The Steelers did not have a running game in 2012. There were expectations that the Steelers would turn to a running game. At this point, I’m not sure if the Steelers projected that or if the speculation from Todd Haley’s hiring spawned the expectation of a running game. Rashard Mendenhall’s much touted return to the team following his rehab along with what looked like an attempt to stack the depth chart with running backs (Redman, Dwyer, Rainey, Batch) also played into the speculation. However, I’m not sure the disappointment in the lack of running game should be a visceral, passionate disappointment. Anyone who expected a return to the “good old days” of running the football hasn’t been paying attention to what has been going on in the league.
Look at the players in the league today – everyone is bigger, faster, stronger and quite frankly, they are usually students of the game. I don’t mean that the linemen from either side of the ball from a generation ago weren’t smart. I just think one of the subtle changes is that there is a lot more “classroom” or “academic” preparation to try to gain an edge. It comes down to prepared anticipation. The linemen watch to see where the movement with the ball is going to come from and I think it is much harder to get the breakaway run. When I grew up watching football my impression of the defensive and offensive linemen were that they often looked like immovable tree stumps along the line. Now I think there is a mix of the strength and agility along those lines, particularly on the defensive side and mostly in the secondary. So how can you adjust to having a successful running game?
First, what is a successful running game?
Even if you only paid a fraction of attention to the Steelers stats last year this one should not surprise you:
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) June 19, 2013
According to the stats on NFL.com the Steeler RB with the most yards last year was Jonathon Dwyer. He was ranked 30th with 623 total yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. We can all admit that Vikings Adrian Peterson is a BEAST with 2097 yards in his season and isn’t a fair comparison, but seriously the Steelers numbers from last year are abysmal. So what? What if you have several running backs and the carries are spread evenly so that none of them rank high individually? Well, ok, that’d be great, but that didn’t happen either.
The Steelers ranked 26th out of 32 last year with 1,537 rushing yards last year. The Washington Redskins (with the the phenom RGII, remember him?) had the top spot with 2709 rushing yards. The Steelers averaged 3.7 yards per carry.
So, to get back to my question – what is a successful running game? Well, I guess it’s one that contributes to wins. The running game clearly didn’t contribute much to wins. If you had to put a stat on it, I would say that if your running game is ranked in the top 10 among the 32 teams, you are doing something right.
Can the Steelers get a running game going?
The short answer is: I don’t know. I think it is a complicated situation. I think the most complicating factor is Ben Roethlisberger. I don’t mean that because “he throws the ball alot.” I think he complicates the situation because he likes to extend the plays by holding on to the ball. While he is waiting to see what develops, the line is ready to either attack the ball in his hands or watching who he might dump the ball off to for a run. Then the holes are closed unless you can get a short pass to someone behind the line who can break free. I don’t mean this to sound critical of Roethlisberger. I think he extends plays like no one else and I admire that about his play. It’s his defining quality in my opinion and it has served the Steelers well. However, I just think it complicates getting a successful running game going.
Should the Steelers concentrate on a running game?
Yes. I think they should. I think any team that is one dimensional is asking for trouble. Every time Ben has been hurt, the Steelers game falls apart. If Ben is the only factor then you have a weakness. Defenders will continue to come after him instead of spreading out to meet multiple threats. If you want to extend the playing life of your franchise player, you have to diversify.
So, what can they do?
How can you have 5 to 6 lineman protecting the quarterback and creating space for the runner to get through? Pittsburgh’s offensive line has gotten pretty banged up over the last several years and the lack of continuity within a season hurt the team. The answer I keep coming back to is diversity. If you make it so the defenders have trouble predicting what is going to happen, then the running game has a shot. Realistically, that isn’t going to happen on every play, but think about it. If you can get a first down on the first play instead of 3 plays in the series and you do it with the running back occasionally, doesn’t that drive up your efficiency and drive down the wear and tear on the offensive line? I know it is unusual to get a first down on the first play in a series with a running back. However, if it happens once or twice a offensive drive, then you the running game is contributing successfully. It shouldn’t be all or nothing. A mix of plays is the successful formula.
Yeah, it all sounds so simple, I’m a friggin’ football genius – NOT! Quite frankly, I think the running game is still a year or two away from consistently contributing to Steelers wins. It’s easier said than done. It has been non-existent for too many years while they concentrated on the passing game. You can’t get it back overnight. I think the way the league has evolved has also made it tougher to have a consistent running game. Teams spend millions of dollars to analyze each other and find weaknesses. That has changed the game as well. I hope every year for a championship, but I have a hard time thinking that it will happen this next season if all the pieces aren’t in place and that includes a running game.
I predict the running game will still be a struggle for the Steelers this year. I’m hoping for a step or two up from abysmal. What do you think?