Steelers owner: Team must fix its 'soft' run defense

Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II hasn't been shy about sharing his thoughts on the team's future.

Rooney held a question-and-answer session with fans for Steelers Nation Unite on Wednesday. During the Q&A, the team president reiterated he hopes to get Le'Veon Bell's contract done and that the catch rule needs fixing.

Rooney was also asked what the Steelers must do to take the final steps toward a Super Bowl. He pointed specifically to run defense.

"We need to be more consistent on both sides of the ball," Rooney said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Last year there were some games where we were kind of soft against the run, and that's not Steelers football. We have to get stronger against the run so we can put our defense in position to get after the quarterback."

The Steelers being "soft" against the run can be traced directly to the devastating injury to Ryan Shazier in Week 13. The first 12 games of the 2017 season, Pittsburgh allowed 96.0 rushing yards per game. Following Shazier's injury, that number leaped to 133.5 rushing yards per tilt, including playoffs.

Coupled with other injuries, not being able to stuff the run caused Mike Tomlin's defense to collapse over the second half of the season. Pittsburgh allowed 350.8 total yards per game and 26.7 points per game after Week 13. The struggles culminated in allowing the Jacksonville Jaguars to gallop all over the field, rushing for 164 yards in the AFC Divisional Round, while the Steelers earned exactly zero sacks and gave up 45 points in the playoff loss.

Plugging the gap left behind by Shazier will not be easy. The linebacker was one of best sideline-to-sideline tacklers in the NFL, and his speed masked many mistakes. With few difference-making linebackers ever hitting free agency, the Steelers need to look to the draft once again to help fill the hole.

The run defense wasn't the only area Rooney believes needs to improve for Pittsburgh to make the leap in 2018.

"We need to become better in the red zone," he said. "We have a new offensive coordinator, and we'll make a few changes to affect that. If we stay healthy we'll be difficult to defend. We have the ability to run the ball with Le'Veon and throw the ball. We do need to get better there and hopefully we will be."

Pittsburgh let offensive coordinator Todd Haley walk and promoted Randy Fichtner to the gig this offseason. The Steelers scored touchdowns on 50.8 percent of red-zone drives, ranking 22nd in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. Given the offensive talent on the roster, that ranking remains mindboggling.

Fichtner's head boss had one clear message: Fix the red zone woes in 2018.