By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are second in the NFL in total defense and lead the league in pass defense, but the club has been less than stellar against the run through three games this season.
And when the Steelers (2-1) face the Houston Texans (2-1) Sunday at 1 p.m. at Reliant Stadium, they’ll definitely be tested on the ground. The Steelers allow 99.3 yards rushing per game and 4.6 per carry this season, while the Texans are fifth with 136 yards per game and 4.1 per carry.
The Baltimore Ravens gashed the Steelers for 170 rushing yards in the opener, but the club has improved markedly even though the Colts had more than 90. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the run defense lacked consistency.
“It was good, at times, (but) we didn’t stone them out,” Tomlin said. “Joseph Addai and their group had something to do with that. You have to tip your hat to those guys. I never want to not do that, acknowledge quality play from the people that we respect and compete against. We can be better.”
Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior noted that it was rather irregular for the defense to allow more rushing yards per attempt than the offense has gained. But it’s only through three games, he added.
“Yeah, those numbers are usually reversed, but I don’t think you can take anything from that other than we just have to play better on defense,” Farrior said. “We need to do a better job up front, certainly at linebacker and in the secondary. So, from front to back, we need to do a better job.
“We work hard to stop the run and take pride in that, so we’re very disappointed that we haven’t done a better job in that area. But I think it’s still a work in progress, so we’re going to stick with it. … Sometimes, I think, guys can get out of position by trying to do too much.
“And if two or more guys do that, then that hurts us a little bit,” Farrior added. “So, we’re focusing on that in our game plan, which is something we need to do better in order to be successful. But we’re definitely confident that we can turn things around. It’s early in the season, and I believe we’ll get better at it.”
One issue facing the Steelers defensive line has been chop blocks or cut blocks, which are deemed legal if the engaged offensive player is high on the defender. If that’s the case, another offensive lineman basically can cut the legs out from under the defensive lineman. The Ravens were extremely successful in that area, and in a copycat league other offenses will try the same thing.
“I think teams are finally starting to figure us out,” Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “They can hold up the nose and cut him on the backside, so that was working against us and more teams probably will do it. So, we have to do better against that and get better as a defense to counteract that.
“I don’t really think it should be allowed, but there’s not much I can do about it. Actually, I can’t do anything about it, but as a defense we can do a better job overall. These cut blocks on the backside, we have to be aware of what they’re trying to do, and then we have to be ready for it to overcome it.”
Veteran defensive end Aaron Smith had another theory why the Ravens and Colts ran the ball well against the Steelers so far this year.
“I really don’t think we played gap-sound,” Smith said. “That’s all there is to it. We were out of our gaps, and maybe some guys have tried to do too much. And you can’t do that. You have to trust the defense and trust each other. That’s the best way to get back on track with our run defense.
“As far as the turnovers are concerned, I’ve been in this business too long to be concerned about them. Sure, we’d like to have more than one, but they’ll come sooner or later. And once they do, we’ll get them in bunches. Believe me, it happens all the time, so I wouldn’t worry about it at all.”
Cornerback Ike Taylor had his own ideas about what the secondary could do to help the Steelers’ run defense.
“We just have to secure our tackles and not let anybody get any extra yards,” Taylor said. “That’s the key, because once you start letting guys break tackles and making big plays you’re going to have a long day. So, as long as we can secure tackles, we’ll be all right.”
Taylor likely will be matched against Andre Johnson all afternoon.