That Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice averaged 5.6 yards per carry against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 wasn't a huge surprise. Neither was the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch managing 1.8 in Week 2. However, when Colts rusher Joseph Addai (4.1 career ypc) recorded 5.1 yards on 17 carries and nearly pulled off an upset for Indianapolis in Week 3, I was officially concerned. Could this be the year that the Steelers' historically dominant rush defense regresses to the mean?
Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Houston Texans did nothing to assuage my fears. Halfbacks Arian Foster and Ben Tate enjoyed huge running lanes, racking up 175 yards on the ground between the two of them. During Houston's first drive alone, the Texans ran it 12 times for 62 yards. I'm just not used to seeing teams exert their will on Pittsburgh's front seven like that.
Tate and especially Foster are talented ball carriers, particularly in Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking, one-cut rushing scheme, but most of the credit has to go to Houston's offensive line, which might just be the best in the league. This wasn't a case of Foster making supremely electric plays or juking anyone out of their cleats—this was about five men winning their individual matchups and creating gaping holes in the Steelers' defensive front. That's what's so scary.
Schematically, I'm not sure what might be causing this sudden inability to stop opposing ball carriers. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't doing anything especially different than the past decade, when the Steelers have been impossible to run on. I will say this, though: they really weren't tackling well on Sunday. Pittsburgh basically played flag football against Foster; they could get a hand on him, but they couldn't wrap him up and bring him down. Rarely did the first defender to get there make the play.
If the Steelers want to improve in this area - how about starting next week against the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson? - the first thing they need to do is improve on this fundamental skill. Of course, we're talking about veteran guys who can read plays and take the right angles in pursuit. Now, they just need execute and bring rushers down when they get there.