here are plenty of teams that run the 3-4 defense nowadays — 16 to be exact. There are teams that have better athletes on defense than the Steelers and teams that have a veteran defensive coordinator just as accomplished and passionate about stopping the run as Dick LeBeau.
But no team has made opponents as one-dimensional.
"They all say they want to stop the run like Dick LeBeau, but nobody can do what he does," linebacker James Farrior said. "A lot of teams say they want to and think they can but they can't." In his nine years and two stints as defensive coordinator with the Steelers, LeBeau's run defense has finished in the top three each year, with last year the pinnacle. The Steelers flirted with becoming the best single-season run defense ever before missing out by a mere 34 yards. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens hold the record of 60.6 yards a game over a 16-game season.
The Steelers allowed 62.8 last year and permitted only two teams to eclipse 100 yards; both times the Steelers lose. They have allowed only one running back — the Ravens' Ray Rice — to gain more than 100 yards during their past 57 games, including the playoffs.
How do the Steelers accomplish what other teams strive to do?
"It's all understanding the defense," linebacker coach Keith Butler said. "That's why (defensive line coach John Mitchell) and I aren't big fans of rookies. They have to learn what we are trying to do and learn what to do inside the framework of the defense."
"Anybody can line up and run the 3-4," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "You have to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. Everybody has to know their job, and everybody has to be responsible and accountable for their job and nothing else."
Job responsibilities are basic:
>> Defensive linemen: Eat up blocks to keep offensive linemen off the linebackers.
>> Linebackers: Run to the ball and be sound tacklers.
>> Secondary: Make sure a 6-yard run doesn't turn into a 60-yard run.
"Our run statistics are pretty good, and it might have something to do with the system," LeBeau said. "But no matter what your defensive scheme is, you have to have good players. I don't think the scheme hurts any. It is put together to stop the run."
LeBeau has the right players in the right spots. Six of the front seven have made at least one Pro Bowl. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu also helps stuff the run, at times.
"We have some talent," Butler said. "Try to knock Casey Hampton out of there with one guy. Try to knock LaMarr Woodley off the ball or James Harrison off the ball. It's hard to do."
But 60-yards-per-game good? Nearly 20 yards a game less than the 2008 Super Bowl-winning defense good?
"It wasn't the best ever, but it is pretty close," Butler said. "We would like to be the best ever."
Free safety Ryan Clark can be considered another reason for the Steelers' staunch run defense last season. The Steelers allowed only three runs of 15 yards or longer, one of which was a quarterback scramble by Joe Flacco. In contrast, the Steelers offense had 28 runs of 15 yards and longer.
"(Clark) is probably one of the best open-field tacklers that we've had," Butler said. "If they get to him, then he limits the run to six yards."
Clark said: "We get guys on the ground even when they do get through. You don't see any 40 or 50-yard runs on us."
The Steelers were so successful at stopping the run that teams gave up trying at times. Five teams attempted fewer than 20 carries. Cincinnati had only 14 rushes in a late-season game — second fewest against the Steelers since the 1970 merger.
"I learned a long time ago that if all a quarterback has to do is turn around and hand the ball off to be successful, you aren't going to win too many games," LeBeau said. "I think a steady diet of running against the Steelers isn't the way to go."