The Steelers have long been known for their dominant running game, or at least die-hard Steeler fans as well as Steeler haters, remember those years. However, as Ben Roethlisberger became the face of the franchise that slowly changed and the running game seemed put to the side. If #7 couldn’t make it happen with his arm, then it wasn’t happening.
The Steelers built their offense around their star QB, as many NFL teams have, and have been sorely pressed to find a way to win when Roethlisberger is not behind center. The Rooney family, particularly Art Rooney II, seemed displeased at the lack of ability to adjust for injury. Bruce Arians was “retired” and the search was on for a new offensive coordinator who would re-energize the running game and reduce the injury potential to Roethlisberger because he would be getting rid of the ball quicker.
However, the fans who expected a return to the glory days of the “ground and pound” in 2012 were sorely disappointed. In 2012, the Steelers had 1537 rushing yards with nearly double the passing yards at 3787. So much for the running game. There were 412 rushing plays that averaged 4.7 yards per play. Well. Not dominant at all. The gnashing of teeth over the 8-8 season could be heard across the country and the disappointment in the offense, particularly the lack of running game, was palpable for months after the season ended.
In my opinion, there were too many changes to the offense. After about 4 games into the season, the sports pundits where over the moon about Roethlisberger’s efficiency rating thanks to the emphasis on short passes. Most defenses came prepared for Roethlisberger to hang onto the ball, waiting for a receiver to open up for the long bomb. The Steelers managed to take advantage of the confusion for a while, but the opponents started to catch on. The short-pass strategy became less effective and the running game was still ineffective. Frankly, you can’t ask someone who has been quarterbacking one way to suddenly turn on a dime and do something that is foreign to him. It takes time to make those changes and it was too much to expect so many changes to be successful. Haley, as was his right as the offensive coordinator, wanted his terminology and he changed many of the plays. Naturally it caused confusion. I’m a fan of the 1/3 rule – change out 1/3 to 1/2 at a time, particularly if you have a lot of players who played under the old system. However, there is something to be said for just ripping off the band-aid and getting the pain over with. However, this pain lasted through the whole 2012 season. Hindsight is a great thing. I have been “victim” of both approaches. I’ve had new bosses who came in with a scorched earth policy which left a lot of disgruntled employees with abysmal productivity at first. I’ve also worked for new bosses who came in and gradually changed things, sometimes keeping old procedures that weren’t broken. You can probably see both sides. But where does the Steelers running game go from here?
Based on the draft and off-season signings, the Steelers clearly want to continue to redevelop the running game. Rashad Mendenhall departed, but it seems very few are sorry to see him go. Who have the Steelers gained? Surprisingly, the Steelers signed LaRod Stephens-Howling, who has been in the NFL for 5 years, playing for Arizona with 651 career rushing yards. I didn’t see his signing coming, but the Steelers have a history of being unconventional. With LaRod’s pre-draft signing, it seemed possible that the Steelers wouldn’t draft a running back, but they took Le’Veon Bell in the second round. The running backs who remained on the Steelers’ roster are: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redmon, and Baron Batch. Curtis McNeal, RB from USC, was added to the roster as an UDFA. So, as of right now, the Steelers have 6 running backs to work out in the OTAs and training camps/preseason. They carried 4 on the roster for a good portion of last season, but it wasn’t enough because the offensive line couldn’t consistently open the running lanes for them. It only added to the disappointment of the 2012 season. I don’t think fans would be as disappointed with the 8-8 season if they felt there were glimmers of success. Everything just looked dysfuntional when it came to the running game.
So, can the Steelers get the running game back for 2013? I can’t say that I have a lot of hope. Maybe the new offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell, Jr., will make a difference. Bicknell has a ton of college experience and his NFL experience is as the assistant offensive line coach with the NY Giants. While the Giants are a team I respect, they aren’t dependent on a dominant running game either, not with Eli Manning as their quarterback. So, I’m not sure what difference Bicknell will make; however, I have to think that Tomlin and company saw something they were impressed with. Additionally, I think given the opportunity, that Redman could be a standout running back. I’ve seen some opinions that the starting RB job is Dwyer’s to lose, but I’m leaning more toward Redman. I think it is a close race between the two, however. That said, I’m not convinced that the Steelers have all the pieces they need to reinvigorate the running game. It’s far to early to tell and I hope for encouraging news from the training camps, but my faith has been shaken over the last couple years with what I consider to be questionable coaching tactics and decisions. You can have all the talent in the world and fail to utilize it properly. That’s still a possibility for the Steelers. However, I’m not burying them yet. I’m just saying the running game may not be back in 2013. It may take another year of rebuilding.