Austin wants to see Steelers' run defense shine again

After finishing dead last in the NFL last season stopping the run, the Steelers made fixing that priority No. 1 in the offseason and training camp – at least on the defensive side of things.

In last Sunday's 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Steelers allowed just 29 yards on 15 carries to Alvin Kamara and company.

It marked the fewest rushing yards allowed by the Steelers in a game since holding the Houston Texans to 29 yards in a 28-21 win Sept. 27, 2020.

Now, for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the time hasn't come to rest on his laurels. He wants to see his defense do it again Sunday when the Steelers (3-6) host the Bengals (5-4) at Acrisure Stadium.

"We got into every game with the idea we have to stop the run first," Austin said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "A lot of people say, what are you talking about, it's a passing league? But that's what it is to me. We feel no different this week. We felt no different in Week 1. We didn't want Joe Mixon to have a chance to win the game, to be in the game at the end and win the weighty moments.

"Nothing has changed. Our goal is to stop Joe Mixon, because if Joe Mixon runs on us, that doesn't leave us much of a chance."

The Steelers beat the Bengals, 23-20, in the regular season open at Cincinnati despite Mixon getting 82 rushing yards and allowing 133 yards on the ground overall as quarterback Joe Burrow had 47 yards on six scrambles.

The key was that it took Mixon 27 carries to get to 82 rushing yards, meaning he averaged 3.0 yards per attempt. The Steelers also sacked Burrow seven times and forced five turnovers in that game.

They can't expect to force that many turnovers ago, so slowing Mixon is a must, especially since the Bengals will be playing with star wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

Mixon is averaging 3.9 yards per carry this season, but the 82 yards he had in Week 1 against the Steelers is his second-highest output of the season. The highest output, however, came in Week 9 before the Bengals' bye last week, when Mixon had 153 yards and four touchdowns on 22 rushing attempts in a rout of the Panthers.

Mixon also caught four passes for 58 yards and a touchdown in that game and has been a bigger part of Cincinnati's passing game this season.

And even without Chase, the Bengals still have dangerous receivers in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to go along with talented tight end Hayden Hurst.

"If they get the running game going, they can hit Tyler, they can hit Tee, Hurst down the field," Austin acknowledged.

But the Steelers now also have T.J. Watt back in the fold.

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Watt suffered a pectoral muscle injury in Week 1 against the Bengals and returned just last week against the Saints.

The return of the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was felt immediately.

"I know everybody looks at the sack totals, but when you watch him in the run game, you watch how he disrupts things at the point of attack, it makes it easier for a lot of guys to get their job done," Austin said. "It's not just a figurehead presence. He affects the game in a lot of ways. I know everybody talks about the sacks, but he's an outstanding run defender. He's an outstanding football player."

That's what the Steelers hope springboards them into the second half of this season.

After Sunday's shutdown effort against the Saints, the Steelers are now sixth in the NFL against the run, allowing 108.0 yards per game. It's been even better in home games, as they're allowing just 81.5 yards per game on the ground at Acrisure Stadium. They're giving up 4.1 yards per rushing attempt overall, sixth-best in the NFL.

It's a far cry different than the nearly 150 yards rushing and 5.0 yards per carry they allowed last season.

"We played well," Austin said of the defense's efforts against the Saints. "In terms of what we were doing, we did the things good defenses do. We were hitting. We weren't sticking on blocks. We made the plays we were supposed to make. The guys really ran hard to the ball. They finished. There weren't a lot of missed tackles. Those are the things that really contribute to good run defense."