The Steelers know the primary defensive objective this week. Stop the run. Stop it often. Stop it early. Stop it late.
Pittsburgh did a fair job at slowing down New England’s ground game until the final six minutes of Sunday’s 17-14 Patriots win at Acrisure Stadium.
But those final moments proved huge, as New England milked the clock out and came away with the win.
“We have to keep playing better no matter the situation,” defensive end Cam Heyward said Tuesday. “You look at the opening drive and the ending drive, they were able to sustain drives. We didn’t get off the field and it cost us some points and time.”
New England’s first drive — which ended in a field goal — milked 6:45 off of the clock, stretching 71 yards over 13 plays. It was similar to the final series, which took 6:33, also in 13 plays.
That final drive including nine runs in the ten plays before the kneel downs to finish off the clock.
“We’ve got to be more solid,” outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said. “Just being more physical at the point of attack. I know we will be… We played good against the run up until that point. But we have to put together four quarters of physicality.”
What seemed to particularly do in the Steelers was New England’s ability to stretch their backs, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, to the edges of the defense.
“I think we were almost in position, but maybe a half a step (off) in terms of alignment here or there,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “It gives them the advantage, because I thought our guys played hard.
“We looked at it and identified what we would have to do if that situation comes up again. And I think we'll have it fixed.”
They better hope so. The Steelers had a short week to fix those issues, with a Thursday night game in Cleveland looming.
It’s a Browns team that leads the NFL in rushing yards per game this year, with over 200 per game, and sports quite possibly the league’s best running back tandem in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
“It's going to be all of us in terms of stopping this run game because they do a good job of identifying, blocking and getting their back downhill,” Austin said.
The silver lining? Despite finishing with the NFL’s worst run defense last season, the Steelers generally were successful against the Browns’ rushing attack in 2021.
Cleveland ran for 96 yards in a 15-10 loss in Week 9, and for 93 yards in a 26-14 Steelers victory in Week 17. Chubb accounted for 61 and 58 yards, respectively.
“It was a collective thing,” Heyward said. “I don’t think it was just one person. It’s usually not one guy tackling Chubb, it’s multiple guys. We all have to be responsible for stopping this rushing attack.”
Perhaps Cleveland has learned its lesson. In the first game, the Browns called 36 passing plays, and just 18 runs. In the second, Cleveland had Baker Mayfield drop back for 49 passes — he was sacked nine times — with just 22 designed runs. Without the need to appeal to Mayfield's ego, the Browns might just commit to the rush game a little bit more frequently.
“The AFC North, we know each other really well around here,” Austin said. “We kind of know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we try to make sure that we minimize their strengths and highlight our strengths against them.”
Pittsburgh has allowed 128.5 rushing yards per game through the first two games of the season. It’s a better mark than last year, but still not one the team is content with.
Now, with that in mind, it faces the toughest rushing attack it may see all season, in prime time, on the road, and on national television.
It's a massive early test for a group hoping to prove that last year’s struggles are behind them.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but it's going to be all of us,” Austin said. “It's not going to be one guy, really, that's trying to carry it.
“We’ll get a chance to get back at it this week against a really good run team and hopefully we'll make the progress we need to get a win.”