Steelers' burning question: A more pounding ground game?
Posted: June 18, 2008
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Thanks to a terrific comeback season from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers produced 34 touchdown passes in 2007, which ranked third in the NFL.
Before the season, new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians promised to open up the offense, and he did so with a healthy Roethlisberger mixing in deep routes to Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington with the familiar shorter routes to Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
But don't be fooled by Big Ben's big breakout season and the receiving talent he has around him, which now includes promising rookie Limas Sweed. For the Steelers to build on their return to the AFC North throne and go deeper in the playoffs, they need to ease the pressure on the quarterback to deliver touchdowns.
Despite the fireworks and several multiple-TD pass games, the Steelers still did the things they usually do when they win a lot of games: run the ball (135.5 rushing yards per game, third in the league) and control the clock (an average 33:29 time of possession, first in the league). However, there was something missing on the ground.
Feature back Willie Parker, a premier speedster, managed to reel off runs of 20 or more yards in nine of the 15 games he played in, but broke his leg in Week 16. The flashy numbers he put up helped mask the lack of consistent power and pop the Steelers got from their run blocking. They couldn't really establish the trademark ball-pounding attack they had with Jerome Bettis, and the result was Parker rushed for only two touchdowns, with backup Najeh Davenport providing only occasional goal-line help.
So there came Roethlisberger to the rescue, often finding the end zone on a bullet to Ward, on a short toss to a tight end or with his own two legs. It's not that the Steelers went pass-crazy -- only the Vikings attempted fewer passes per game on average than Pittsburgh (27.6). The Steelers were just very efficient with their opportunities, whether off a home run ball or a red zone strike.
The problem is that Roethlisberger still took plenty of hits -- more than he should have. In 451 pass dropbacks, he was sacked 47 times, or more than once per every 10 dropbacks, and needed to use his athleticism to escape heavy pressure on many more occasions. That, too, could be attributed to a dropoff in offensive line play.
How do the Steelers regain that physical edge -- especially in the red zone -- now that the same offensive line will be without its best player, left guard Alan Faneca? It's all about attitude, and getting some good contributions from young players.
The line underwent a considerable transition last season, losing both offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and unit coach Russ Grimm. This offseason, Faneca signed with the Jets as a free agent.
The acquisition of Justin Hartwig to start at center helps. The keys, though, will be how Chris Kemoeatu handles left guard in Faneca's place and whether Max Starks solidifies right tackle. The Steelers should also expect fullback Carey Davis to be stronger in his second season.
The biggest reason the Steelers can hope for a more consistent power running game and more red zone rushing touchdowns, however, is rookie back Rashard Mendenhall, the team's first-round draft pick out of Illinois.
Mendenhall is mighty and compact at 5-11, 225. He loves running through defenders to get tough yards but also offers good speed and explosiveness if he needs to bounce outside. In addition, he can produce as a receiver, giving the Steelers great versatility on manageable third-down situations.
The Steelers should be confident in giving Mendenhall up to 15 touches per game, with plenty of work inside the opponents' 20 and in games they lead after three quarters. In addition to packing a red zone punch to relieve Roethlisberger, Mendenhall will allow Parker to keep his legs fresher to reel off more long runs. That, in turn, should allow the Steelers to continue to own the time of possession and keep their attacking defense fresh to put away opponents.
The Steelers' potent offense may not be as flashy this season, but it certainly will be much grittier -- and more effective in helping them win games