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Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger Are Doomed Without Return of Dominant Running Game

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 Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger Are Doomed Without Return of Dominant Running Game
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
It was a long chain of events, not just injuries, that resulted in the Steelers naming Isaac Redman their starting running back.

The Pittsburgh Steelers run game was the worst it has been in a long time in 2012, contributing to the Steelers putting up their worst overall offensive yardage total since 2008. The Steelers went 8-8 that year partially because of it and there's been no improvement through one week in the 2013 season. 

While the NFL has tipped toward a pass-heavy league for years now, that doesn't mean a team can necessarily be Super Bowl contenders without a run game. 

And it's also quite possible that the Steelers have doomed themselves to their current fate by de-emphasizing the run and devoting themselves to the powers of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his group of receivers. 

Though it wasn't until 2012 that the Steelers run game truly struggled, there were hints at this development for years. For example, the rush attempts—in 2005, with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis as their two primary backs, the Steelers had 549 runs.

Steelers Offensive Trends, 2005-2012
Year Rush Yds Rush TDs Yds/Rush Rush Yds/G Rush Atts Pass Atts
2012 1,537 8 3.7 96.1 412 574
2011 1,903 13 4.4 118.9 434 539
2010 1,924 15 4.1 120.3 471 479
2009 1,793 10 4.2 112.1 428 536
2008 1,690 16 3.7 105.6 460 506
2007 2,168 9 4.2 135.5 511 442
2006 1,992 16 4.2 124.5 469 523
2005 2,223 21 4.0 138.9 549 379

Data via Pro-Football-Reference.com

In 2012, with Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and a returning-from-injury Rashard Mendenhall, they ran 412 times. The year before, with a healthy Mendenhall as the top rusher, the Steelers ran the ball 434 times. The number of rushes per year by Pittsburgh has dropped by over 100 in the matter of eight seasons. 

While there has been an attendant drop in rushing yards and touchdowns as a result, it was never as dramatic as what happened last year. Injuries, a change in offensive coordinator to Todd Haley and the usual problems on the offensive line are part of the reason, but another big one seems to be an apparent failure by the Steelers to give priority to the run. 

When Roethlisberger became the Steelers starter in 2004, the team did not immediately develop an identity around him. In fact, even though he helped the Steelers win games right away, leading them to the playoffs in his first year and then becoming the youngest Super Bowl winning quarterback in his third year, he wasn't given a lot of credit for the success.

The days of Willie Parker are long gone; the Steelers have turned into a pass-first team now.

It was the defense and the run game that supposedly carried the Steelers. However, the Steelers remained committed to Roethlisberger, and though it was clearly warranted, it manifested itself as a creeping neglect of the run game. After all, who needs to run when Roethlisberger has Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress or Mike Wallace to throw to?

Now, we're starting to the see the error of this decision. 

With the Steelers' increased reliance on the passing game has come other problems. Though Wallace was an expensive, problematic player that the Steelers had no way to retain, his ability to stretch the field vertically and demand defensive attention allowed the team room to either run or throw short passes.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Deep threats like Mike Wallace draw defensive attention, opening up opportunities to run the ball. The Steelers lack that presently.

His replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, has equivalent speed but isn't a physical receiver that is going to scare defenses into double and triple-coverage to keep him contained. 

There's no deep threat, so defenders can play closer to the snap, which limits the Steelers' ability to either pass or run the ball. And their lack of dynamic running backs who are capable of making something out of nothing force them to be dependent on a questionable offensive line that is now without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the rest of the season.

The current situation, with rookie Le'Veon Bell sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury and LaRod Stephens-Howling on season-ending IR with a torn ACL, means that the Steelers have no choice but to rely heavily on the passing game right now.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
If Le'Veon Bell is the answer, we won't know for some time as he continues to rehab his injured foot.

While they drafted Bell in the second round in April, indicating they realized a change needed to be made at the running back position, the lack of a comparable replacement for him shows just how little the Steelers thought about the run game. 

Through all of this, the Steelers have maintained a defense that has ranked in the top 10 in points and yards allowed, save 2009 when they ranked 12th in points and 2006 when they ranked 11th. The defense isn't the problem. The offense is, and its ability to score points.

Since 2009, the Steelers have run 541 plays inside their opponents' red zone, 286 of those (or 52.9 percent) passing and 255 (47.1 percent) rushing, but have scored only 105 touchdowns, gaining six points only 19.4 percent of the time.

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In the same span, 14 teams have scored more touchdowns, while the league as a whole called for fewer passing plays and more running plays in the red zone than Pittsburgh. The league (including the Steelers) also averaged a touchdown from a red-zone appearance 19.7 percent of the time—a slight improvement on the Steelers' numbers, yes, but still a significant one. 

The emphasis on the passing game is somewhat of a myth. In the NFL, fortune favors the balanced offenses, not the ones who pass and pass again. The Steelers, however, put so many of their eggs in the passing game's basket to the detriment of the run game. Now, they are left with an injured rookie, the same tandem of Dwyer and Redman from last year plus veteran castoff Felix Jones.

The Steelers have been sowing the seeds of this run-game disaster for years now; it's only presently, in Week 2 of the 2013 season, that we've finally seen the terrible product of this neglected part of their game.

The Steelers must run well to succeed this year, but their choices—along with a few major, ill-timed injuries—seem to point to this not happening. 

 

 

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