The Pittsburgh Steelers, during the heyday of the mid 90′s and most of the first decade of the 21st century, were known for their bruising running game and the ability to wear down opponents and ‘take over’ late in games. The team has struggled with maintaining that identity for several years, and many in Steeler Nation pine for the days of Jerome Bettis. While Art Rooney II has specifically stated that the team’s focus will be getting back to basics and run the football, the Steelers may never get back to the ‘good ol’ days’ of having a dominating running game. However, as was witnessed on Sunday, when the Steelers have at least a solid running game going, it opens up more options for this team to win.
When Le’Veon Bell ran the ball for 6, 8, and 11 yards on his first three carries, my eyebrows raised slightly. Impressive. And not only was it impressive on an individual, but also the offensive line was actually making running lanes that allowed for such gains. Wildcat formations aside, Bell ran for 27 more yards on 5 carries. By the end of the first half, Bell had 11 carries for 68 yards for an average of 6.18 ypc. The run game looked damn good when Bell lined up in the backfield. Bell carried the ball eight more times and gained a grand total of 93 yards – the most for as an individual performance for the Steelers since November 4th of last season. Hard to believe, but that’s what the run game devolved into and is desperately trying to crawl its way back.
Bell’s patience and the ability to have good vision to find holes and make decisive cuts (take that ‘Twinkle Toes’ Mendenhall) are giving the Steelers what they crave – manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. The Steelers rushed for a first down seven times on Sunday. The offense had 15 first downs on the ground all season before Sunday. Several rushing first downs came on 2nd and short or 3rd and short. These were things the Steelers struggled to do all season (and even prior to 2013). Bell’s rushing dividends lead to another very important part to the success of this offense – giving Ben Roethlisberger pass protection and time in the pocket.
While the run game struggled for the first three and a half games this season, defenses began stacking the box. They dared the Steelers to pass knowing full well that they could exploit the most glaring weakness – poor pass protection. The lack of solid run blocking and the lack of Bell’s presence forced the Steelers in to very long 2nd and 3rd downs. Even if the Steelers were faced with a 3rd and 3 or 3rd and 2, Haley would still call a four man wide out formation because they had a better chance getting those two or three yards through the air than on the ground. Despite the successes on Sunday, he still called an empty backfield formation on a 3rd and 2 in the second half – old habits are hard to break I guess. Bell’s success on the ground has forced defenses to pull back a bit on blitzing, which is giving this offensive line a fighting chance of protecting their quarterback. Big Ben was sacked three times on Sunday. They all came as coverage sacks – sacks that occurred at least four seconds after the ball was snapped. That meant that the blitzes were not aggressive and the offensive line at least shut down the turnstiles for an afternoon. That should help boost confidence for the entire offense and give them momentum going into next week’s contest against a Raiders defense that ranks 22nd in sacks (16).
There were two sections of Sunday’s game where Bell stood on the sideline while his bakcups – Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer – took the bulk of the carries. At the end of the first half Jones took a few carries, and Dwyer ran four hard tough yards for a first down. Bell sat again near the beginning of the fourth quarter. Jones rand for a first down on a 2nd and 3 and carried the ball two more times before the Steelers punted away. The Ravens scored on that very next series, which caused many in Steeler Nation on the Twitter feed criticize Tomlin and Haley for not keeping Bell in the game. I have to give credit to those two for making the decision to rest Bell at the times that they did. Bell is still coming off of an injury that kept him out most of the preseason and the first three games of the season. While he should seem ‘rested’ because he hasn’t carried the ball much, the coaches are taking care of their investment. And to think of it that way makes me feel good about the future. They see potential in Bell and know that he is crucial to the success of Steelers football for years to come. Sunday against the Ravens wasn’t the first time they limited Bell. In all three games in the regular season Bell’s carries were limited to 15-20 per game. Maybe Tomlin learned an important lesson from Willie Parker when the ‘wheels fell off’ and from Mendy and his injury troubles following a heavy work load season.
The Steelers offense is better with Bell on the field. His ability to secure the ball, run hard, and make quick decisions to find openings are causing defenses to pay more attention to him and less on Ben Roethlisberger. That’s putting this team in a position to win a large amount of football games – even this season – if the defense can keep games close. So while the league may still be changing into this pass happy league that needs to score a gazillion points per game to be considered ‘entertaining,’ at least the Steelers are finding ways to run the ball so that they can take the pressure off the pass protection and give Big Ben a fighting chance of leading this team into the end zone. That ‘way’ is with Le’Veon Bell…… just stay healthy.