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Ganging up against the run

To inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky, among others, the Steelers' inability to stop the run last season was as unacceptable as it was unprecedented.

"The standard is not last year," Olsavsky insisted. "The standard is years previous, a Top 10 run defense, that's the standard."

The Steelers finished No. 32 in the NFL in run defense last season after allowing an average of 146.1 yards per game on the ground.

That was down from No. 11 in that category in 2020 (111.4).

It was also the first time they'd finished last in run defense since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002.

The Steelers haven't finished in the Top 10 in run defense since they ranked 10th in 2017 and then sixth in 2018.

But from 2001 through 2016, the Steelers had a Top 10 unit against the run 13 times in 16 seasons, including a run of seven straight campaigns (2004-10) in which they had a Top 3 run defense.

They've also finished in the Top 10 against the run 34 times in the last 52 seasons (since 1970).

So the standard Olsavsky referenced has been well established.

Even had it not, a season that saw the Steelers surrender 200 or more yards on the ground four times and come within 2 rushing yards allowed of a fifth such occasion (the Bengals ran for 198 yards against the Steelers on Nov. 28 in Cincinnati) would likely leave a lingering sting.

As last season had this spring.

"We're all upset," Olsavsky said then.

Added defensive line coach Karl Dunbar: "The team has turned the page, I haven't. Giving up the yardage we gave up last year was probably a first in my career."

Often-cited factors in last season's decline included Stephon Tuitt's unavailability and the loss of Tyson Alualu to injury in a 26-17 loss to the Raiders on Sept. 19.

Tuitt has since retired, but Alualu is back healthy and fortifications along the front seven have included the signing of veteran linebacker Myles Jack and veteran defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, and by the drafting of defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal.

The Steelers intend to solve their issues on run defense with numbers.

"Stopping the run is a seven-man or an eight-man proposition up front," Olsavsky maintained.

Depth, potentially, has been established via the offseason additions.

The Steelers are also anticipating improved play from players who played more snaps than anticipated last season out of necessity.

Dunbar discussed a few of those this spring, including:

Defensive tackle Montravius Adams (signed last Nov. 30): ""I see him competing for that starting nose tackle position. Montravius has done a great job learning our stuff on the run as far as coming in late last year. He's a very athletic kid. He can hold the point and he can run."

Defensive lineman Chris Wormley (signed in 2020): "He had a chance to get more reps, he was on the field. He was a third-round pick from Baltimore (in 2017) who has been a great addition to this team. I guess the more shots you get at it the more lucky you are to knock the ball out of the park and I think he did that last year with his season."

Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (a fifth-round pick in 2021): "Loudermilk looks great. His chest is a little bit puffier. He's bouncing around. He has more confidence because he's in the same defense."

The strength-in-numbers approach has been endorsed by players as well as coaches.

"It obviously starts with the front, having a healthy front," free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick offered. "Having a dominant front, a physical front is going to help us.

"Pushing the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage is gonna be big. It's something we lacked last year just because of our depth."

Added Dunbar: "Me as a coach, I'm looking forward to all this competition, these guys trying to get better and help us be a better defense."