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Steelers still in wait-and-see mode with run defense

Stop the run. It was the Steelers' mantra throughout the offseason.

Players talked about it. Coaches harped on it. More time was spent discussing and writing about it than was devoted to finding ways to combat rising inflation – at least in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers felt they had the pieces in place to be better against the run than they had been in 2021. Then again, they couldn't be worse. After all, they finished dead last in the NFL a year ago stopping the run, allowing 146.1 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry.

At first glance, the 133 yards the Steelers allowed on the ground in their 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 doesn't look all that different than the results from a year ago.

But in actuality, it was certainly a step in the right direction.

Joe Mixon, who had 255 yards on 48 carries against the Steelers in two meetings last season – an average of 5.5 yards per attempt – had 82 yards in the loss. But it took him 27 carries to get there.

Mixon averaged just 3.0 yards per attempt, an average that was skewed by a 31-yard run in a fourth-down, short-yardage situation in the second quarter. Take that out of the equation, and he averaged less than 2.0 yards per carry on his other 26 rushes.

"Yeah. That's kind of what the game felt like," Steelers nose tackle Tyson Alualu said. "We were always hitting him in the backfield. That's what we want. Sometimes, it comes down to that one big play that they had. We've got to work on eliminating that so it doesn't look like that on paper."

As Alualu referenced, things weren't perfect. Quarterback Joe Burrow hurt the Steelers with some scrambles, gaining 47 yards on six rushes.

But when the Bengals lined up and tried to run the ball, the Steelers were typically up to the task.

"We've still got a long way to go. I think we're better, but we've got a long way to go," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Ausin said. "We've got to do better. We gave up the one big run on that fourth down play. I've got to get them in a better situation, and we've got to execute better. It was a little bit of everything there.

"But other than that, I thought we stood up and we played tough. But it's a long season and we've got to continue to do that. Nobody gets patted on the back, because we'll find out at the end of the year how good we really are and if we achieved our goal, which is to be way better than we were last year."

They might not have to wait until the end of the year to find out. The next two opponents, the New England Patriots Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, and the Browns on a quick turnaround in Cleveland next Thursday, offer two tough challenges for the revamped run defense.

And the Steelers will be forced to show they can hold up against good running teams – both the Patriots and Browns were top-10 rushing teams in 2021 – without reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. Watt was placed on the Reserve/Injured List earlier this week after suffering a pectoral injury against the Bengals.

The Steelers expect to get Watt back at some point this season, but they'll have to hold the line – literally – without him for at least the next four weeks.

They feel better prepared to do that this year than they were last season, when they began the season without defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, then lost Alualu one quarter into their second game.

A lot of young players got valuable playing experience with two-thirds of the starting defensive line out, something that along with the addition of free agent signing Larry Ogunjobi and the selection of defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal in the third round of the draft, should pay dividends.

"A lot of guys are understanding this defense and where to fit a lot better," Alualu said. "We've got to take that and be even more detailed to where, whoever we put in there, everyone knows their job. Everyone knows where they should be. And they trust that everyone will be where they're supposed to be."

That was not always necessarily the case in 2021. But after so much time was devoted to fixing the run defense, the expectation is that things will be much different.

The Patriots fell behind the Dolphins, 17-0, in the first half of their game last week in a 20-7 loss, and never really got their running game going, managing 78 yards on 22 carries. But seven of their rushing attempts went for a loss or no gain.

The Steelers would like to continue that trend. They had nine tackles for a loss against Cincinnati.

Watt had three of those, but the Steelers were attacking the line of scrimmage against the Bengals. And that won't change with Watt out. In fact, they might attack even more.

"We have to clean up some small things, communication, run fits," said nickel corner Arthur Maulet, who plays a key role in the team's run defense. "There are some things we need to be more aggressive in, but I think we're going to be fine. I think our run defense is starting out very well."