The Pittsburgh Steelers' run game was the weakest aspect of their offense last year. They ranked 25th in rushing attempts, with 394 on the season, tied for 27th in rushing yards per game, at 86.4 and 29th in yards per rushing attempt, at 3.5. They had only nine rushing touchdowns for the season.
It wasn't complete doom-and-gloom for Pittsburgh's run game last year, however. Their final three games saw the Steelers rush for over 100 yards in each, led by Le'Veon Bell, who had 90 and 124 yards in his final two games, respectively.
There were numerous reasons for the Steelers' poor rushing performance last season—Bell's rookie status and the fact that he began the season still recovering from a foot injury, a thin depth chart behind him and a relatively schemeless offensive line that spent much of the year reeling from center Maurkice Pouncey's Week 1 ACL and MCL tears chief among them.
Those issues don't look like they'll reprise themselves in 2014. The Steelers have much more stability on the offensive line, Bell is healthy and has a year of experience to his name and the running backs who will share carries with him should prove much more useful than Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones were last season.
Bell will be the Steelers' lead tailback and for good reason—not only does he run with good speed and power, he can also confidently catch the football and has made significant strides as a blocker. There's no reason to believe he won't eclipse 1,000 rushing yards this year. But he cannot carry the entire load alone.
That's why the Steelers beefed up their stable of running backs with free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafted the very fast Dri Archer in May to work as a hybrid rusher and receiver in coordinator Todd Haley's offense.
Though Bell will see a good number of short-yardage and goal-line touches, Blount will get use as a cleanup rusher in those situations. Of Blount's 153 rushing attempts last year for the New England Patriots, 35 were for first downs, coming in second among the team's backs. He also had seven rushing touchdowns.
Blount's strength is, well, his strength. He's a powerful runner who ranked 12th in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating (subscription required), a measure of how successful a running back is "beyond the point of being helped by his blockers." He ranked eighth in yards after contact per attempt, at 2.73, and forced 26 missed tackles.
Blount rushed for 772 yards last year; in contrast, Dwyer ran for 197, the second-highest Steelers rushing total on the season. Granted, Dwyer ran a lot less than Blount and the Steelers as a whole ran a lot less than the Patriots. However, with Blount in the fold, the Steelers can be more confident in their depth chart.
Archer will add the unpredictable speed component to the run game. Though he'll also be a receiver and work as a punt and/or kick returner, he'll get touches as a running back. The question, however, is how many. Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't sure yet how Archer will be used in the offense, saying to ESPN.com's Scott Brown that, "We won't really know until we get some pads on and get on the field."
Archer is 5'8" and 179 pounds, which is both a liability and an advantage. Obviously, his smaller size helps with his impressive speed and he can slip by defenders using his feet or by getting low. But it also limits his ability to be on the field all that often—he'll struggle when it comes to pass protection, for example. But he does allow the Steelers to be more creative in both the passing and running games.
Perhaps the most significant reason the Steelers will have more success running the ball this year is the offensive line, coached by former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak. Pouncey is healthy, and it cannot be stated enough how much a Pro Bowl center like him returning to the line will provide a boost to the run game.
Though the Steelers had Fernando Velasco fill in for Pouncey for most of the season, switching centers, even from one veteran to another, switches the way the whole line reacts and protects.
The injury also created instability throughout the offensive line, with Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams and Guy Whimper all spending time at the tackle positions. Velasco going down with an injury of his own late in the season, with Cody Wallace taking his place, didn't help matters either.
How many rushing yards do you predict Le'Veon Bell will have this year?
This year, barring any injury issues, the Steelers have their starting offensive line already firmly in place. Beachum will be the left tackle, Ramon Foster the left guard. Pouncey is back at center. The ever-improving David DeCastro will be the right guard and Gilbert the right tackle.
They'll be able to finally install the outside-zone-blocking scheme under Munchak that they attempted last year under Jack Bicknell, Jr., a blocking scheme that should benefit Bell, in particular. It was the blocking scheme Bell ran behind in college at Michigan State.
While the Steelers aren't going to become a run-first team this year, considering how both efficient and effective their passing game has been, running the football should produce significantly better results than last season.
And successful running yields successful passing, as Haley noted to ESPN.com's Brown: "When you are running the football it makes throwing it a heck of a lot easier. Running is a big part of what we have to do here going forward successfully."
The Steelers have upgraded their primary trio of backs, have a stable and healthy offensive line and a better coach to instruct them. They may not run the ball enough this year to be a league-leader in rushing yardage, but the numerous adjustments to their run game should keep them far away from the NFL's basement as far as rushing yards and touchdowns are concerned.