Best defense?

<b>PITTSBURGH -</B> While the focus after Sunday's 41-20 loss to Kansas City was the Steelers' inability to run the ball, it just as easily have been on the team's inability to stop the Chiefs from doing the same. Who would have thought that two games into the season it would be the Steelers' run defense, not its pass defense, that would be letting the team down?

Last season, opponents ran for just over 85 yards per game against the Steelers, while passing for 216 yards per contest. The rush defense was tops in the league for the second year in a row, while the pass defense was a lot closer to the bottom of the league than it was the top.

But two games into the 2003 season, the Steelers have given up 241 yards on the ground, compared to just 267 through the air. The team is giving up an average of just 254 total yards per game, one of the best in the league. But problems are bound to arise if the Steelers continue to give up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.

Since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1992, only one Steelers team has allowed more than 120 yards rushing per game over the course of a season, the 1999 team that gave up an average of 122.4 yards per game on the ground. That team finished with a 6-10 record, the worst of any Cowher-coached team.

Part of the problem may be the two running backs the Steelers have faced to begin the season.

Kansas City's All-Pro running back Priest Holmes, who led the NFL in all-purpose yardage in 2002, gashed the Steelers for 122 yards on 26 carries and scored three touchdowns Sunday. Included in that total was a 31-yard TD run in the third quarter that sealed the Steelers' fate.

It wasn't that the Steelers did a poor job overall of defensing Holmes. Of his 26 carries, 17 went for 5 yards or fewer. He was dropped for no gain or a loss eight times.

"We dominated at the point of attack, but (Holmes) just stays back, stays back, stays back, waits for someone to over pursue and then, boom, he cuts it up," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "That's what he's so good at doing."

And the running back the Steelers faced in the first week of the season was none other than Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, who set an NFL record with 295 yards rushing Sunday in win over Cleveland. The Steelers defeated the Ravens, 34-15, but Lewis was a factor in the game, gaining 69 yards on 15 carries - a 4.6 yards per carry average. He also scored a rushing touchdown, giving opponents four touchdowns on the ground against the Steelers this season.

That's not a good trend for the Steelers considering they play at Cincinnati against running back Corey Dillon, who held the NFL single-game rushing record that Lewis broke Sunday. Even though Dillon left Cincinnati's game Sunday at Oakland with a slightly-sprained knee, he is expected to be able to play this week against the Steelers.

One thing that could help would be the return of All-Pro linebacker Joey Porter, who missed the first two games of the season while recovering from a gunshot wound. Porter was originally listed as doubtful to play against the Chiefs and could be moved up to questionable to play against Cincinnati. But a return by Porter in two weeks, when the Steelers host Tennessee, is much more likely.

Dale Lolley
Courtesy of the Washington Observer-Reporter

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