Can the Steelers Fix their Run Game for 2013?
Can the Steelers Fix their Run Game for 2013?
There has been a lot of talk about whether or not the Steelers can get their run game back on track next season. In 2012 the Steelers rushed the ball for a total of 1537 yards. That is their worst total since the dreaded 2003 season when the Steelers turned the offense over to Tommy Maddox and the passing game. During that 2003 seasons the Steelers amassed only 1488 rushing yards and were tied for last in the league in yards per attempt.
Whatís also a bit alarming is the correlation between the run game and the Steelers success in a given season. In 2003 they ranked sixteenth in the league in terms of total rushing attempts. As mention above they also struggled gaining yards and they finished the season with a 6-10 record. That season will be out starting point and it is also tied for the Steelers second worst record since 1988.
That off-season the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger and for the next two seasons the Steelers led the league in rushing attempts. During the 2004 and 2005 seasons the Steelers gained a combined 4687 yards on the ground and ran the ball more than any other team in the league. They were the top rushing team in the NFL despite ranking just nineteenth and twelve in yards per carry during those seasons. Whatís most impressive, however, is that during those two seasons the Steelers had a combined regular season record of 26-6 and won Super Bowl XL.
In 2006 the Steelers fell back to the middle of the pack in rush attempts and finished fourteenth in the league. They also fell to the middle of the pack with an unimpressive 8-8 record despite being the eleventh best team in the NFL in terms of yards per attempt.
Following another off-year what did the Steelers do? They got back to running the football. In 2007 the Steelers finished third in rushing attempts and gained over 2000 yards on the ground. They have only exceeded 2000 yards once between the 2003 and 2012 seasons. The Steelers finished with a 10-6 record in 2007 and won the division, but they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs at home to the Jaguars.
In 2008 the Steelers ranked in the top ten once again in rush attempts coming in at ninth most in the league. They ran the ball 347 times that seasons despite coming in fourth to last in yards per carry with a very low 3.7 yards per attempt. The run game was enough, however, to create a balanced offense and behind the top defense in the league the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl 43.
During the 2009 seasons the Steelers ran the ball 368 times, but ranked just eighteenth in the league in rush attempts. With a respectable 4.2 yards per carry average the Steelers were able to rack up 1793 yards. However, like with most seasons since 2003 when the Steelers have ranked low in terms of rush attempts compared to the rest of the league they have struggled and 2009 was no different.
The Steelers finished with a 9-7 record and failed to make the playoffs.
In 2010 the Steelers were back in top ten in the NFL for rush attempts coming in eighth and once again a top ten finish in rush attempts led to a good record as the Steelers finished at 12-4. That season the Steelers finished with 1924 yards and went on to play in the Super Bowl.
The 2011 season is the only year since, and including, the 2003 season that the Steelers finished outside the top ten in rush attempts, but finished with a winning record. In 2011 the Steelers ranked nineteenth in rush attempts, but they finished the season with a 12-4 record. One thing the 2011 season did have, however, was the best yards per carry average of any season in that span so they did perform well in one area of the rushing game.
Last season, the 2012 season, the Steelers ranked twentieth in the league in rushing attempts. That is their lowest league ranking in this span (2003-2012). Whatís worse is unlike the 2011 season the Steelers yards per carry were not good coming in at a measly 3.7 yards per attempt. Pittsburgh finished the season with only 1537 rushing yards and a lackluster 8-8 record.
So based on past performance it would seem the Steelers need to increase their yards per carry back into the low to mid fours and also run the ball more often to be successful. Thereís no doubt the Steelers are trying to let Roethlisberger take over the offense, but a balance needs to be found and they havenít had that balance for a few years now.
The running the ball more times isnít going to solve the problem by itself, however. Pittsburgh also needs to run the ball more effectively in 2013. That means better efforts from the running backs, offensive line, and coaching staff. Weíll start with a look at the running backs.
Rashard Mendenhall is on his way out of Pittsburgh so he can be forgotten in this discussion. That leaves Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch as the running backs most likely to be around in 2013. The Steelers will also be looking to add a running back in 2013 NFL draft. As for the starter in 2013 that will probably be either Dwyer or that draft pick. Dwyer has a career yards per carry of 4.3; now thatís not something to write home about, but it is plenty good enough for a starting running back.
Dwyer also excelled in his two games during the 2012 season with a consistent and productive offensive line in front of him. In back-to-back weeks against the Bengals, the twelfth best defense against the run in 2012, and Redskins, the fifth best defense against the run last year, Dwyer ran for a combined 229 yards on 6.75 yards per carry. That should be proof enough that when the offensive line is producing Dwyer can be the guy. However, if the Steelers choose to go to a primary zone blocking scheme they could look for a more agile running back.
As for the offensive line changes are already coming and the line will likely be much younger in 2013. The biggest issue with the line moving forward isnít figuring out who will play where, but how to keep these guys healthy. The Steelers have suffered an inordinate amount of offensive line injuries over the past few years and they need to get that sorted out. The players they have are talented enough to be very good, but when they are losing a lineman nearly every game they play itís hard for them to gel as a unit.
When it comes to coaching the play calling could also use a little tweaking. Things should get better in Todd Haleyís second year and the offense was actually very good in the first nine games of the 2012 season. However, there are some issues there and working on when to call run plays and which plays to call could still use some work. The Steelers ran way too many predictable first down run plays. It was bad enough that it became a common theme on Twitter.
Another issue with the run game is the delayed draw play. Iím not sure Iíve ever seen the Steelers have a successful run on the delayed draw it typically gets blown up in the backfield, but they continue to use it. Hopefully that page of the playbook will get lot this off-season. Another problem I have is the unwillingness to stick with the run at times or the effort to stick with an ineffective run game.
During the Steelers first possession against the Cowboys in 2012 they ran the ball on the first play for six yards. Thatís a nice gain on first down. It would allow the team to then run the ball two more times and only have to pick up two yards on each play to get a first down. It would also seem to be a telling point that they may have something brewing on the ground. However, instead of sticking with the run the Steelers threw the ball five straight time and punted. In fact, during that game the Steelers only ran the ball seventeen times despite a four yard average on the ground.
Now Iím not a Haley hater and I think his offense will continue to get better and add some years onto Roethlisbergerís career, but the Steelers need to create a balanced attack by incorporating an effective run game. That will take a joint effort between the coaching staff, running backs and offensive lineman, but they have the talent on the roster right now to do it and they will, most likely, be adding more talent to those groups this off-season. The Steelers run game was a disappointment in 2012, but things should be better in 2013 and hopefully they will be because as shown above when the Steelers can run the ball they win more games and thatís something weíd all like to see.