Even after eight weeks of near dismal to mediocre run defense, I can’t believe that the Steelers rank 8th in run defense. My astonishment does not lie in the fact that they are in the top ten, but more so that they aren’t in the top 3. Such struggles stopping the run this season seems contradictory for a team and franchise that takes pride in smash mouth football and dominating the trenches. Stopping the run is something that came so easy to this team – as easy as getting out of bed. Having to point out stopping Ray Rice is the key to a Steelers victory makes me feel like I need to break out my Captain Obvious t-shirt. Yet here we are – facing the reality that a struggling run defense will be heavily relied upon to ensure a Steelers’ victory this Sunday.
Now don’t get your knickers in a bunch. Yes, I realize that the defense kept the Patriots to only 43 yards rushing. But, it’s the Patriots. They only ran the ball 12 out of 47 plays. They don’t run a lot. Kevin Faulk was actually averaging over 5 yards per carry. Not such a great stat when you break those 43 yards down. The pass rush may be getting better, and the secondary is continuing its early season successes, but the run defense is the defense’s weakest link.
Ray Rice has had some fairly decent games against the Steelers. Prior to Week 3 of this season, Rice was the only running back to gain 100 yards or more against the Steelers in three seasons. He had one in Week 1 of this season and one back in December of ’09. Should he have another big day this Sunday, the Steelers will have a tough time controlling the pace of the game as well as keeping Flacco under wraps. Rice has done well with his average YPC at 4.3, but he has been inconsistent overall from game to game. He’s only rushed for 100+ twice this season and can barely get over 60+ the rest of the games. He had a dismal showing against the Jaguars with only 28 yards on 8 carries, but was able to ‘bounce back’ last week against the Cards – 18 rushes for 63 yards and 3 TD’s. What kind of Ray Rice will we see this Sunday? I would say we’ll see a very ‘determined’ Rice. Even though he’s had dismal games against the Steelers in prior games/seasons, he had success earlier this season, and the Steelers have yet to show they can completely dismantle the running game.
So how will the Steelers be able to stop Rice? I believe the answer lies within the secondary. More than ever the Steelers will have to rely on their ‘shutdown’ corners, as they would have more one on one coverage with the defensive scheme I think the defense should go with. The Steelers should commit more men in ‘the box’ and execute more outside blitzes with corner blitzing and safety blitzes. Looking back at the tape – or as I refer to it the DVR and a few beers – the Steelers relied mainly on the LB’s to get penetration and get to Flacco or stop Rice. When that didn’t happen, Flacco had time to do his laundry and trim his eyebrow while waiting for receivers to get open. Flacco threw for 224 yards and 3 TD’s in Week 1. The Steelers never really gave up the long ball or a big catch and run, so we knew the secondary could hang with the receivers back then.
The little hitch in this blitzing scheme would be to not drop the proportionate amount of LB’s to act as cover guys. Send them on a blitz too. Ok, maybe drop on guy in the middle. But seriously, the Steelers need to be blitzing the middle and edge at the same time. If the defensive line can control the trench and eat up blockers, that will give a few guys a chance to wrap up Rice, who is an elusive back. Should there be play action or a straight drop back, chances are Flacco is going to have pressure very early and need to throw the ball or suffer the consequences. Face Me Ike and Lewis are holding their own on the outside. Chances are if the D can get pressure on Flacco, they won’t need to worry about staying tight with their guy for very long. Guys like Gay, Polamalu, Clark and Mundy should be beelining towards the backfield many times on Sunday. With the state the LB core is in right now, it’s almost a necessary move to guarantee pressure on a quarterback who’s shown that he’s not as elite as his fans would like you to believe he is. Let’s face it, the Ravens are still a mediocre team. Period.
Harrison is limited this week as is Woodley. Both of their returns are very questionable. Carter didn’t show much when he filled in for Woodley last Sunday. Someone with the ability to blitz and pursue… ahem… Polamalu… ahem… will need to have a big game against a Ravens offensive line that has given up on average two sacks per game.
So I guess you can say I’ve finally put stock in the Steelers secondary. They played rather physically against the Pats (even though Mundy looked like he was riding a bull when trying to tackle Gronkowski…. is that what his weekend prior looked like I wonder???). I think Ike can play physically against Boldin and not get the same kind of calls he was getting against the Cards’ Fitzgerald. And Lewis/Gay can handle the others – especially with Lee and Evans not at 100%. TE Ed Dickson could be the ‘winner’ out of this kind of matchup if the Steelers get caught with their pants down. Without extra LB’s or safety to cover the middle, Dickson could blow up any semblance of a zone. Then again, if there are blitzes coming from multiple places, Clark or Polamalu would be the likely cover guys on Dickson.
Usually I develop angst over the Steelers and Ravens matchups way in advance… like way longer than a Kim Kardasian marriage. But this time around, and especially after the way the Steelers beat the Pats, I feel pretty confident about this Sunday’s game. The Steelers have a great opportunity to take full command of the division – which will be huge considering that come the following week they travel to Cincy for what is turning out to be a very important divisional game against the Bengals. Yeah even I recognize that they are playing too well to be called the Bungles right now. Scary.
So that’s the key. Stop Ray Rice. Keep him under 50-60 yards and it will be clear that the Steelers are controlling the trenches. And, if they can control the trenches against that offensive line in the running game, then more than likely their blitz packages are screwing with Flacco. I hope that LeBeau can put together a magnificent scheme like he did last week – he’s shown that he can put enough wrinkles in his own defense to win against a team that has ‘had their number’ for some time. It’s time to show those Ratbirds that we still ‘have their number’ and give them a good punch in the throat this Sunday. GO STEELERS!