the NFL against the run in 2013, which allowed opposing offenses to control play.
When the Steelers are most effective defensively, they are forcing offenses into third-and-long situations when their pass-rushers can tee off and pursue the quarterback. When pass-rushers get to the quarterback, they force turnovers.
It’s a defensive premise predicated on stopping the run and, without a stout run defense last season, the Steelers were susceptible to the big play.
The front office took steps to address their problems over the offseason by selecting an inside linebacker and defensive lineman in the first two rounds of the draft, as well as adding speed at safety through the signing of free agent Mike Mitchell.
But through the first two weeks of the preseason, indications are the Steelers still have work to do when it comes to stopping the run. One week after the New York Giants ran for 171 yards in the preseason opener, the Buffalo Bills rushed for 150 in the second game.
When asked to put a grade on his run defense after two preseason games, coach Mike Tomlin said “incomplete.”
“We have a variety of units playing, mixing and matching guys,” said Tomlin, whose team travels to Philadelphia Thursday to face the Eagles in the third preseason game. “That’s what this week is about. You get an opportunity to see guys play and play together an extended period of time. I’m excited about that, and I think they’re excited about that.”
It’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of any unit in the preseason because of the number of second- and third-teamers who get reps.
The starters, though, have had their struggles in the limited amount of time they have played. The first-team defense allowed a 73-yard touchdown run against the Giants and allowed Buffalo’s first-team offense to control the game early with several medium-length runs. The Bills had seven runs of 5 yards or more on their 18 first-half rush attempts.
“We have to be able to run to the ball, make plays and tackle better,” defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. “The last game, we got good penetration. We had good technique, but we didn’t tackle as well as we need to. We’re looking to tune up things. It’s our last extensive playing time before the regular season. We have to make sure we put our best foot forward.”
Philadelphia will provide a good test.
Led by former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy, the Eagles had the top-ranked rushing offense in the league last season, averaging 160 yards per game.
Buffalo, which finished second in the league in rushing last season, enjoyed success against the Steelers without the benefit of breaking a long run.
Bills veteran Fred Jackson was the most effective runner Saturday. He had six rushes for 27 yards, and former Steeler Frank Summers, a fullback, popped two runs for 11 yards.
“They ran their feet on contact, but we have to bring them down,” Heyward said. “Too many times we should have had them for more tackles for losses in their backfield, but they drove their feet and finished off plays. We have to shore up on contain. When we do that, we’re a much better team.
“We’re improving every week. You didn’t see the big play [against the Bills]. Now, it’s about shoring up and making those runs less. We have to make sure we stay in our gaps. When we don’t do that, it’s a can of worms. Anything can happen.”
When the Steelers have been dominant on defense in the past, they have been among the league’s top rush defenses. In 2010, the last time the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl, they owned the No. 1 rush defense in the league. The last time they won the Super Bowl, in 2008, they were No. 2 against the run.
When they plummeted to No. 21 last season, it was the first time since 2003 they had fallen out of the top 10 rushing defenses.
“There are always concerns when you give up a big run,” Mitchell said. “That was just gap discipline by one guy [against the Giants]. That’s easily correctable. I don’t think we gave up a big run in the game last week, so that shows improvement.
“It’s the National Football League. Sometimes, they’ll get runs. What you want to do is prevent them from the big ones. They averaged 3.9 [yards per carry]. That average is pretty good for us. I don’t really think they were too effective running the football. If we keep that average around 3.7, or in that ballpark, we’ll be fine.”
Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said there is plenty of time for the Steelers to make improvements before the Sept. 7 season opener against the Cleveland Browns
“It’s still preseason right now,” he said. “We’re not in the form we want to be. It has been simple things that we can correct. We’re still learning. We’re a new group trying to get to know each other and be sound defensively.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.