When contemplating whether the Pittsburgh Steelers run game will see improvement during the upcoming season, one has to make sure that their expectations for success on the ground are relevant to the modern NFL.
Today's league features complex, dangerous, precise and proficient passing attacks whose combination of efficiency and record-breaking accomplishments has many secondaries scratching their heads, contemplating on how they can catch up.
Truly, the rate of progress for the NFL's aerial showcases over the last five seasons, sinner all-time, has been radical!
Runners of the past were typically featured backs running behind offensive linemen whose responsibilities in the run blocking superseded pass protection. After all, a much greater bulk of the NFL offensive attack came courtesy of the ground game even as recently as a decade ago.
As such, success in the run game was measured by 100-yard games, 1,000-yard seasons, four-and-a-half yards per attempt and a cloud of dust!
Even in today's passing league, the ability to meet the above criteria, controlling the clock and putting up astronomical running numbers still behooves any franchise that can succeed in that style. However, the ability to consistently gain first downs in chunks, driving the field, controlling the clock throughout 60 minutes and keeping a defense fresh (the very defensive unit that is going up against elite passers who can put up the same drives in both yardage and point totals in three plays) has become incredibly difficult for most teams.
Running too often has become the new age disadvantage.
After all, the physical wear and tear of the ground attack is monumental. Likewise, aside from downs where running the football presents a greater odds of success, picking up yards in bits is a hard strategy to sustain with success, particularly against the many quarterbacks that are approaching first-down yardage, on average, on every single pass attempt.
Ground and pound has had its place as an exclusive strategy in the past, and it is warranted in some situations even today. Nevertheless, the capable offense of 2012 is one that is proficient in the passing game and aided by a capable running game tailor-made for today's offensive strategies.
The halfbacks of today's NFL may not see the same number of bulk carries as in the past, but efficiency is as important as ever. Nobody can refute that a higher average per rush is the best indicator of successful ground work, no matter the offensive strategy or the era.
Instead of using running backs as the primary means to move systematically down the field, the running game of today has a number of more subtle, though no less important, goals. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Keeping defenses off-balance by forcing them to have to honor the run. Unwillingness to take task to the opposition on the ground allows takes away an offense's ability to keep the defense honest. Even offenses that struggle to maintain decent averages per carry have to continue running the ball as a means to keep defenses honest.
2. Maintaining short to moderate down and distances, particularly on third down, thus helping to assure a high rate of conversion by today's supremely efficient passing attacks. Keeping negative and neutral plays to a minimum while working to increase the average gain per rush cuts down on late-and-long downs, which is conducive to manageable third-down conversions and fewer necessary risks resulting in turnovers. Those two stats have a high correlation with winning games.
3. Converting on short yardage opportunities. The time of possession game is crucial, but keeping the offense on the field also gives today's precise passers and pristine passing attacks more big play opportunities. When one "tiny" yard is the difference between punting and possessing in today's offensively proficient league, short yardage conversions with a capable third-down back are all the more vital.
In the last two seasons, the Steelers have drastically improved on the third listed task, particularly with the abilities of Redman in the backfield. A few years ago, the team couldn't convert on 3rd-and-1 even if Megan Fox was waiting on the other side of the first-down marker.
4. Executing inside the red zone, where the congestion in the secondary makes it harder for some passing attacks to make plays in the air. Negating increased risk in an area of the field where points are directly on the line is important.
5. Serving as a productive means to control the clock late in games where the risk of incomplete passes is stopping the clock. When you are ahead late in the game, "tick, tick, tick" is the tick-tick-ticket to winning!
The last two items are key areas of improvement. The team has lost games due to the inability to close late, most painfully to the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field (2010 and 2011). Likewise, their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone was partly influenced by room for improvement on the ground; the low conversion percentage resulted in the offense being ranked 21st in total scoring last season.
These are some of the modern functions of the running game, and there are certainly others. Clearly, the notion of blowing through an opponent predominantly on the ground is becoming more and more rare as a strategy, bordering on extinction.
Running games that help offenses in the ways listed may not get the same praise on the statistician's sheet like in the past, but they are no less effective when functioning well in helping to put points on the board.
Executing the goals listed is a matter of gaining positive yardage, albeit one yard or preferably more, while (and here's the key) avoiding neutral and negative gains.
What does this mean for the Steelers?
Blocking, avoiding penalties and hitting holes with ferocity! If they can consistently gain positive yardage, the end result on the entire offense will be synergistic success at an exponential level. While improving the ground game is a key focus, it is important to note that there are clear building blocks of confidence for the team to recall in their mission.
The running game has shown flashes of brilliance, even in recent years, though the ability to consistently replicate positive results has been an obvious issue.
Consider last year's contest against the Tennessee Titans, a 38-17 Steelers victory that saw the ground attack put on its finest performance of the season.
In the contest, the Steelers offense went to the passing game predominantly, as per normal, finishing with a 36:26 pass-to-run ratio. Because the running game had so much success, forcing the defense to honor both phases of the offensive gameplan, Ben Roethlisberger had the advantage of open space downfield combined with the deadly edge that is the play-action passing game.
He finished with five touchdown passes, the most all season and nearly one-quarter of his total in 2012!
For the Black and Gold, a renewed focus on the running game has been a topic of discussion throughout the community, as well as a publicly disclosed area for improvement that the team is actively addressing. While many fans are probably prematurely picturing images of the 70's and early 90's, recalling the glancing blows put on defenders by Franco Harris and Barry Foster, those folks can rest assured that a throwback to more a conservative, running attack is not the goal.
After all, in a passing league where offenses need explosive plays to keep up with the opposition, the Black and Gold are blessed to have an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. As such, the offense will continue to use the passing attack as its foundation; Todd Haley would be foolish to take any other approach. For reference, simply see above.
Regaining form will be measured by yards per carry and effectiveness during keys downs of the game. It will NOT necessarily be observed by bulk yardage and huge numbers (running back carries have steadily dropped in recent NFL seasons), though achieving in both ways—bulk yards and average gain—would only enhance the offense's success in achieving goals.
Very simply, improving the running game means improving in the listed areas above, and they will have to do so without Rashard Mendenhall for much of the 2012 campaign.
Even more simply, the running game is—and always has been—about gaining positive yardage (see No. 2 on the list). It seems so elementary in theory, a truly pedestrian means of defining ground success, but it's the very basic truth chiseled down to its core component.
Some elements of the game are blissfully uncomplicated. The ratio of forward progress to combined neutral and negative plays is higher for teams that best utilize the running game to set up success for the entire offense.
More yards per carry, irrelevant of the number of carries, marks a team with great efficiency that a defense must honor, thus opening all elements of their offensive game. Teams have to establish the run at all costs, but the deadliest offenses make those attempts count! A greater YPA (yards per attempt) will simply lead to greater OPS (offensive points scored).
Admittedly, the Steelers averaged a respectable 4.4 yards per rush last season. Part of success is also consistency, along with repeated gains and the avoidance of negative plays. Gaining 14 yards on first down and no yards on the next two downs lends itself to the same average, but the lack of consistent gain renders the strategy moot.
Can they do it? Can the Steelers execute more consistently in the running game, avoiding the non-gains and backfield stops that occasionally plagued them in recent seasons? Consider that even a pedestrian three yards-per-carry average on first and second down sets up a very manageable 3rd-and-short...
The key is consistently establishing the run, executing on each carry and avoiding negative plays.
Many critics are projecting the Steelers to finish 8-8, and part of their rationale revolves around the ground attack. The absence of Rashard Mendenhall is cited as a source of liability, as well as youth on the offensive line.
The work to-date of Isaac Redman, as well as a great infusion of talent backing him up (Dwyer, Clay, Redman, and/or Batch), leads me to believe that the running corp will be more than capable of delivering until the return of a healthy Rashard Mendenhall, and possibly beyond.
In the final two games of last season, though the offensive game called by Bruce Arians hardly demonstrated it, Redman averaged over seven yards per carry.
The offense should also be optimistic as it regards the trenches. Say what you want about the backs, but the running game has and always will start with the offensive hogs.
The offensive line's performance will be largely dictated by health, an area in which the Steelers have not enjoyed great fortune in recent seasons. Sadly, that is impossible to predict or control. However, hoping for the best and focusing exclusively on the talent upfront, the trenches should be an improved area in 2012, despite a lack of pro experience.
At center, the stalwart All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey returns. Marcus Gilbert will also gain on his valuable rookie experience at tackle, continuing to develop as a standout in the trenches.
Mike Adams was considered a second-round draft steal, and many scouting reports indicate a first-round talent whose natural gifts exceed those of last year's premium pick, Gilbert. There is no reason to believe that game experience, professional coaching and focus will not allow Adams to achieve at a level similar to that of Max Starks, even as early as this coming season.
Clearly, the biggest improvement will be at guard, which happens to be the area of the line most central to a consistently successful running game. Willie Colon's move to guard is a shift conducive to the former tackle's natural skill, particularly his size and brawn.
Likewise, David DeCastro comes to the Steel City with promises of an All-Pro career; many speculate that he could very well be the second coming of Alan Faneca.
Reasonably, even in a worst-case scenario, it would be almost impossible for the former Stanford star not to put Chris Kemoeatu's performances in recent seasons to shame. Considering the lack of consistency in the lineup and the deficiency of standout talent in recent seasons, particularly at the line's interior (aside from Pouncey), things are certainly looking up for the o-line.
With an improved line, an offensive coordinator with a reputation for properly utilizing his available talent and a group of backs hungry to prove they are capable of doing the job, the Pittsburgh Steelers run game is in a prime position to regain form in 2012, even if "regaining form" in the run game no longer means what it did in the past.