Rebel In The NFL: Run The Ball

By Jeremy Hritz

Western Pennsylvania is a hard-nosed area, and its beloved football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, embody that description. Traditionally, the Steelers have been known as three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team. Since Ben Roethlisberger has joined the team, the Steelers have slowly evolved into a pass-first offense, for better or for worse.

After the 2009 season when the Steelers finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs, Art Rooney II spoke out to the media that the team needed to make a greater commitment to the running game. The result was a rushing game that ranked 11th in the league with a little over 120 yards a game, which was eight spots better than where they finished in 2009, when they rushed for 112 yards a game. The year culminated with a spot in the Super Bowl. In 2011, the running game took a slight step back, but was very similar to the previous year at an average of 118.9 yards per game.

The ineffectiveness of the running game cannot completely be attributed to the apathy of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, as the ineptness of the offensive line has to be considered as well. However, the running game under Arians never provided for any rhythm, and running plays seemed to be called for their own sake rather than being part of an overall strategy to manipulate the defense.

Enter Todd Haley, a Pittsburgh native who understands the culture of the team and the city. If his inclusion of a fullback in the new offense tells us anything, it is that the Steelers are prioritizing the running game, and that Rooney may finally be getting his wish.

And refocusing on the run may be something that works in the Steelers favor in an NFL that has overdosed on the passing game.

As the majority of NFL teams play Indian and not chief, fewer and fewer teams boast an effective running game. With offensively-biased rules, the obsession with the passing game has influenced the way teams play defense, preferring personnel groupings that feature more defensive backs than defensive linemen or linebackers, potentially leaving them susceptible to the running game.

If Haley does in fact have the offense grounding and pounding, it could present many NFL defenses with a challenge that they may not be prepared for. This offense is not one dimensional, with explosive receivers like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, and as the running game lulls the defense to lethargy, the play action pass should be wide open for big plays.

By no means would it be safe to assume that the Steelers will be an exclusively run-first team as there is just too much offensive artillery on the field. Unlike Arians however, it is safe to assume that the prep work on the running game this summer will result in a component of the offense that can control the clock, convert third and short yardage situations, and score on the goal line, elements that have been tenuous under Arians.

The Running Game under Roethlisberger

Year

League Rank

Yards Per Game

Record

2011

14

118.9

12-4 (Wild Card loss)

2010

11

120.2

12-4 (Super Bowl loss)

2009

19

112.1

9-7 (No playoffs)

2008

23

105.6

12-4 (Super Bowl win)

2007

3

135.5

10-6 (Wild Card  loss))

2006

10

124.5

8-8 (No playoffs)

2005

5

138.9

11-5 (Super Bowl win)

2004

2

154

15-1 (AFC Championship loss)

  • Cols714

    Um, no. Please don’t go back to a ground and pound offense.

    Weren’t the Steelers pretty good at converting short yardage situations over the past couple of years? I expect that this will get even better this year with the huge upgrade at the two guard positions.

    They should be able to run better this year, but I doubt that they will run much more. Unless of course they have a lead. That’s the one thing that could change. With a lead now, they will be able to run the ball more with the better guys up front.

    I bet Arians would have loved to be able to run out the clock, but with the terrible guard play and the constantly injured tackles he wasn’t really able to.

  • http://twitter.com/algiff Alan GIfford

    It is interesting to note 2008 with the league ranking 23rd and average of 105.6 yards per game, the lowest in both categories of all the list, they won a Superbowl.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    The key to this offense….to any offense…is using the tools you have at your disposal. I don’t need to run the ball every down, but I also don’t need to see the run on first down, throw the next 7 or 8 that we have seen the last few years either. We ran the ball enough this past year, but we didn’t run for any purpose. We ran because BA had been told he had to run the ball. He didn’t run to set up play action. He didn’t run to get a 2nd a 8 to a 3rd and 1. He didn’t even have a ton of variety in the gameplan. He loved that pulling LG through the gap between the RG and RT play. We ran that over…and over…and over. He ran the ball so he could sling it 40 yards down the field. The only short passing plays, other than the NE game, seemed to be that WR screen play which everyone knew was coming.

    This coming year, you will see Haley use his RBs differently. They will be a part of the gameplan both on the ground and in the air. He will look to exploit their strengths and by doing so expose a weakness of the defense.

  • DoctorNoah

    It seems fairly clear when the difference between a top five ranking and a bottom 15 ranking is about 25-30 yards on the ground (compared to a fair bit more between the top five and bottom 15 passing) and when there is absolutely no correlation between success of the team and the running yards ranking, that these statistics tell us essentially nothing.

    Are there other metrics (running success vs Big Ben’s QB rating? Play choice on 3rd and 2-5? Etc) that might better evaluate whether the Steelers have been more or less consistent in their running game during the Roethlisberger era? I would like to see some more thought put I to this one.

    I think we put too much emphasis on the Steelers’ hard-nosed mythology. We play based on personnel, I think, and we have had light, faster feature backs since Bettis retired – Parker, Mendenhall. I would get frustrated watching them get stuffed at the line (and that includes in 2006-8 before our o-line became woeful and porous) and get their 100-yard games out of 20 one-yard gains and three broken tackles for 25 yards. Whether that’s changing remains to be seen. Show Arians, Haley or anyone else a back that can bruise through the middle and a line that can support him, and you’ll have a running game that Rooney can approve of.

  • LOC

    Total Yard stats and rankings are pretty useless nowadays. Much prefer advanced analysis like DVOA and the like …

  • Harold

    There is a recipe to beat high powered passing teams. And the first ingredient is to possess the ball as long as possible. When we convert on 3rd and short, it keeps our opponents QB on the sideline. But it also shortens the game. If you only give Brady 12 possessions (instead of 16) you also reduce his scoring capabilities.

    But the biggest advantage of an improved/increased running game (to the Steelers) is red zone scoring. When you’re at 1st and goal from the 9, you cannot rely on misdirection or gimmicks to trick the defense. You must be able to put a hat on a hat and move the LOS forward. Even when they know what’s coming. Incidentally, that is what makes play action work in the red zone.

    The thing I like about Haley is it seems he is looking to game plan against opponents’ weaknesses. If the have a poor secondary, he will pass more. If they have a poor run D, he will throw more. But either way, Haley is looking to possess the ball and score TDs in the red zone. If he can do that we will be back in the Super Bowl.

  • Cols714

    In 2005 the recipe for the Steelers to beat Indy in the playoffs was to come out throwing like crazy.

  • Jason White

    Arians loved to line the offense up in a empty backfield on 3rd and 1 in critical situations rather than loading up and punching it through for the one yard. Arians refused to have a balanced attack inside the 20 which caused the team to take 3 instead of 7. While he didn’t have the best line Arians should have played to their strengths which is running the ball not passing. Offensive linemen love to run block more than pass block.

  • Jason White

    Thats because it was a gameplan that was opposite of what Indy and everyone else expected. It’s all a part of being balanced. You make the defense respect every aspect of your game. They can’t just gameplan to stop the run when you can throw and they can’t drop both safeties back when they know you can pound it down their throats. Mark my words if the players pick up the offense and they avoid key injuries you will see a very dominant balanced offense that could be a top 5 attack. The defense in return will be fresh cause they won’t be on the field long. Arians’ offense wasn’t friendly to the “old” Steelers defense.

  • Pete

    Rooney said he wanted to see the Steelers run more effectively. To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean running more but being able to run when they want to run and do it well. Mean Joe Greene expanded on this idea by saying the team needs to commit to the running game. To commit to it means you have to devote time to practicing it, which from Greene’s point of view, the Steelers under Arians did little.

    I also agree with you, the problems with the running game were a combination of Arians and the poor O line. The new offensive coordinator who is not run-averse, and a revamped O line should do wonders for the running game. Regardless of the mantra that it’s now a passing league, you still need to be able to run when you want in order to keep defenses honest. Defenses need to respect the run.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidputt Dave Putt

    I wouldn’t say their strength was in the run, but they did not play situational football in that regard. Empty backfield on 3rd and 1 drove me crazy as i’m sure it did most long time stiller fans.

  • Cols714

    They also led the league in time of possession in 2011

  • Tom Geer

    This ain’t rocket science. Any additional threat makes playing D harder, and threats in different areas create even more stress.

    It’s first and goal, down 4 and time running out. A BA offense is screwed, and here’s why.

    Heath Miller is in-line off right tackle. He might run block, pass block or run any of a bunch of routes. If you know a run or a pass ain’t likely because the O-line sucks, and you know they never throw to him on meaningful downs, you can treat him as a RRT. Five linemen (6 with Heath), Ben, an RB who won’t hurt you, and you’re left with 3 offensive players to worry about. Pretty easy to defend.

    But if he might run a route, and might get thrown a pass at the end of it, you have to have an LB or safety over him. Less pass rush, or less gap filling against a run, or less deep coverage. The D has to pick its poison, and Ben can take advantage of that with an audible or in his route reading.

    The same way, if the run is no threat (e.g., in the red zone under BA), then the D can commit to stopping the pass, and ignore Heath on top of that, But now the RB might run effectively or catch a screen or flare, so you have to assign somebody to deal with that. And if Heath is a possible receiver because the O-line can actually block, now you have 5 weapons, plus Ben on a rollout or sneak. That;s a lot harder to stop because the run/route/receiver combinations are multiplied to a pretty big number. Touchdown!!

    All because you can run the ball effectively with a normal blocking scheme.