Dating back to the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been known as one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. From Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, to Barry Foster, Bam Morris and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers have always been a team that was going to punish opponents on the ground.
It wasn't until Willie Parker joined the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2004, that the Steelers had a back that was better at running outside than between the tackles. No, I am not forgetting Amos Zereoue, or any of the other quick backs the Steelers have had, only to say that none of them were featured backs.
When Bettis retired after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, the starting duties for the Pittsburgh Steelers were handed to Parker. With the transition of the Steelers from a run-first team to one that passes to set up the run, the Steelers were no longer in need of the big, strong backs.
At least, that is what they thought.
As good as Parker was, he lost much of his blazing speed in 2008, when he decided to bulk up to better take the hits that happen in every NFL game. Once he became just fast, he declined, and was replaced by 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall.
At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, Mendenhall seemed to be the type of back that would be a good mix of Bettis and Parker. Big enough to run between the tackles and quick enough to turn the corner on a sweep.
Mendenhall has shown flashes of those abilities, but to say that he is consistent would be a far cry from the truth.
While nursing a sore hamstring, and with Mewelde Moore having an ankle injury, the Steelers were forced to rely on two little used players, Isaac Redmen and Jonathan Dwyer.
Against the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers started off exclusively going to Redman. While he has shown over the last two seasons that he is capable at running the ball, it was unknown if he would be able to shoulder the load of being a featured back, even for just a game. Though Redman did not have the type of stats that would make fantasy owners all make waiver claims for him, he played Steelers football the way that would make the some old timers proud.
Many times, he was stopped behind the line of scrimmage for what should have been a loss. As a youth coach teaches his kids, he continued to drive his feet and push for extra yardage.
When the Steelers decided to give Redman a break, they allowed Dwyer to get his first real game experience of 2011. On his first carry, Dwyer broke through the line of scrimmage, and moved the ball from the Steelers 10-yard line, into the red zone, 76 yards down the field. Dwyer finished the game with 107 yards on 11 carries. If you take away the 76-yard run, Dwyer averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Not fantastic, but still as good as Mendenhall.
In four games this year, Mendenhall has rushed 58 times for 173 yards for a 3.0-yards-per-carry average. Redman currently has 37 carries for 156 yards for a 4.2 average.
I know that the NFL is becoming a passing league, but when it comes to the Steelers, they are still in need of a ground game.
Yes, it would be nice to see Ben Roethlisberger throw for 350 yards and four TD passes each game, but the Steelers are built on defense, and the defense needs to do what the defense does. The best way for any defense to be successful is to not be on the field. If the Steelers win the time of possession battle, the defense will play better.
In order to keep the defense fresh, the offense must control the ball, especially in the second half. When the offense does that (Titans game) the Steelers dominate. When they don't (Ravens game) they get dominated.
There is no longer a question about if the Steelers will be able to run the ball but rather will they be willing to make the commitment to running the players that are going to run the Steelers way.
Hard, fast and straight forward. Nothing fancy, no more spin moves (this isn't Madden 12). The Steelers need to be a pound the ball forward, and Redman and Dwyer seem to be the men to do this. This will open up the defense to play action passes, and single coverage. And it will keep the Steelers defense fresh, and pounding the opposing offenses until the end of the game.
The only question is, do the Steelers realize this?