It wasn’t easy to put a finger on exactly how the Steelers lost to the Jets on Sunday afternoon.
They outgained New York by 102 yards. They didn’t turn the ball over. And the offensive line played arguably its best game of the year.
So exactly why did the Steelers come out on the short end of a 22-17 game?
“We didn’t play well enough to win,” rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a quiet Steelers locker room shortly after Ben Roethlisberger was unable to find him in the end zone twice in the final minute. “I don’t think anything was done wrong. I think it was two great teams going up against each other and we didn’t prevail. We’re going to bounce back. We’ve got a game on Thursday versus Carolina. We’ve got to win these next two games in order to clinch the AFC North, and with the guys around me, I have complete faith that we’re going to do that.”
In order to do that, the Steelers will need to shore up what has been a strength of their’s for the past two decades or so: The run defense.
New York didn’t exactly embarrass the Steelers – the Jets’ 106 rushing yards were less than what 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams give up on average – but the performance also wasn’t up to the standard set by Dick LeBeau’s defense.
The Steelers have the top-ranked run defense in the league, giving up only
63.4 yards per game, so seeing LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene do just enough to take the pressure off quarterback Mark Sanchez was hard for linebacker James Farrior.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our run defense. They executed well, blocked us up and got the yards when they needed them. It seemed like they ran just enough to keep us off track.”
The Steelers will have to find a way to turn things around quickly this week. Carolina (2-12) doesn’t do many things well, but the one thing coach John Fox counts on is his running game. With an average of 116.8 yards per game, Carolina is 12th in the NFL in rushing. The Panthers’ 387 attempts are 11th-most in the NFL
Those numbers aren’t astounding by any means, but considering the fact that Carolina has been playing catch-up in many of its games, and its reliance on the ground attack becomes a bit more clear.
Jonathan Stewart has run for 668 yards while Mike Goodson has 435 yards on the ground. Both are averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which got the attention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“Stopping the ball carriers is going to be a big part of this week’s challenge for us,” Tomlin said. “They complement each other extremely well. Stewart is a patient runner with nice finishing power. … And Goodson is an awesome complement to him because he has great perimeter speed.”
The Steelers are unlikely to have safety Troy Polamalu, who missed Sunday’s game with an Achilles’ tendon injury, and defensive end Aaron Smith, who has been sidelined since Oct. 24 by a torn triceps.
Neither should be needed to beat Carolina, but that seemed to be the case last year, when the Steelers lost to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland with Polamalu and Smith in street clothes.
Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.