PITTSBURGH – The statistics show the Steelers finished No. 1 in overall defense in the NFL last year.
But the players know that No. 1 ranking comes with an asterisk.
“I think the number is not as important as the effect you have on football games,” said safety Ryan Clark. “We were extremely hard to score on last year. I think we were hard to move the ball on. But how many games did we truly dominate? How many games could you say, ‘The Steelers’ defense dominated this game (or) the Steelers’ defense won this game.’? In 2008, it was almost every game. … That’s the difference between being 8-8 and 12-4.”
Returning to a position of dominance has been a point of emphasis for the Steelers as they prepare to open the season Sunday at Heinz Field against the Tennessee Titans.
It used to be a given that Pittsburgh’s defense would be among the league’s best. Now, the general opinion is that it has fallen behind those in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and others.
“People have opinions. Some of them get paid to give them,” Clark said. “You have to go out and play the game on Sundays. We’re going to go out and run to the ball. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to hit people and let the chips fall where they may. There aren’t many running backs and receivers who go into the week saying, ‘I can’t wait to play the Pittsburgh Steelers.’”
Last year, the Steelers allowed a pair of 100-yard rushers and a pair of wide receivers to top 100 yards in a game.
For the Steelers, stopping the run is the key.
While Pittsburgh finished second in the league against the run, allowing an average of 90.6 yards per game, it wasn’t up to their regular standards.
“We’re a spoiled bunch,” said veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote. “I’ve been here long enough that people were saying, ‘What’s going on with our run defense?’ When you get four yards a run, our coaches are screaming. We’ve got to smash the run. That’s been a point of emphasis.”
It certainly will be a point of emphasis against the Titans. Last season in Tennessee, the Titans rushed for 94 yards, including 91 by Chris Johnson, in a 26-23 win over the Steelers. That is the most yards the speedy Johnson has gained against the Steelers in five games. Johnson is second only to Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson in rushing yards since 2008 with 6,888.
“A lot is talked about (concerning) his speed, and believe me, he’s as fast as advertised,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “His lateral quickness and burst is what makes him extremely dangerous. He’s very patient. He’s got good vision. We’ve got our hands full every time the ball is snapped. We’ve got to be prepared to get 11 guys to the ball to stop him.”
The Steelers say improving their run defense is the key to creating more turnovers. In the last decade, the Steelers have allowed more than 90 rushing yards per game in only two seasons, 2011 and 2012. Not coincidentally, Pittsburgh has seen its sack totals fall to 35 and 37 in those two seasons. Pittsburgh also created just 35 takeaways in those two seasons.
“When we don’t smash the run, we can’t do all of our stuff on third down,” said Foote. “We’ve got to get them behind the chains. To do that, we’ve got to smash the run.”
Odds and end zones
The Steelers placed tight end Matt Spaeth on short-term injured reserve Tuesday with a foot injury. Spaeth can return after Week 8. To replace Spaeth on the roster, the Steelers signed linebacker Trence Garvin, a rookie from West Virginia. …. Tomlin confirmed that running back Isaac Redman will be the starter Sunday. … Tomlin said rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will rotate with starters Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley. … Tight end Heath Miller, activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list Saturday after recovering from a torn ACL, participated in position drills Monday but is not expected to play against Tennessee. … Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell also is unlikely to play. … The availability of fullback Will Johnson, who suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason finale last week, will be determined later in the week.