Known for their successful and physical running games throughout their respective histories, it’s been shocking to witness how mightily the running games of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have struggled through the early part of the 2013 regular season.
Despite their long history of “ground and pound,” Pittsburgh has moved towards a “pass-first” offense with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. While I have been in favor of the move, it is even more understandable when one takes into account the lack of talent and experience that the Steelers have in their offensive backfield and along their offensive line.
The offensive line lost a three-time Pro Bowl player in Maurkice Pouncey during the first quarter of their first regular season game, starting left guard Ramon Foster missed half of Pittsburgh’s fourth game to a pectoral injury, the inexperienced David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert have been inconsistent at best at right guard and right tackle, and their starting left tackle Mike Adams has already been demoted in favor of the team’s “Swiss army knife,” Kelvin Beachum.
To be fair to the offensive line, it’s not like Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, or the 2010-version of Rashard Mendenhall has been toting the rock behind them. The Steelers have had to utilize Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and Le’Veon Bell so far this fall, and the team as a whole is averaging a meager 3.1 yards per rush (30th in the league).
As pathetic as that sounds, the Steelers do not even have a running back on their roster who has gained a total of 100 yards through their first five games. Worst of all, this team has only had one running play which has gained over 20 yards all year!
Oddly enough, Pittsburgh isn’t even the worst team in their own division when it has come to running the football this season. That honor goes to the Baltimore Ravens who have had their fair share of problems toting the rock successfully through their first six games.
Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore’s offensive line has suffered from inconsistent play this year, and that can easily be traced to the turnover they have had in the offensive trenches.
Long-time center Matt Birk retired during the offseason, and he was replaced by Gino Gradkowski. Long-time left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who proved to be a vital piece of the Ravens’ Super Bowl run last year, struggled enough for the franchise to trade two draft choices to Jacksonville for Eugene Monroe.
The line’s struggles have directly impacted the productivity of what was considered one of the top “one-two” backfield punches last season of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. After both enjoyed solid seasons in 2012 (Rice: 1,143 and Pierce: 532), Baltimore’s running backs have had issues just finding daylight before they hit the line of scrimmage during the team’s 3-3 start.
According to ESPN.com’s John McTigue, the Ravens not only rank 31st in the league in average yards per rush (2.7), but also 31st in yards per rush before first contact (1.6). 22 percent of Baltimore’s rushing attempts this fall (34 overall) have seen the ball-carrier contacted in the backfield, and this is directly related to the Ravens’ inability to win at the point of attack.
One of these teams will be primed to break out this weekend on the ground, and it could be Baltimore who finally gets on the right track with their running game. Pittsburgh’s run defense is much more porous than it has been in recent seasons (22nd rushing yards per game, 114.8), and Rice and Pierce are dangerous ball-carriers when they run behind a zone-blocking scheme.
The Steelers’ run defense has been victimized in recent seasons by the zone (Kansas City on Monday Night Football last season is a prime example), and both of the Ravens’ talented runners could be primed for productive outings.
Although Eddie Lacy enjoyed a wonderful afternoon against Baltimore last weekend (120 yards rushing), I simply cannot see Pittsburgh’s offensive line successfully opening holes against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and rookie Brandon Williams on a consistent basis.
Furthermore, the triumvirate of Bell, Jones, and Dwyer are not exactly the caliber of running backs who will be able to do any damage with limited space to run through either.
Predictions aside, I will definitely be interested to see how much effort both teams try to put into establishing the run in this weekend’s game.
Then again, the Steelers and Ravens could scrap their struggling running games in favor of the pass and a duel between Joe Flacco and Roethlisberger could be what takes place at Heinz Field instead.
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