It is something Steelers fans have been clamoring for ever since Jerome Bettis retired. The Steelers need to get back to a power running attack.
As time passed from Bettis’ retirement and Ben Roethlisberger developed as a quarterback, the Steelers changed from a tough, physical offense to a finesse, spread it out offense.
With the change, the Steelers also lost the ability to run the ball on a consistent basis and it reached its breaking point last season with the fans and the team President, Art Rooney II.
“I think Mike (Tomlin) and I certainly agreed coming off the season that we need to run the ball more consistently to get to where we want to get to.”
The Steelers want to get back to the playoffs and back to the Super Bowl. In order to achieve that, Rooney believes that the Steelers need to get back to their old ways.
“So that’s part of the thinking in the offseason: We need to figure out how to get better running the football.”
Pittsburgh struggled last season to run the ball, particularly in short yardage situations. This problem became most apparent on a Thursday night game in December at Cleveland.
Rather than trying to pick up a first down on a third and short by inserting a fullback and powering the ball forward, Pittsburgh ran a shotgun play with five wide outs.
They failed to convert.
The Steelers also failed to score a touchdown and dropped their fifth straight game, all but eliminating them from playoff contention.
It is situations such as these that Rooney hopes the Steelers can improve upon in 2010.
“We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football.”
How will the Steelers achieve this? Well, the first step was to send the message to the source of the problem, Bruce Arians.
According to Rooney, “Mike has talked to Bruce about that.”
The Steelers do not have to go back to three yards and a cloud of dust style, in which they run the ball 60 percent of the time. They will be expected, however, to improve upon the 42.2 percent that they ran the ball last season.
In a recent interview, Arians acknowledged the team’s short yardage issue.
”I think the critical runs, short-yardage, goal line, have been a problem. They got addressed (in 2008) with Gary Russell. Now is it going to be Rashard? It could be Isaac Redman, it could be by a bunch of guys. Is it a back or is it by committee? This time of year you get your running game going, but in training camp you find out that short-yardage stuff. You win the job that way.”
This past season, Redman looked to be the short yardage back, but did not suit up for the Steelers and instead spent much of the season on the practice squad.
What message does this send to the team —that their best short yardage back not only will not play in the game, but will not make the final roster? This is exactly why the Steelers could not convert in short yardage situations. The offensive coordinator did not put a stress on it and would rather throw for the first down than run for it.
Part of the reason that Arians feels that they can pass so much is he believes that is an extension of the running game.
“We take some short screen stuff and treat that as the running game.”
That is not quite how it works.
The offensive line does not move forward when they are pass blocking. They cannot impose their will on the defensive line and linebackers, to wear them down, which can be crucial —another problem area for the Steelers, as recognized by Arians.
“At the end of the game, in the four-minute (offense) to run out the clock and not punt the ball, short yards, we have to be more efficient.”
If the team was more effective at running the ball in the fourth quarter, the defense may not have blown so many leads and the Steelers could have been in the playoffs. However, this was not the case.
Pittsburgh did not put an emphasis on establishing the run last season in camp and as a result, could not impose their will on any team last season.
So with the problems recognized, what will be done about them?
Arians has an 1,100 yard running back with the ability to run inside or outside who is just on the brink of breaking out in Rashard Mendenhall.
Behind Mendenhall, there is the dependable Mewelde Moore, and then young running backs in Redman and rookie Jonathan Dwyer.
This stable of backs is more than enough to find success on the ground, but they could use some help from a fullback.
Prior to the start of last season, Arians noted this area of need.
“There’s not a fullback on the roster. There’s a running back that plays fullback, a tight end who plays fullback. I don’t have a fullback. There’s no fullback in my offense, there’s never going to be one.”
Never? Maybe not never.
Pittsburgh currently has one fullback on their roster, though his only experience at the position goes back to high school.
Demetrius Taylor is a 6'0" 273 lbs former defensive tackle who is trying out at fullback for the Steelers.
Taylor has potential to be a lead blocker for the offense and while it is unlikely he would see a significant amount of action, it would be expected that the Steelers use a fullback more this season than this past season.
Taylor will have to show enough blocking ability to beat out Sean McHugh and David Johnson, tight ends who also have the ability to play fullback. This would be a welcome addition for the Steelers running backs, particularly when trying to pick up short yardage.
Pittsburgh will also be entering the season with an improved offensive line.
First-round draft choice, Maurkice Pouncey, is likely to start from week one at right guard. The line should be able to generate more push and open up more holes this season.
However, do not expect the team to line up week one and pound the ball.
Opponents will be prepared for two reasons. First, they know the Steelers want to run the ball more this season and second, Pittsburgh is without Roethlisberger for at least the first four weeks of the season.
Without the playmaker at quarterback, teams can concentrate on stopping the run.
Expect the Steelers to work harder in camp this season to run the ball. But, be wary —Arians felt similarly confident entering last season that the Steelers would have a successful ground game.
“When we came out of training camp last year, we were running the ball as well as we have since Super Bowl XL. We’re having success in training camp, running the ball pretty good.”
Obviously it was not because the team was not effective at all. Then again, Arians did not try to establish the run at any point last season either.
This may be in part because he has trouble planning for certain defenses.
“Now the problem occurs when you see a different style, when you see penetrating 4-3 (defensive linemen). It’s a totally different technique for the offensive line and tight ends.”
Arians better prepare his team for 4-3 defenses, because he will see a lot of them this season. It is not a good excuse for the lack of a running game.
The message has been sent from the top, the personnel is in place, and the plan of action is set. It is up to Arians to see that Pittsburgh meets their goal this season. If not, the blame can be placed on his shoulders.