The Run Defense
By JIM WEXELL
In the 38 seasons since Chuck Noll moved Pittsburgh into the modern era of pro football, the Steelers have allowed opponents 4.0 yards or more per carry only four times.
Last season (3.9 was not one of those times, but the Steelers’ poor performance in their last four games doesn’t offer promise for this season.
In looking back, the Steelers ranked first in the NFL against the run after beating the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 11 to improve to 7-2. They’d allowed a solid 3.7 yards per carry in those games, but in the final eight games, counting the playoffs, the Steelers allowed 4.3 yards per carry in going 3-5 down the stretch.
The correlation between run defense and winning percentage is important enough to ask one question: What happened?
Ryan Clark had the answer this spring. He blamed one of the defensive linemen.
“That guy right there,” Clark said with a pointing finger. “Aaron Smith.”
Smith, of course, missed six full two separate injuries. He injured his knee on the first series against Denver and missed the rest of the game and the next two. Smith returned
Nov. 11 and played five games before tearing his right biceps. He missed the final four games, including the playoffs.
With Smith, the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per carry. Without him, they allowed 4.8 per
“End of story,” Clark said.
Not so fast, says Smith. “I’ve become a better player since I’ve gotten hurt,” he said this
spring. “It seems I’m making plays and doing things that I don’t know if I would have done. Everybody says, ‘The defense would have been great if Aaron had been there.’ But I don’t know if I’m making those plays. I mean, I’m very grateful for the compliment, but it’s hard to say what the thing was.”
The only other plausible explanation would be the injury-plagued safeties. Clark only
played the first six games and Troy Polamalu missed five games. But Clark doesn’t buy it.
“We’re on the back end,” he said while shaking his head. “Aaron was a real loss up front. I mean, they talk about the Seymours and all these guys who rush the passer, but I’d
take Aaron before all of them. I’ve had friends of mine call me and ask me who was No. 91, and he’s only been doing it for nine years. He’s a great player. Losing him, I mean, it’s not about the numbers he puts up, tackles wise, it’s about knowing Aaron Smith’s always going to have his hole; Aaron Smith’s always going to hold up his guy. That hurt us tremendously. Getting him back’s going to be big.”
The Steelers didn’t help their depth this offseason, so Smith must stay healthy if the run
defense is to halt its slide. While sitting out the on-field work this spring, Smith said he could have played if necessary.
“I think my (injured) arm will probably be stronger than my other one, to be honest with
you,” Smith said. “My feeling is it’s something I’ve probably been playing with for a while and it just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. I feel great. I can do all the drills. It’s just a matter of everybody being more safe right now.”
The Steelers were cautious with Smith, who figures the coaching staff will “baby-sit” him
this training camp by giving him more time off than normal. He hopes they don’t get carried away.
“Some guys are gifted enough athletes that they can just go out without practicing,” he
said. “Those guys are special. They could take the whole week off, then go out on Sundays and it doesn’t seem to affect them one bit. Me, I feel I need to work every day. I’m the type of guy who needs to be out there on the field. I like to do it during the week, and then when I hit it on Sunday I have confidence in it. I like to be out there working.”
Schematically this spring, the Steelers often worked with two inside linebackers (James
Farrior, Lawrence Timmons) in their dime defense. Farrior was the lone inside linebacker in
the set last season. Other than that, little has changed with the Steelers’ run defense.
“I think making sure everybody’s healthy is going to be the key,” said Farrior. “And we
need our backups to have a good understanding of what’s going on, and when they get in
the game the expectations are not going to change.”
Farrior saw promise in the playoff loss. While the Steelers allowed the Jaguars 4.7 yards per rush, the running backs did little. In the first meeting a month earlier, Fred Taylor
and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for 216 yards on 37 carries. In the playoffs, the two
backs gained 77 yards on 24 carries. Quarterback David Garrard did most of the damage
“Our whole D-line played well that game,” said Farrior. “After the way we played against
them the first time, we took it as a personal battle. Everybody took it upon themselves,
and I think for the most part we contained them pretty well. They had a couple of scrambles from the quarterback, but other than that we were ready.”
Does that bode well for this season?
“Yeah, I think we’ll be all right,” said Smith. “You’re going to have those times, those
games where you just can’t stop something. Jacksonville’s a great running team. They’ve
got two good running backs, a good offensive line, so it’s a tough challenge in normal times. But I think we’ll be fine. I think we’ll be back to our former level, if not better.”