Steelers' run-stop unit in rarified air

Jim Wexell's Sunday Notebook finds the Steelers stopping the run at a record pace. That and more:

PITTSBURGH – Two weeks ago in Buffalo, Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton didn't play a snap until 3:47 remained in the second quarter.

That happens sometimes.

But last week in Baltimore, Hampton wasn't on the field when the run-oriented Ravens had the ball and the lead with less than four minutes remaining.

That may have been a first for Hampton, who wasn't on the sideline due to any type of physical decline.

"My position's going the way of the fullback," Hampton lamented.

And there's probably a direct correlation between fullback and nose tackle. While Steelers coach Mike Tomlin claims he never lets the opponent dictate his personnel, Tomlin nearly always sends his nickel defense on the field when the other team lines up with three wide receivers.

That was the case in Buffalo and again down the stretch in Baltimore, where the Ravens tried to ice the game by spreading the Steelers out. But Hampton said the Ravens' strategy had nothing to do with their fullback being injured.

"Everybody's doing that," Hampton said. "If you can't run the ball, why even try it? That's what the game's come to today."

Nobody's had much success running on the Steelers this year. Even without an injured Aaron Smith, and much of the time a schemed-out Hampton, the Steelers allow 62.3 rushing yards per game to lead the league by a whopping 22.6 fewer yards per game than the runner-up Chicago Bears.

The Steelers are on pace to break their team record for the lowest average rushing allowed per game, as well as the fewest attempts against.

The 2001 Steelers allowed a franchise low 74.7 rushing yards per game on a record-low 339 attempts. This year's Steelers are on pace to smash the yardage record and allow 337 rushing attempts.

The modern-era NFL record for best run defense belongs to the 2000 Ravens, who allowed 60.6 yards rushing per game. The Steelers could break that record if teams continue their trend of attacking with multiple receivers, even with a late-game lead.


The Steelers have allowed only five 100-yard rushers in nearly seven full seasons under coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Bengals' Rudi Johnson in 2004 was the first of the five.

Cedric Benson of the Bengals has also been able to find running room against the Steelers. He carried 16 times for 76 yards in the first meeting last season. And earlier this season, Benson opened with four consecutive carries for 20 yards against the Steelers' nickel before Tomlin sent Hampton out on the second series. With Hampton in the nickel, Benson carried 14 times for only 34 yards the rest of the way.

Hampton believes that teams will soon begin leaning more on the ground game.

"The game's changing, and that's fine," he said. "But when it gets cold and snowing and all that, there's going to come a point where you can't throw the ball. When that point comes I'll be ready, and that's usually in January."


Jeremy Kapinos, the new Steelers punter, understands not only big-game environments, but cold weather environments as well. He's punted in front of 110,000 at Penn State (and in front of "those eyes" of Joe Paterno every day in practice) and he's spent a full season with the Green Bay Packers.

Kapinos punted for the Packers last season, and went into the playoffs and punted – once – in the Packers' 51-45 loss to Arizona. "I held more than anything," he said. "I was out there holding and thinking, ‘Come on, I'm in the playoffs. Just take a knee or something. Let me go in there and punt.'

"But, seriously, I understand the environment. Arizona's kind of a laid-back place but those fans were really getting after it. And I understand coming from Green Bay that every game's like a playoff game, even the preseason games. So I understand and can deal with the seriousness of the situation here."


Chad Ochocino was last seen by Steelers fans moping around the field, pointing fingers, and bemoaning the fact he was not getting the ball before his coach finally yanked him from the game and gave him a timeout.

Ochocinco caught only 1 pass for 15 yards that day, but that really wasn't too far off his average against the Steelers.

Ever since LeBeau became the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 2004, Ochocinco hasn't had a 100-yard game against the Steelers, and he's averaged only 4.2 catches for 53.2 yards with 2 touchdowns against them.

Ochocinco's average against the rest of the league during that same time span is 5.5 catches for 79.2 yards with 44 touchdowns.

LeBeau made Ike Taylor a starting cornerback in 2005, and Taylor further tightened Ochocinco's average against the Steelers to 4.1 catches for 50.7 yards with only 1 touchdown.

Taylor's been Ochocinco's nemesis the past five-plus seasons and things don't look to be getting any easier today against Ike.

"He's playing out of his mind this year," said James Farrior. "This is the best I've ever seen Ike play."

Ochocinco is coming off a 5-for-96 performance against the New Orleans Saints. What does he expect from LeBeau today?

"Same old, same old, man," Ochocinco said. "Dick dictates where the ball goes and that's the way it works. I just need to be patient. My time will come."

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