Every great team has something that defines them as a franchise. Not just a play for the ages, but something that is as repetitive as the heartbeat inside your chest.
Thump thump… thump thump… thump thump. Can you hear it? If you are in the city of Pittsburgh you can feel the pulse with every sound.
Put your ear against the Steel building and you will hear it. Stand on top of Mount Washington and you will hear the same sound that echoes through the empty Steel Mills that line the three rivers.
For the last 77 years the very life’s blood of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been the tough, physical nature with which they play the game. Perhaps the signature of that physical nature is a running game that has been the blunt instrument by which the Steelers have imposed their will for decades. It is that element of the game that brings the Steelers and their crowd to life and crushes the vitality of their opponents.
Over the course of the last year Pittsburgh has strayed away from some of the more signature formations and plays that made them infamous amongst defenses and their Coordinators in the NFL.
Admittedly, some of the shift occurred due to the decimation of the Steelers backfield early on in the 2008 Season.
Willie Parker’s nagging injuries kept him sidelined for most of the season. The absence of Parker combined with a season ending shoulder injury to first round draft choice Rashard Mendenhall quickly put the Steelers behind the eight ball. Forced to start third down back Mewelde Moore, the Steelers rushed for a little more than 1,600 yards (23rd in the NFL) in 2008.
Despite the injuries, much of the changeover has occurred because of a shift in offensive philosophy brought about by Coordinator Bruce Arians.
Take one look at the red-zone play calling and you will pick up on the trend that every defense on the Steelers’ schedule did last year.
Why is it that the Steelers seemed to be the most predictable offense in the league once they got inside the 20-yard line?
The Steelers forsook the power running game for the spread passing attack. The philosophy that goes along with the new playbook focuses on using three receiver sets and a wide open passing game in order to set up the run. So when a team passes the ball the majority of the time down the field it is absurd for them to think they can take the air out of the ball once they cross the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Not only does it kill the rhythm that has been established during the current drive, it also negates the momentum that has been built up as well.
Few teams had a harder time running the ball between the Tackles than the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Call it lack of experience on the line, being forced to use the third down back as a starter or whatever else you can come up with, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was an ongoing problem for the offense.
Moore performed admirably in the role thrust upon him, but once you examine the formations in which a smallish Back like Moore was being utilized, and the questions start pouring in.
Going from the “I” formation, featuring a blocking Fullback and a bruising Tailback to a single back set in order to employ a more open offense has not worked all that well for the Steelers’ running game.
Most of the Steelers rushing production occurred outside the Tackles, and what couldn’t be mustered in the running game was substituted by quick screen-plays and swing passes to the sure handed Moore.
Once the team got in the red-zone the Steelers started to run the ball using stretch blocking schemes, draw plays and the use of a third Offensive Tackle on the line of scrimmage. These plays are predictable because of the limitations to the formation. When a third Tackle is employed it eliminates one of the skill position players on the field. Virtually eliminating a high percentage of offensive options.
This works if you are able to execute, but if you are going to be predictable, you are going to have to be dominant. There is no other way around it. Sure many successful Steelers teams of the past were very predictable, but they were also among the most dominant offenses in the league.
Since the retirement of Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh has not had a Back that can manage the goal-line. Parker finished the 2006 season with 13 touchdowns. Since then he has had seven total scores, and most of them have come on long runs of 20 yards or more.
In the absence of Parker and Mendenhall, Moore and practice squad promotion Gary Russell were able to score only eight rushing touchdowns all season.
So what is the common denominator in the decreased production of the running game since Parker’s double-digit touchdown year?
It’s really quite simple. Looking at the stats from 2006 until now, there is a direct correlation between the departure of Fullback Dan Kreider and the decline in rushing touchdowns. The lack of Fullback presence in the team’s playbook took an imperfect running game and put them at an even bigger disadvantage.
Jerome Bettis was a great back, a sure fire Hall of Famer. But, one thing even “the bus” never did without was a great Fullback. Whether it was Tim Lester or Dan Kreider, Bettis always had himself a bus driver.
Not only has the departure of Kreider and the elimination of the Fullback hurt Parker and his supporting cast in terms of production, it has also hurt them in terms of health. Parker has not played a full season since the offensive shift and obviously the rest of the team has felt the pain as well.
It is clear that the Steelers needed that dominant force back in the backfield this coming season, and they may have found their answer in the 5th round of the draft.
Frank Summers was nicknamed “the tank” at UNLV because of his dominant running style. At 5’9”/240, Summers is small only in terms of height, and is less than shy about seeking contact out of the backfield.
It is easy to see the resemblances between Summers and Bettis, but the comparison at this point has to stop at physical characteristics. Summers ran a 4.55 at his pro day (faster than Bettis’ 4.7). He also managed to bench press 30 reps at 225 lbs. and registered a vertical of 34 inches. All of which are above average, especially for a guy that wasn’t even invited to the combine.
With the return of fast Willie and Mendenhall the backfield seems crowded, and the Steelers want Summers to become the Fullback they so badly need.
Everything seems to be falling into place in order to reintroduce a new dimension of power running into the Steelers’ arsenal, but hold on just a minute. The Steelers are asking Summers to make a move that he refused to make in college. In fact, Summers turned down an opportunity to play for Pete Carroll at USC because he didn’t want to play Fullback.
If Summers makes the move to Fullback fans could see the second coming of a rare talent. Not that of Jerome Bettis, but of former Fullback hybrid Mike Alstott. The ability to bring a power running dimension to an offense while taking on the duties of clearing the way for small, speedy Backs like Parker could make him serviceable almost immediately on the NFL level.
It is going to take work to improve his blocking. However, the potential for Summers to come in and play a significant role in his rookie season is a definite possibility, and with that possibility comes the potential for Pittsburgh to solve it’s problems between the tackles and in goal-line situations.
The days of Dan Kreider firmly de-cleating Ray Lewis on an "Iso play" are gone, but they are not forgotten. With the addition of Frank Summers the Steelers coaching staff may very well be seeing visions of the "I" formation and the Fullback dive lighting up the score board at Heinz Field.
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