Whisenhunt big player in last conversion to run
Thursday, March 25, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Ken Whisenhunt stood front and center the previous time a Steelers offensive coordinator received a mandate to run more consistently. It was 2004, and he was that coordinator. The directive came from his boss, Bill Cowher.
It nearly happened overnight. The Steelers' coaches who fell in love with the Tommy Gun, pass-happy approach in 2003 quickly fell out of love with it when it produced a 6-10 record. Under Cowher's dictates, they turned into the most-prolific running team in the NFL in 2004 and set an AFC record with 15 victories.
Now, after setting team passing records but missing the playoffs in 2009, comes another command to return to a more consistent running offense, this one from club president Art Rooney II.
The planning falls to Bruce Arians this time. He succeeded Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. He also assisted in the planning of that 2004 offense that began in earnest in training camp that summer. The Steelers emphasized the run at Saint Vincent College as they had not in years to the point there were no passes thrown in goal-line drills as was often done previously and more so-called middle-run drills were performed that August.
A similar approach might be seen in Latrobe this summer.
"There are always times that you send a message, and that was one of them," Whisenhunt recalled here Wednesday. "And I think our offensive line accepted that message, and they blocked very well, and we ran the ball very well that year."
They led the NFL in rushing with 2,464 yards one season after Tommy Maddox had set their individual passing record. They did not specifically turn to the run that '04 season because they had a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, although he was a beneficiary of it. The decision to run more came long before that, when Maddox was still the starter; his elbow injury in the second game of the season opened the door for Roethlisberger to play and go 13-0 as their starter in the regular season.
"That was deliberate," Whisenhunt said of the emphasis in the '04 camp on the run, "to make sure we re-established that toughness and that mentality, and it worked for us."
When Roethlisberger took over, running the ball "took a little bit of pressure off that position early," Whisenhunt said.
The return to what many might call "Steelers football" also paved the way for the 2005 run to the Super Bowl.
"No question," Whisenhunt acknowledged. "It got a mentality with our offense, in my opinion, of being physical and getting after guys."
Entering his fourth season as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach, Whisenhunt's team has been among the best passing offenses in the NFL, a reflection of their personnel, he said. Running requires a mindset that must be created early and particularly in offensive linemen.
"We see it all the time with our offense. When we're throwing the football a lot, it's tougher when you're sitting there catching blocks all the time as opposed to coming off the ball and getting after guys running it. So I think it helped our line develop a mentality that we were going to get after people physically.
"That gives them a chemistry that helps them come through a lot of things. Even though we were still able to throw the ball more, that was just a benefit of having had great success running it in '04."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed he wants to work more on the running game this year and that they will use a true fullback if they find one. The Steelers were interested in blocking fullback Rolly Lumbala of the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League before the Miami Dolphins signed him.
They likely will not re-sign free-agent halfback Willie Parker, said to be bitter about how they used him -- or did not use him last season -- and might be on the lookout for someone to complement starter Rashard Mendenhall.
Toward that end, the one confirmed visit the Steelers will have from a college prospect next week is Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount. He was suspended for much of last season for sucker-punching an opponent who had taunted him after Boise State upset the Ducks in the season opener. He was later re-instated. Blount, who is 6 feet, 241 pounds, was considered one of college's best running backs before the incident.
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