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A look at the Steelers Running Game

It’s not a surprise that Steeler Nation would like to see more from the running game – more productivity, smarter, get yardage when it matters – we’ve all said it. Especially after we watched Ben throw for 4,000 yards last year and we still didn’t win.

Then there were the calls for Arians job.

Sure, we’ve all thought it once or twice, or maybe more.

But I have a theory, hear me out…

As I read Chad Millman and Shawne Coyne’s book, “The Ones Who Hit the Hardest,” I became facinated with a couple chapters on Franco Harris.  Let’s start with the fact that Chuck Noll didn’t really want to draft him, but did and then didn’t know what to do with him.  In his rookie year at the first training camp, Harris couldn’t really do much of anything – no gaps to shoot, no holes to run through and Noll thought the team made a mistake.

Then in his first exhibition game, Harris starts to run the play that was called, realizes there’s no hole and cuts around the other side and flies down the field to scoresa 75-yard touchdown.  Obviously, the Steelers didn’t make a mistake and Franco Harris had an amazing career with the Steelers. The bottom line: Harris knew what was going on across the entire field, he had vision, he was athletic and could change direction when he needed to and it didn’t hurt that he was fast.  In addition, Noll built an offensive line with smaller and faster lineman than most of the NFL at the time.

According to the Millman and Coyne, Noll’s method of running the ball wasn’t to overpower a defensive line, it was to use  a defender’s nature against himself by executing trap blocks. In the trap the offensive lineman doesn’t initially block the defensive lineman across from him.  He just lets go, while another offensive lineman pulls from his position and blindsides the onrushing defender.

Obviously, this is what Steeler Nation would like to see happen.  But I wonder, do we still have the kind of offensive line that allows for a runner like Franco Harris? I think we have moved into putting those big huge guys up front and away from a faster, smaller line – and therefore, we can’t execute like we did during the days of the “Immaculate Reception.”

So, what would it take for Mendenhall to play like Franco? I don’t know. And we probably won’t know this year, but it’s something that Arians needs to consider. The Steelers would also have to consider how the offensive line is built and what they are tasked to do. Maybe, to protect the passing game they are just fine, but it all depends on how much the Steelers want to mix it up between passing and running the ball. I just don’t know.

What I do know is this: there are some NFL teams who get it and who the Steelers need to prepare for.

First on that list, and someone we’ll see twice this year, is Ray Rice and the Ravens.  He’s a quick running back and he sees the openings on the field as they happen.  Every time he gets the ball, I hold my breath and hope that somehow, our defense will shut him down.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Last year Rice rushed for 1,339 yards and had 7 touchdowns.

Another running back we’ll face twice, Cedric Benson, is also a top running back  and in his 6th season in the NFL currently with the Bengals.  Benson is coming off his best career performance rushing for 1,251 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He’s dangerous and fast on the field.  When the ball is in his hands you have to watch out.

That feeling is, I think, what Steeler Nation wants other teams to feel from our own running game, yet, I just don’t think the Steelers are built that way. Right now, anyway. Let’s hope that over the next few weeks (years?) we develop a run game like Franco had and move the ball when we need to.  The Steelers need to find that happy medium between run and pass.

What do you think?

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Brownsgab

    August 4, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    I hope you stay away from Big Ben Steelergurl…. Go Browns and see you guys 10/17

  2. DrGeorge

    August 5, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Steelergurl, you’re singing to the choir. We’ve been making the point here for the past two or three years. No one wants to take the ball out of Ben’s hands, but the inability to run when needed — red zone, short yardage, to protect a lead, to rest an aging defense — cost us ballgames in 2009. Whether our O-line has the quickness and the right blocking schemes to be effective remains unknown. Adams and Pouncey seem good additions. Both light fast lines and large powerful lines can be effective, with the right schemes. But it’s way too early to tell if Arians and his staff know how to use the talent we have.

  3. Steelergurl

    August 5, 2010 at 11:02 am

    @Brownsgab – lol Don’t worry, Ben’s not my type at all 🙂 Yes, see you 10/17 looking forward to it!

    @DrGeorge – totally agree, Arians needs to figure out how to get to a happy medium here. We need to be able to do all of the above for the reasons we both stated. I hope to see a mix this year and the best offensive line schemes to appropriately cover and protect the plays we’re trying to make. Guess we’ll see…but one thing for sure, we won’t have to endure hearing “handoff to Parker….Parker hit for loss of 3….now the Steelers are at 3rd and long, can they convert” *sigh*

    and I loved FWP, we just couldn’t support him and he was not a Bettis replacement – two different backs. Let’s hope Mendenhall ends up somewhere in the middle. He did rush for more than 1,000 yards last year which is good….let’s see how this all works out in 2010.

  4. DrGeorge

    August 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Steelergurl, thank you for handing Brownsgab his hat. He deserved the put down.

    As for our running backs, including Mendenhall, they are neither powerful (a la Bettis, McClain and Rice of the Ravens, and many others in opposing backfields) nor swift (a la FWP) or elusive (a la Adrian Peterson). Our RBs are not plough horses, but they are not elite backs. They are good average RBs. That means the O-line must make and sustain blocks for the rushing game to succeed. Mendenhall did rush for over 1000 yds last year, but only because he got most of the carries. He gained most of his yards between the 20s. We couldn’t run when necessary, and we finished out of the playoffs. Rushing success begins with the O-line.

    As interesting as the 2010 offensive issues are, however, the defense is still the story. If our defense played as well in 2009 as it did in 2005, we’d have made the playoffs easily. We certainly would not have suffered the ignominy of that 5 games losing streak. Next time, how about reporting on what LeBeau is doing to right the ship on defense? Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. Steelergurl

    August 5, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    @DrGeorge I have written ad nauseum on steelergurl.com but I will go into a little more detail over here on defense just for you 🙂

  6. jay

    August 5, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I agree with Steelergurl but would like to add a thing or two…I do agree that our line is bigger and ill-equipped at trapping than in the past. I do believe, however, that trapping, although maybe still adhered to and/or utilized by some team(s) on occasion, is a thing of the past. Defensive linemen are too big, too fast, too strong and actually smarter than in the past. Trapping thus becomes a calculated necessity in lieu of an offensive staple or regularity. But I have heard some experts say that Chris K is one of the better pulling left guards in the league (hard to believe, I know, considering his mammoth size). Although bigger, mauling offensive linemen tend to lend themselves more to a straight ahead, bruising running game, when you have some that can pull, then you can run counters, power stretches, off-tackles, sweeps and yes, the occasional trap. Our best rushing effort last year came against Denver (not sure if it was statistically but it sticks in my mind as such). The reason, to me, is that it is the game when Chris K was on fire pulling left and right and I believe BB was out so we relied more on it. If we mix that in this year, we’ll be good. No, we don’t have to go 60-40 run the ball smashmouth. But maybe more situational and RELY on it more than we did last year. Last year it was like, “Oh yeah, we have a running game.” This year it should be, “Let’s use our running game!” That doesn’t necessarily mean, like I said, smashmouth, but it does mean running it slightly more from a frequency standpoint and extensively more from an effectivity standpoint!

  7. Steelergurl

    August 5, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Hey Jay – I think you are right on there on the run game. And I’m with you on Kemo. I think when he got hurt mid-season last year it was another blow to the offensive line – he was just starting to show his flexibility and get comfortable. I think he’s going to do big things this year. Good lookin’ out on that one….SG

  8. DrGeorge

    August 6, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Hines Ward’s comments on today’s article above sounds encouraging in terms of effort and practice time, supporting the views expressed here — but take a look at Ed Bouchette’s report from training camp in today’s Post-Gazette for a less rosy view of our O-line and running backs. Arians and Kugler have their work cut out for them.

  9. jay

    August 6, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I read that article, Doc. It sounds like a lot of “what ifs” in terms of injuries and depth. You could probably say that about a lot of teams. I guess we’ll see.

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