Opponents have gained 4.6 yards per carry over the Steelers' last four games this season. To put it in perspective, the Steelers have allowed more than 4.0 yards per carry throughout only three of their last 35 seasons. The worst Steelers run defense since 1969 was the 1999 version that allowed 4.3 yards per carry.
The Oakland Raiders tried, and at times were successful at, exposing this latest wart. After a first series in which they passed three times before punting, the Raiders ran on 13 of their next 14 plays. In the middle of the stretch was a 7-run, 63-yard touchdown drive that helped the Raiders gain 102 yards on 16 first-half carries, a whopping average of 6.4 yards per carry.
The Raiders, of course, changed their plan of attack after falling behind by 10 points at halftime. They gained only 20 rushing yards in the second half, and the Steelers believe their adjustments had more to do with it than anything else.
"When I got back up to the (press) box," explained defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, "our defensive assistant, Lou Spanos, had a defense written down and he asked me what I thought about it. I thought it was a good idea, I called it and Brent (Alexander) had a tackle for no gain and the rest was history. We ran that defense twice and two other defenses that we haven't run in awhile."
The Raiders gained only 53 yards total offense in the second half on 23 plays, giving the Steelers reason to believe their defense might rebound Sunday against the New York Jets. Yet, that first-quarter drive, when the Raiders lined up against the Steelers' base defense and imposed their will, can't be dismissed.
"We had a couple of missed tackles," Lewis said, "but the gap responsibilities and the scheme were right."
And Lewis is adamant that aside from a few missed tackles, the players did a solid job, particularly nose tackle Casey Hampton, who appeared to give up the middle too easily too often.
"He did a great job," Lewis said, echoing Coach Bill Cowher's comments from the previous day. "He killed their center, and when Kendrick Clancy came in he killed him even more."
During the Raiders' stretch of 13 runs in 14 plays, Hampton was single-blocked by backup center Adam Treu 10 times, doubled once and wham-blocked by the tight end twice.
On the 22-yard touchdown run by Tyrone Wheatley, O.J. Santiago's wham-block on Hampton opened the first hole and a blocked James Farrior couldn't fill it. Mike Logan missed a tackle, Deshea Townsend was blocked and Wheatley waltzed into the end zone.
"It's called a wham play and everybody gets blocked by that play. Even Mean Joe Greene would've gotten blocked by that play," Lewis said. "The fact of the matter is he's playing one guy and that guy leaves him and before he has a chance to turn around, wham."
"The old Steelers used to run that play all the time, the old wham. Bennie Cunningham used to do it. Eric Green used to kill people with it. It's a good play."
And one the Steelers haven't seen in awhile. Lewis credited the Raiders for coming out with a new look on Sunday.
"They ran three-tight end sets," he said. "If you recall last year, they came out with three or four wide receivers and threw it all over the park. We knew they were kind of a package-of-the-week kind of team, but we didn't expect them to come out and take Jerry Rice and Tim Brown off the field and try to overpower us an entire game."
The Raiders haven't been the only team to overpower the Steelers recently. The Cincinnati Bengals averaged 4.5 yards per carry and the San Francisco 49ers averaged 5.3 per carry. The 4.6 yards per carry the Steelers have allowed over the last four teams dwarfs the 3.3 average against the rush in the previous four games.
"Yeah, people are trying to run the football on us," Lewis said, before splitting into a grin. "I guess that says our pass defense puts fear in them."
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