Starkey: Steelers on the run (again)
By Joe Starkey
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Steelers training camp, which opens Friday, never fails to produce surprises. But there are two things you can count on year after year:
1. It will be held in Latrobe.
2. There will be talk of exhuming a long-deceased running game.
Allow me to pull this excerpt from colleague Mark Kaboly's blog early in camp last year, when Mike Tomlin surprised onlookers by incorporating live tackling into drills (a move that had Dan Kreider fans everywhere frothing at the mouth):
“There's no secret the Steelers want to run the ball this year. No, like seriously run the ball like they used to. They ran for just more than 1,500 yards a year ago — their second fewest in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978.”
Kaboly smartly tossed in this caveat: “Fans might be wise to temper their enthusiasm on the renewed vigor of the run game. I do believe that's been a theme for the past couple years, and we all know how that worked out.”
Do we ever. The Steelers haven't been a top-10 rushing team since 2007.
How'd it work out last year?
It got worse!
The rookie running back got hurt, the right guard accidentally blew up the Pro Bowl center's knee, and poof, there went the hopes and dreams of a revived rushing attack in 2013.
I'll save Kaboly the time for his camp blog this year: The Steelers finished with their fewest rushing yards (1,383) in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978.
The terrible truth is that this running game has devolved into the franchise monstrosity — the crazy uncle you don't want anyone to meet or even mention. By the end of last season, the numbers were so Elephant Man ugly that you couldn't find comparables in the team's own media guide.
Those 1,383 yards? The media guide goes back to 1969, but 1966 was the last time the Steelers ran for fewer in a full season. Just one Steelers team since '69 averaged fewer than last year's 3.5 yards per carry, and that was the disastrous, pass-crazed outfit of '03.
Maybe this tragicomic number says it best: Over the past two seasons, the Steelers' ground game has produced nearly as many fumbles (14) as touchdowns (17).
If you can't run, you have to pass, and for the second year in a row, the Steelers settled for a 60-40 split — ratio of passes to runs — and not coincidentally another 8-8 record. That just isn't going to work. Not here. Not for a franchise that from the very top demands an effective rushing attack. The ratio must be closer to 50-50.
We can talk all we like about whether that is the correct philosophy in the pass-happy NFL, where teams don't necessarily have to run to win championships (the Steelers' most recent title team ranked 23rd in rushing). Point is, the Steelers want to run. Therefore, they need to run. Because if their running game consistently stalls, they are forced into doing something they don't want to do. And the defense wins.
What's more, the Steelers, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, have tailored their personnel to the running game. They added battering ram LeGarrette Blount to complement Le'Veon Bell. Maurkice Pouncey's back. Mike Munchak is the new line coach. They still employ blocking tight ends rather than the sleek, new-age type.
None of which means they should go back to 1974. They haven't forgotten about their elite, $100 million quarterback who loves to throw.
In fact, they've given him more freedom.
That's also part of the point here: Ben Roethlisberger wants and needs a more effective running game, and he wasn't averse to calling running plays out of the no-huddle late last season. Thurman Thomas ran pretty well out of the old Buffalo Bills' K-Gun. Bell can do the same.
“We have to make sure we utilize (the running game),” Roethlisberger said, “because that opens up the play-action and passing game.”
The way last season ended provided hope and perhaps something of a blueprint. The Steelers' three-game winning streak saw them rush for 377 yards and attempt 94 runs to 86 passes.
It's not like running is dead in the NFL, by the way. Two very good teams out west — the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers — ran the ball 55 percent of the time last season.
Here's one more number you might want to keep in mind when camp talk inevitably turns to reviving the run game: The best running team in the AFC North has won the division the past four years and eight of 12 since it formed in 2002.
Pass it on.
We don't need 1974...how about just 2005 when we had confidence on 3rd and short and Bettis was busting the goal line on a regular basis.
Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentations of their women.
Steelers Sign RB Josh Harris
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed RB Josh Harris to a contract on Tuesday, according to Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
Pittsburgh also place C/G David Snow on waived/injured list with a broken foot.
Harris is an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest. During his four years at Wake, Harris ran for 2,195 yards on 482 carries (4.6 YPC) and scored 19 touchdowns.
The Steelers backfield currently consists of Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Miguel Maysonet, Tauren Poole and Jordan Hall.
Wow, our backfield has one guy from last year and none from the year before. That supports my long held belief that RB is an easy position to reload and is the domain of the young guys.
Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentations of their women.
ALL SHAPES, SIZES AND ROLES
Aug 05, 2014
Mike Tomlin gave his running backs their nicknames, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley gives them their roles.
LATROBE -- Mike Tomlin has a knack for handing out nicknames.
Sometimes, he comes through in quantity.
"We're three different types of running backs," rookie Dri Archer explained. "Coach always talks about us having small fry, medium fry, large fry. It's going to be great once the season rolls around."
Archer is "small fry," just don't call him that small back-slash-receiver for which offensive coordinator Todd Haley seems to have a penchant.
"No," Haley said, cutting the question off at Dexter McCluster. "We want good players. We want good players who can be potential difference-makers. Dri's ability as a returner is going to be as big as anything else, and we'll find ways to get work for those guys, always. But he's a nice puzzle piece to have when you start talking personnel groups and you've got a guy who can play in the backfield, split out. He's done a little bit of everything and that's really the way we're trying to develop him."
Archer finally broke one Sunday against the first-team defense in live tackling drills. He took a pitch left on a zone stretch, planted his foot in the backfield, cut it up, got into the clear, and hit another gear -- the Willie Parker gear. Archer was finally brought down by a cornerback who was covering a wide receiver downfield. Archer tried to cut off the receiver's block but bumped into him to give the corner a shot.
"I felt it," said Archer. "It was a good run. Coach put me in the right position and I just read my blocks. It was a pitch in a zone scheme. They all washed down and I cut it up."
Archer "felt it" again in a pass-catching drill in which the backs were isolated on linebackers. Archer not only beat Lawrence Timmons three times, he did it with speed, then a dead-leg hesitation move and more speed, and then simply by catching the ball over his shoulder with the Steelers' best coverage backer right on top of him.
"Something I've been working on, catching with my hands more," Archer explained. "But I definitely feel improved with that catch and in that drill."
Was Haley impressed by Archer's receiving?
"Yeah," Haley said. "But you know how the blitz pick-up drill leans in favor of the defense? Well that drill leans in favor of the offense. But he is (improved). He's got nifty route-running ability, he understands, and he's very coachable on really what the quarterbacks are looking for and how to set up routes. He's pretty patient, but yet he's got that dynamic speed that's going to make him a dangerous threat."
Haley was here when the Steelers drafted Chris Rainey, and Archer showed Monday that he can take a hit from a linebacker, spin out, and continue to gain yardage after contact, something Rainey rarely, if ever, showed in his lone season with the Steelers.
"The major difference with those two," Haley said, "is this guy played a lot of running back in college. Chris Rainey was more receiver-oriented; this guy's more running back-oriented. Now, we're going to play him at both. He's a hybrid receiver-slash-running back for us. That's the biggest difference. This guy's carried the ball a lot between tackles and understands how to run it. I think Rainey was a little more -- at least in his mind -- receiver than running back.
"Even though you would label Dri as undersized, he's got great contact balance. He's pound-for-pound one of those strong guys who doesn't look it. He has a chance to play bigger than what he really is."
At the combine, Archer measured 5-7 3/4, 173. Those apparently are the parameters of the "small fry" among the Steelers' group. The "medium fry" is Le'Veon Bell, who weighed 244 in college in 2012, 230 at the combine in 2013, and is now down in the 220-225 range.
While running against the first team in live tackling scrimmage the other day, Bell appeared as if he might be too thin with his 6-1 1/2 frame to run between the tackles. He disagrees.
"I feel a lot more explosive and faster," Bell said. "Last year there were a couple of times when if I had an extra step I could've got more yards, just that extra step. So I took that and ran with it, worked on it consistently over the summer and got better. I can't wait to get out there and show people what I can do."
"Too light? Le'Veon? No," said Haley. "No, I think he's carrying his body weight. Coach (Tomlin) and Gie (conditioning coach Garrett Giemont) put a lot of thought into that process. I think he's in really good condition, which has made him light on his feet, quicker, faster. And he's a picker in there as it is. He's a real good zone runner who's waiting for a crease and then gets real slippery. Coach and them put a lot of time into deciding what weight they want everybody at, and I believe they're right with him."
Haley disagreed that Bell, on film at 244 in college, is no longer the big back they had drafted.
"He's still a big back," Haley said. "You're just now seeing him against Blount, who's a real big back."
LeGarrette Blount, or "big fry," is listed by the Steelers at 6-0, 250. And he's been the hammer out of the backfield this camp. He consistently grinds out yardage whether there's blocking or not.
Will Blount become the Steelers' short-yardage specialist and goal-line runner this season?
"I don't even know if we're even there yet," Haley said. "I think that's easy to say because you've got a big guy who can run between the tackles, but right now we're in this training-camp mode and trying to let these guys compete against each other and take advantage of their opportunities, and I think that's what's happening."