By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense against the run thus far has itself in a somewhat curious predicament. Despite the fact that they have allowed just 3.06 yards on the ground per carry and have not relinquished a single run of ten yards or more, they are still losing the war of attrition.
Although opponents have only gained just a fraction more than three yards on the ground per attempt, which ranks in the top third of the league through the first two weeks of football, they have still pounded their heads against that same wall 76 times. That is more rush attempts against than any other team in the league.
So why, then, have the Steelers been run upon so frequently during the first two games? It is because the run defense falters when it matters most.
In 2010, when the Steelers had a historically great season in rushing defense in terms of rushing yards allowed per game, much of that per game average had to do with the fact that the Steelers had success in short yardage and goal line situations. The fact that the secondary was not as strong also played a factor, but the point still stands: in 2010, the Steelers were better situationally defending the run, and forced teams to give up trying.
This season, the Steelers are allowing 119.5 yards per game on the ground through the first two weeks, which is almost double the amount of yards per game they allowed in 2010. But they are also probably being run against twice as frequently.
The reason for the increase in carries is simple: the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals both found success running the ball, albeit in small, bite-size doses.
Consider this: the Steelers have given up 18 first downs on the ground thus far through the first two games, which is tied for the second-most in the league, behind only the Washington Redskins. Of course, a higher number is to be expected considering teams have run against the Steelers more than any other team.
However, Pittsburgh has also allowed a first down on the ground on nearly a quarter of all rushing attempts: more specifically, 23.7 percent of the time. That statistic, too, ranks in the bottom ten of the league, and is the third-worst among teams yet to give up a play on the ground of 10 yards or greater.
One need simply look at the two rushing touchdowns the Steelers have relinquished thus far this year to see how teams have been able to exploit the run defense in the early portions of the 2013 season. While the 3.06 rushing yards per carry allowed statistic looks nice, it is not yet translating to success on the field in crucial situations, and until that happens, the run defense will continue to be exposed with frequent carries in a war of attrition. Three yards and a cloud of dust, indeed.