Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon knows the defense has not performed up to its usual standards this season. But seeing the Steelers with a 29 next to their name in one notable category in the NFL's weekly statistics nearly left McLendon speechless.
The category is run defense, and that would be 29th out of 32 teams.
"Man, that's bad," said McLendon, a five-year veteran in his first season as a full-time starter. "We used to be in the top five. We haven't ever been out of the top 10. That's a first, man. We just have to do better."
Once the NFL's most impenetrable rush defense, the Steelers are no longer striking fear into opposing offenses. Each of the first four opponents accumulated 100 yards rushing or more against the Steelers. To put that into perspective, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl after the 2008 season, they allowed only five teams to rush for 100 yards in 16 regular-season games and three postseason contests. Even the 8-8 team last season allowed just four opponents to rush for 100 or more.
The Steelers have been a dominant defense against the run since 2000, leading the NFL in rush defense four times in the past 12 seasons. They have been among the top 10 against the run 11 times in that span, with the exception in 2003, when they were 12th.
The Steelers have allowed 122.8 yards per game as they enter their off week. Only St. Louis, Washington and Jacksonville have yielded more.
The previous time the Steelers struggled so much against the run was 1999, when they finished the season 26th.
Adrian Peterson was the latest running back to run through the Steelers defense. He rushed for 140 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown run in the Vikings' 34-27 victory Sunday in London against the Steelers. It was the second time in as many weeks the Steelers allowed a run of 50 yards or more. Matt Forte of Chicago had a 55-yard run the previous week at Heinz Field.
"If you take away those runs, I bet those numbers would be all right," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "That number can go away pretty quickly. That's what it is. We've been good around here for a long time because we haven't given up big plays. For us to be good, we have to do that."
The Steelers allowed only one run of 50 yards or more last season. Darren McFadden of Oakland had a 64-yard touchdown run in the third game. The next-longest run was 34 yards by Ray Rice of Baltimore.
Safety Ryan Clark said the difference has been the secondary's inability to prevent medium gains from becoming long gains.
"What is unique here, what we take for granted and what the media takes for granted is we have very good secondary tacklers," Clark said. "We make a lot of plays in space. I watch film constantly of other teams, and they don't make them.
"It's been a big reason why we've No. 1 in defense for so many years. Runs do break. Runs do get to the secondary, but we've always done a good job of getting people down. I think this year we've missed more than we're used to missing. We have to get guys on the ground, and we haven't done that."
Keisel and Clark make good points, but a closer look reveals the run defense has been susceptible to more than long runs. Even if Peterson's 60-yard run and Forte's 55-yard run were subtracted, the Steelers still would have allowed 94 yards rushing per game, which would rank 10th in the league. That's well below their recent standard.
"It could be those big runs," McLendon said. "It could be other issues. We have to get more guys to the ball. We have to play better technique. As a defense, we just have to make sure we get back in the lab and correct those things, so they don't happen again."
NOTE -- The NFL fined Steelers defensive lineman Al Woods $7,875 for grabbing a face mask against Minnesota.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 5, 2013 4:00 AM