The images are living, breathing blueprints for unprecedented and unparalleled success.
Franco Harris sprinting through the snow, the general of Franco’s Italian Army bound for glory. Jerome Bettis departing the station, shifting gears all the way as the Bus churns toward the end zone. Willie Parker all by his lonesome, a stunned defense in the wake of his blurring feet.
For more than two generations and a fistful (plus one) of Super Bowl trophies, the running game has defined the Pittsburgh Steelers, reflecting not just a city but a way of life and turning the guys standing next to the quarterback into one-named wonders.
Franco. Jerome. Willie. Barry. Bam.
Let other teams throw the ball around all around the lot. Not in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody is used to the ground-and-pound thing here,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “Real gritty.”
The last few years, however, the grit has been replaced by a grimace. Since the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl in 2009, the running game coach Mike Tomlin talks about as the foundation of the franchise has disappeared.
Over the last four seasons, Pittsburgh ranks 23rd in 100-yard rushing games according to STATS LLC, having a back top the century mark just 12 times. That’s not exactly Steelers football. That’s more like flag football.
The nadir came in 2012, when the Steelers finished 26th in yards rushing, 27th in yards per carry and 27th in touchdowns rushing (eighth) as Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman struggled. Dwyer’s team-high 623 yards were the lowest by the franchise’s leading rusher since Merril Hoge (610, 1990).
Pittsburgh missed the playoffs that season, just like it did last fall after going 8-8.
Having a potential Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime is a factor, yet even Ben Roethlisberger admits Pittsburgh has to get it going.
“We always want to be able to run the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “It makes you more balanced and helps open up the pass.”
Pittsburgh managed just 32 yards on 15 carries in a 16-9 loss to the Titans last week. Redman ran for just 9 yards and fumbled twice. LaRod Stephens-Howling led the Steelers with 17 yards before tearing up his right knee. Felix Jones barely saw the field. Rookie Le’Veon Bell watched from the sideline with his sprained right foot.
At least Bell was at the game. Dwyer was 800 miles away in Florida after being cut. He wasn’t out of work long. The Steelers called him Monday.
Dwyer arrived to find a second-year novice at center after Kelvin Beachum replaced Maurkice Pouncey, out for the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee. He also found a sense of urgency.
“We can run the ball,” Dwyer said. “That’s still our identity.”
Maybe, or maybe the Steelers – just like the city they represent – are changing. Pittsburgh is no longer dotted with steel mills.
The manufacturing jobs have disappeared. In their place are growing energy, health and education industries. The blue collars have been traded in for white ones.
And so it is in the NFL. Running the ball is no longer vitally important to winning. When the Steelers beat Arizona in Tampa on that warm February night nearly five years ago, they did it behind Roethlisberger and receiver Santonio Holmes.
On that list of 100-yard rushing games, Green Bay is last with four. New Orleans? Six. New England? Eleven.
“The game is faster paced,” Dwyer said. “Even look at the college game now, it’s sort of the same thing. You don’t see pounding the ball, you see teams spreading it out.”
Perhaps, though the Steelers remain intent on becoming effective. Coordinator Todd Haley refuses to put pregame yardage totals on the board, figuring it’s pointless. The only real number that counts is on the scoreboard.
“You just have to be able run efficiently,” Haley said. “That means that in situations where you have to run, you’re able to run.”
Something the Steelers plan to do today in Cincinnati. On the road a year ago, Dwyer put up 122 yards in a 24-17 win. He added 107 a week later against Washington.
The momentum, however, faded. The Steelers stumbled down the stretch, as Roethlisberger missed three games with a rib injury.
Haley introduced a zone-blocking scheme in the offseason designed to give the nimble Bell a chance to use his quickness. With Bell out, Pittsburgh will instead hope familiar faces lead to unfamiliar results.
“I think a consistent running game is really important, not only to be good offensively, but to strike a balance,” Tomlin said. “We haven’t been able to do that to this point.”
The images are living, breathing blueprints for unprecedented and unparalleled success.
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