Expect defensive struggle with Steelers-Jets
December 19, 2010
Herald Standard

PITTSBURGH - To illustrate how little teams have been trying to run against the Steelers this season, here are some pertinent run-pass ratios:

The Steelers' own run-pass ratio is 48-52.

The league's run-pass ratio is 43-57.

Against the Steelers, the opposing ratio is 33-67.

And the ratio of the Steelers' last seven opponents is 30-70.

Even traditional running teams such as the Baltimore Ravens attempted to run only 35 percent of the time against the Steelers two weeks ago.

There are varying reasons, but foremost is the fact that these Steelers play the run like nobody in recent history.

The Steelers are allowing only 60.1 yards rushing per game, the lowest average in the NFL in 66 years. The previous best defense against the run was the 1944 Philadelphia Eagles, who allowed 55.8 yards rushing per game. The NFL record is the 47.2 per-game average yielded by the 1942 Chicago Bears, a.k.a. the "Monsters of the Midway."

Per carry, the Steelers aren't quite as historic on a league basis, but at 2.9 these Steelers are looking to become the first defense in franchise history to allow less than 3.0 yards per carry. (The "Steagles" of 1943 allowed 2.5 per carry, but that defense consisted primarily of the aforementioned '44 Eagles.)

Only eight other defenses in the last 60 years have allowed less than 3.0 yards per carry, and none of those teams was nicknamed "The Steel Curtain."

So today, the new 10-3 Steel Curtain puts its gaudy stats on the line against a 9-4 New York Jets team that loves to "pound the rock."

No team has come close to running the ball more than the Jets since Rex Ryan became head coach in 2009. In Ryan's two seasons, the Jets have carried 1,034 times, or 151 more times than the runner-up Kansas City Chiefs.

Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton believes the Jets will come to Heinz Field this afternoon with the intention of running the ball, and sticking with it.

"That's one team that's not going to get away from it," Hampton said. "That's their identity. That's what they do, so we'll definitely find out."

The Steelers will find out if they're really up to their historic statistics, because there's really no good explanation for why the Steelers have suddenly become a brick wall up front. After all, Aaron Smith has missed the last seven games and the other defensive end, Brett Keisel, has missed six games.

"I don't think there is an explanation," said coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Our guys are playing good run defense and we're having a good year in that area. But if you check our statistics the last seven years, you'll find our run defense has been pretty solid."

Since LeBeau arrived in 2004, the Steelers have been the best run defense in the NFL, but no single unit has come close to the numbers the Steelers are posting this season, whether it be per game (80.3 in 2008) or per carry (3.3 in 2008).

"We've gotten ahead on some teams early in the season and gotten them out of their run game fast," was safety Troy Polamalu's explanation. "Also, our pass defense has been struggling at times this year."

The Steelers' pass defense will be a potentially bigger problem today without Polamalu, who'll sit this game out with a lower leg injury. He'll be replaced by third-year man Ryan Mundy.

A sudden shift in the Jets' identity, though, would put Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez on the spot at Heinz Field. The second-year quarterback has completed only 53.3 percent of his passes this season with a passer rating of 74.2. Both numbers rank next-to-last in the league among current starters, ahead of only rookie Jimmy Clausen of Carolina.

"Spreading us out is a possibility, but they've got two great running backs. I know they're going to try to stuff the run up there," linebacker James Farrior said of LaDainian Tomlinson and second-year man Shonn Greene.

"They're going to try to run the ball. I definitely know that. We definitely have to be prepared."

The 31-year-old Tomlinson has gained only 78 yards in three games against the Steelers since the 2006 season. He started strong this season and has 837 yards rushing (4.3 avg.), but hasn't gained more than 50 in any of his last four games (3.4 avg.). Green has 656 yards with a 4.1 average as the Jets are one of only two teams in the league with two backs among the league's top 25 in carries.

"Hey, man, it's going to be a defensive game," said Hampton. "They play old-style football. As long as they don't mistakes they'll let their defense win because they have a great defense. I just think it's going to boil down to which defense plays the best."