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
Yards Per Game
12-4 (Wild Card loss)
12-4 (Super Bowl loss)
9-7 (No playoffs)
12-4 (Super Bowl win)
10-6 (Wild Card loss))
8-8 (No playoffs)
11-5 (Super Bowl win)
15-1 (AFC Championship loss)