Put down that pistol: Steelers want to run the ball
Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports July 29, 2013
Running back Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers last year with 623 yards rushing
That was the lowest total for the franchise's leading rusher since Merrill Hoge rushed for 810 yards in 1991
LATROBE, Pa. – Don't expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to be slaves to the chic offenses sweeping the NFL. They'd rather be slaves to history.
"I mean, this is Pittsburgh. We're going to run the football, that's what our offense is going to be about,'' receiver Plaxico Burress said. "We're going to have to run the football. The Steelers and running the ball go hand in hand, like a ball and chain. Receivers are committed to helping run the ball, blocking downfield, not just catching the ball and worrying about scoring touchdowns.
"Everybody else around the league is going to be going up-tempo, flashy, four- and five-wide, pistol, shotgun, spread passing. We're going to stay true to our roots and run the football.''
Because to the Steelers, running the ball means winning championships, and head coach Mike Tomlin took last year's 8-8 finish -- without a postseason appearance -- personally. So, it's back to the Steelers of old.
"I'm hacked off whenever we're not world champions, so I've only had one instance (Super Bowl XLIII) since I've been here where I wasn't,'' Tomlin told USA TODAY Sports after Monday's first padded training camp practice. "I'm not making too much of 8-8. That's last year. This is not a continuation of last year.
"Yes, in some ways, that type of hacked-off-ness can be good fuel. But we better be prepared to move on. Obviously, our intentions are to be the world champions. That's not going to change.''
A smash-mouth run game is as much the fabric of Steelers football as a Terrible Towel, but first the Steelers must find their No.1 back. Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers last year with 623 yards, and that was the lowest total for the franchise's leading rusher since Merrill Hoge rushed for 810 in 1991.
Dwyer, Isaac Redman and rookie Le'Veon Bell will compete for carries, although none is a slam-dunk cinch to win the job and none is a long-distance threat. The top slot is up for grabs.
"We have a young, talented offensive line group and we're going to play to their strengths,'' Tomlin said. "If a back can distinguish himself from the pack, we'll give him the ball. Obviously, you'd like to have a known featured guy. But it's got to be something that's taken by someone.''
A new-look, zone-blocked running game is even more critical given that the status of two-time Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller is unknown. No one, not even Miller, is sure when last year's leading receiver (71 receptions and 8 touchdowns) will return from reconstructive right anterior cruciate ligament surgery seven months ago.
"Heath is a huge piece of our offense you don't replace,'' offensive coordinator Todd Haley told USA TODAY Sports. "We're hoping we don't have to. If anybody can make it back (by the season), he will. But right now, he's not here and we have to be ready to go either way.''
The first series of Monday's padded practice was an encouraging start. The first-team offense set a dominant, zone-blocking tone.
"You have to be able to excel at that blocking scheme in today's NFL,'' Haley says. "Last year, everything had to be perfect for us to gain four yards on a running play.
"We have a lot of guys with a little chip on their shoulders who have been told they can't run it and aren't good enough. They've made the commitment to be better. Inside, outside, there was enough good to be excited about.''
The landscape seemed to shift a bit in the AFC North division over the weekend, when the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta, making more painful the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers.
Still, the Steelers are considered no better than the third best team in the division after the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
"I'm pretty sure my daughter would pick against us when you lose (linebacker) James Harrison, (receiver) Mike Wallace, (nose tackle) Casey Hampton, you go 8-8 and lose some of your key contributors like Heath Miller -- you've got a team that looks like it's going backwards,'' veteran linebacker Larry Foote said. "But football is played on grass, not on laptops.
"We've never missed the playoffs two years in a row since I've been here since 2002. And we don't plan on it this year.''
Forget the fashionable air shows dominating the league. Tomlin insists the Steelers will run the ball again.
"We're the third AFC North team right now,'' safety Ryan Clark said. "They say it's Baltimore and Cincinnati, and we're going to be fighting not to be last along with Cleveland. So we have to go out and prove people wrong. You have to be able to run the ball and impose your will on defenses in this league.''