The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t needed any reminding that the past two seasons showcased an abysmal rushing game, but the team has never been one to focus much on the past. During the offseason, the Steelers made a concerted effort to get back to a more traditional ground-and-pound style of rushing offense by finding players to compliment second-year running back Le’Veon Bell, hiring Mike Munchak to coach a young offensive line and returning to a physicality that has long been a dominant part of their reputation for so long.
Mired in mediocre in back to back seasons, the Steelers appeared to have lost their edge on offense. Unable to use the rushing game to open up the passing for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the team put too many games squarely on the arm of ‘Big Ben’. Injuries, like the freak accident involving center Maurkice Pouncey, were only exacerbated by a shortage of offensive linemen who failed to not only keep Roethlisberger upright, but also lacked an effective push to create enough holes for rushers to get downfield and through the line. It made the Steelers’ offense rather one-dimensional and opponents took advantage of it by focusing their pressure on Roethlisberger and receivers.
With the recent additions of hard-nosed LeGarrette Blount in free agency and Dri Archer in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers have been using OTAs to push the running game to the next level. While many have criticized offensive coordinator Todd Haley for the decline of the run, the reality has been a lack of identity over the past two seasons that appear to be correcting themselves with a sense of urgency in 2014. Running backs coach James Saxon is doing a lot of guiding and communicating.
Munchak, arguably one of the best candidates to coach the offensive line, has been increasingly pushing his squad to perform at the next level as well. Both coaches recently commented on what they see as areas where the team can and is improving, especially in relation to their blocking schemes.
“Right now, Mike (Munchak) and myself, being the two news guys…we’ve had a lot of great discussions about what we want,” said Saxon. “The conversations that I’m having with the guys in my room, I’ve said, ‘Look, we’re going to do the best things in the running game for the five guys that are blocking up front.’ We have to be accountable in terms of where we put the football.”
As for how the outside-zone blocking scheme fits into that plan, both Saxon and Munchak agree that not only will it be a part of the 2014 Steelers offense, but that the running backs will need to follow what the offensive linemen provide. “It’ll add to what we’ve done last year as an offense,” said Munchak. “It’s something we’re very capable of doing with the type of offensive linemen we have. That’s the nice thing about getting versatile guys who can run…who can pull…my job as a line coach is to figure out what (each player does) best. The outside-zone will easily be a part of that, part of the equation. There’s a place for that scheme that will allow us to be more productive.”
Rashard Mendenhall was the last 1,000-yard rusher for the Steelers and that was during the 2010 NFL Season. In 2013, the Steelers averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game and were tied with fellow AFC North Cleveland (Browns) at 27th in the league. After missing the first three regular season games dur to a foot injury, then rookie Le’Veon Bell wracked up 860 yards for eight touchdowns. It was a long 22 games for the Steelers gaining less that 100 yards on the ground until Bell broke the drought during Week 16. His play helped give the Steelers offense a boost they’d been needing and put them in a position to make a wild card spot in the playoffs if they could win. They didn’t and missed out for the second year in a row, but the improvement on offense showed that the trend was up for Pittsburgh.
The addition of Blount gives Pittsburgh a potentially dangerous one-two punch and bring back an in-your-face running game that the Steelers have traditionally used but were missing in 2012-13. Archer adds another dimension as a potential weapon as well. The running game will not improve without an intact and communicative offensive line, however.
In the past four years, the Steelers were forced to start more than 30 different offensive linemen. With the health of Maurkice Pouncey looking to be prime, his re-emergence to a Pro Bowl center is not only exciting but has the potential to be the keystone to a fresher, younger front line. Remaining healthy and working together will also be key to keeping the Steelers offense on the field and not having to rely on a defense that slid as well – mainly due to having to spend time trying to win games when the offense sputtered to a stop.
The Steelers have long been viewed as a bruising offense that would run the ball up the gut until they wore down opposing defenses, but got away from that image. Finding that identity again should allow Pittsburgh to bring back the ground and pound in time to allow the younger receiving corps to find their identity as well and open up an offense that got better and better as the 2013 season neared its end.
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