Heading into a game against the reigning NFL rushing leader, there's an expectation from the Steelers that they'll get a huge dose of Raiders running back Josh Jacobs.
Considering how poorly the Steelers have played against the run in their first two games this season, it wouldn't matter who the opposing running back is and where he finished in the rushing standings a year ago. The Steelers know they're going to see plenty of running against them until they begin to dissuade opponents from doing so.
"I expect them to continue to try to pound it. I would," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex as the team continued preparations for their game Sunday night in Las Vegas.
"Right now, we're not playing to run very well. So I expect every team we play until we show that we can stop the run to come in and run the ball. And so until we show up and do a better job in terms of stopping the run and doing those things, I anticipate teams running. And they have a heck of a running back. We know what he is. And so it's going to be up to us."
The Steelers are allowing an NFL-worst 193 rushing yards per game in their first two games of 2023. They've managed to get to a 1-1 start. But Austin and company know that unless they tighten things up in the rushing defense, they're going to be in for long days.
And the Raiders (1-1) are a team that employ a run-heavy attack. Las Vegas has run the ball on 47 percent of its offensive plays this season.
Despite that heavy emphasis on running the ball, Jacobs, who skipped training camp and the preseason while waiting to sign the franchise tag, has gotten off to a slow start. He's gained 46 yards on 28 carries this far this season, including minus-2 yards on nine attempts last week in a loss to the Bills.
It marked the first time since at least 1950 that a reigning NFL rushing leader has been held to negative yardage by an opponent in the following season.
But after getting gashed for 188 yards in their opener by Christian McCaffery and the 49ers and then 198 in Week 2 by the Browns, the Steelers aren't taking anything for granted.
A big part of the issue has been long runs. The Steelers gave up a 65-yard touchdown run to McCaffery and a 69-yard run to Browns backup Jerome Ford after star Nick Chubb had been knocked out of the game with an injury.
"It should never happen," Austin said of the long runs. "You know, 60- and 70-yard runs shouldn't happen. And that becomes a thing that we've got to make sure that as we coach our guys up to do in terms of proper pursuit angles, in terms of gap-fix, in terms of hitting and wrapping (up), tackling, all those different things. There's all of it that comes into play. And when it's not, if there's any mishap in there. You leave yourself open for a big run, and that's what we've done the last two times out."
That was not an issue for the Steelers last season, when the rushing defense ranked ninth in the league overall and allowed a long run of just 44 yards.
Included in those stats was holding Jacobs to 44 yards on 15 carries in a 13-10 win over the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium Dec. 24 last season. It was the second-lowest output in a single game for Jacobs in a season in which he posted 1,653 rushing yards.
But that team also had a healthy Cam Heyward. The Steelers' All-Pro defensive tackle has been out since the first half of the team's season-opening loss to the 49ers and is currently on IR with a groin injury that required surgery.
"This is a team that flows through that run game, so it's definitely going to be a part of their agenda to get the run game going. Josh is a good player, a tough player," said Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "Just because he's had a slow start doesn't mean they're not going to feed him. He's a guy who's going to keep fighting and keep chugging no matter what. They're definitely going to try to get him going."
And it wouldn't really matter if Jacobs had minus-2 rushing yards last week or 200. The Steelers know Las Vegas is going to get him the football.
"I don't think it'll have anything to do with the fact he hasn't had the touches he normally has or maybe the yards," Austin said. "I think it has everything to do with us and what we put on tape. And right now what we put on tape is not good enough in the run game."