Will the return of James Harrison provide the difference the Steelers are seeking?
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Where has the Steelers' vaunted run defense gone?
Just two years ago, no team stopped the run like the Steelers. Actually, only one did better since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
The defense made history when it held offenses to an average of 62.8 rushing yards per game in 2010, a team record. Only the 2000 Baltimore Ravens were stingier over the past 34 seasons, allowing 60.6 yards per game.
Today, all kinds of defenses stop the run better than the Steelers, a trend that began last season and has carried into this one. They are tied for 14th best in the NFL this season, allowing an average of 101 yards rushing per game. Last season, the finished eighth at 99.8.
Is it yet another sign of old and slow on a defense that starts seven players in their 30s? A bow to the number of injuries they've had on defense the past two seasons? Or the natural back and forth tidal forces that come into play in the NFL?
"It's early in the season, everybody [isn't] healthy, guys are not getting in their gaps, it's a combination of things," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "When you look at it, physically nobody's getting just knocked off the ball and things like that."
Since Hampton joined the Steelers in '01, their defense against the run ranked first in the NFL four times, second once and third four times. It fell below third just twice, to 12th in '03 and eighth last season.
Now, it's heading lower.
"The main thing is we've given up a couple big runs, and that's not characteristic of us," Hampton said. "It [isn't] like nobody's just running it down our throats. You give up a 64-yarder, a 50-yarder, it's going to make your average bad. That's something we haven't done in the past."
They've allowed only one big run, a 64-yarder by Oakland's Darren McFadden, who achieved another once-rare feat against the Steelers defense. He ran for 113 yards in the Raiders' 34-31 victory Sept. 23 in Oakland.
Between the tail-end of '07 and the start of '11, the Steelers went 50 games allowing just one individual to top 100 yards against them, including a stretch of 32 games in which no one did. McFadden became the fourth runner in the past 19 to top 100. That might not be alarming to many, but it's unusual for the Steelers defense.
Sunday the NFL's third-leading rusher, Philadelphia's LeSean (Shady) McCoy, will return to Heinz Field and try to make it two 100-yard rushing games in a row against the Steelers for the first time in 10 years.
"This is a prideful group," Hampton said. "We definitely don't want to give [any] back 100 yards, if it's back-to-back or whatever. We're always going to try to stop that from happening."
That's just it, they haven't been able to stop it, at least not like they did through '10. The assault began last season when Baltimore's Ray Rice -- the only runner to top 100 against them in that 50-game stretch -- tagged them for 107 in the opener, and two others followed.
The reasons could go to the loss of Aaron Smith, thought by many to be the best 3-4 end in the team's history. It could be the loss of linebacker James Farrior, long their tackles and inspirational leader. Both, well into their 30s, were released in March. It could be the age of the others, the youth not making up for it, or, perhaps offenses catching up to the scheme.
Whatever it is, the Steelers remain determined to concentrate on stopping the run above all else.
"That's embarrassing when you give up 100 yards around here," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Even though we know [McFadden] did it on one run, basically, but that's not an excuse. You get 100, you get 100."
That number has become far too familiar for a defense that detests it.
Steelers struggle to run
On the flip side, the Steelers ground game, also once a source of pride, has hit new lows. They rank 31st in the NFL with an average of 65 yards per game.
This from the franchise of Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis?
"We understand what's going on," said guard Willie Colon, who took some of the blame last week for his inexperience at pulling on blocks. "There are a lot of things: The line has to be more efficient, the backs have to hit the holes better, and we have to block all around as a unit better."
Also, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leading the AFC with a 109.2 passer rating, it has to be tempting for new coordinator Todd Haley to lean more that way in the early going. Haley, though, was charged with improving the ground game when he was hired to replace the fired Bruce Arians.
"We've been doing so well in the passing game, we've kind of gotten off the run a little bit," Colon said. "It's still early, we have enough time to turn it around."
Rashard Mendenhall could provide help when he returns to play for the first time since his knee ligament was torn Jan. 1.
"I think he can be a boost because he's our home run back," Colon said. "If he gets enough space, he can take it yard. We know up front, if we give him a hole, he'll hit it and he's going to get north and hopefully he gets a string going."
Tackle Max Starks thinks Mendenhall might need transition time before that happens.
"For this group, this is really his first time going full speed with us and getting a feel for the game-type tempo and getting a feel for our offensive line, because he hasn't had that yet," Starks said. "It's going to be a process.
"You have so many running backs who are great here, and all of them are trying to split time, everybody's fighting for reps. It makes it tough a little bit to get into the game. You have one or two carries and next guy's up and trying to get a tempo and feel for the game. It's kind of tough, it's kind of hit and miss, but I think as we get further into the season and as guys start maturing into roles, I think you'll start seeing more of a -- I don't know how to put it -- consistency."
Ben says 'boo'
This will be only the third time in Roethlisberger's nine seasons that he will play the Philadelphia Eagles in a regular-season game. Yet, he said, he knows about the rivalry, which is not necessarily Eagles-Steelers.
"Whatever sport it is it seems to be Pittsburgh vs. Philly, a general hatred toward Philly that I've noticed since I moved here. I like to watch the fans boo the Flyers. I boo, too."
• Game: Steelers (1-2) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1), Heinz Field.