As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Sunday’s Week One opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
X-FACTOR: Run Fits
It’d be easy for me to choose what’s flashy and a little more obvious. The Steelers’ secondary defending the big play potential of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Or the pass protection against Trey Hendrickson, especially focusing on Dan Moore Jr., who could wreck the Steelers’ pass game plans.
But I’ll be a little different and get back to football’s roots. The run game. The entire Steelers’ offseason was centered around one core and disgustingly obvious fact: the run defense sucked and it has to get better. If they can’t happen, everything else is noise. That’s old-school and antiquated in today’s modern NFL but Pittsburgh’s terrible run defense a year ago was proof positive of what bad looks like. And oh boy was it ugly. Great run defense makes up the Steelers’ identity and they felt naked without it last year. And it hurt this team in so many ways.
The Bengals’ offense may look focused around its now high-flying passing attack. But their run game has always been their foundation, led by Joe Mixon, perennially underrated and one of just two backs to have three 1100+ rushing yard seasons over the last four years. He’s not an every down workhorse the way Najee Harris is, he won’t see much time on third down, but on first and second down, he’s their #1 guy.
Cincinnati pairs talent with scheme well, running an inside/outside zone system that allows Mixon and his great vision to pick the lane and find the hole. His goal is find where the defense isn’t and hit that lane, to always make them wrong. That makes it even more important than usual for Pittsburgh to be gap sound. Cam Heyward discussed it earlier in the week. The backside cutback might be more dangerous than Ja’Marr Chase running downfield. Pittsburgh’s run defense failed for a dozen reasons last season but the primary one, because of their youth and inexperience, was them not being gap sound. Not doing their job, poor fundamentals, failing to execute their assignment, and that led to a host of problems. It can’t happen again Sunday against the Bengals. Their line is better, their back still strong, and a steady run game keeps their offense on schedule to hurt you through the air.
The Steelers’ run defense must get back to at least top ten. Top five would be ideal. They say their front seven is better. And I believe them. But time for talk is over. This weekend begins to tell that story.