Historically, when you think about the Pittsburgh Steelers, you think about a smothering defense and power run game. So, it is hard to imagine that the last time this unit led the league in rushing was all the way back in 2001, when they had 580 carries for 2,774 yards as a team.
This was old-school football at it's finest, and while some considered it boring, it was effective. Fast forward to 2013, and it's a very different picture. The Steelers are currently on pace for around 336 carries for 1,099 yards. A far cry from 2001.
Taking a closer look at this 2013 incarnation of the Pittsburgh run game, there are a few recurring themes that are evidence to the futility of the run game.
First, it is about the injuries. I understand that all teams have to deal with injuries during the season, and it's next man up for everyone. But for this team, in particular, the offensive line groupings have been turned over too many times for any semblance of continuity or chemistry to develop.
Going forward, the best hope the Steelers have is to get a grouping that can be serviceable and pray they can stay healthy. During the first seven games of the year, this team has been forced to press into service players who have no business playing, and it has shown.
Second are the matchups. Football really is that simple sometimes. You block your man, your teammates block theirs, and it all works out. Here are a few pictures from last Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders to illustrate my point.
It appears at the snap this play is going to work. The Steelers have the numbers they need, and running back Le'Veon Bell should be able to work to the second level.
However, because full back Will Johnson is destroyed in his one-on-one with the Raiders defender, there is no hole to run through; Bell is forced to try and take the football outside, and by this time, the Raiders secondary has had a chance to fill, and the play goes nowhere.
This play might have been saved by Bell's athleticism if not for Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders making no effort to block on the play.
Here is another play where the Steelers offensive linemen are simply physically overpowered by the Raiders defensive front. At the snap, the Raiders defensive front don't allow the Steelers line to set up. It's a draw, so it isn't a case of the Steelers line working downhill on Oakland. However, the line of scrimmage is the 15, and when Bell gets the ball at the 20, three Steelers linemen have already lost. And this is with one lineman simply opting to block no one.
When one offensive lineman misses their assignment on a play like this, the running back might be able to recover. But when three of them do it, there is no hope for recovery.
Even here, where the Steelers cause confusion with reverse action, they cannot capitalize because tight end Heath Miller loses his assignment. The Steelers have a very nice counter called, and Dwyer uses the cutback well. It looks like he's going to have an alley to run through, but Miller can't maintain his block long enough, and Dwyer is tripped up again.
It is easy to throw blame onto the coaching staff for the woes in the run game. However, the reality is, no matter what play is called or in what situation, it always comes down to the players on the field executing, and looking back in order to look forward, it is clear these players must execute much better. If not, no amount of talented running backs or fancy schemes will save the season.