Can running game get any worse?

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Maybe it was the fact that the Tennessee Titans were breaking off gains that averaged 10 yards on first down early in the NFL's first act of 2009, and maybe it was the stark contrast to a Steelers offense that looked as if it had sprung right off the schoolyards of Findlay, Ohio, but you sure got the feeling something wasn't right about opening night.

Even before Troy Polamalu left with an ominous knee injury just before intermission, the Steelers were already in a world of trouble.

This is no startling stunt of clairvoyance, but teams that average 1.6 yards per rush over 60-plus supposedly professional minutes, slightly less than what you'd get by falling flat on your face from the line of scrimmage, are probably going to struggle over the next four months.

Not to be critical.

"You don't want to base everything in your offense off the no-huddle," Steelers left tackle Max Starks was saying of the shaggy path to a 13-10 overtime victory. "We don't play against a lot of 4-3 defenses in the preseason or in training camp. We don't see a lot of eight or nine-man fronts because everyone is so vanilla. We'll clean it up."

Maybe, but it'll take all available hours in the 10-day gap between last night and a Soldier Field appointment with the Chicago Bears a week from Sunday.

Generally, the first Steelers game column of the year turns deftly on the performance of Fast Willie Parker, who turns in an inaugural three-digit number with metronomic consistency in the most conspicuously challenging circumstances: 161 yards, 115, 109, 138.

Last night, something like 138 might have been achievable again -- on maybe 138 carries.

In danger of losing their first home opener since a Sept. 3, 2000, skunking by the Baltimore Ravens and perhaps oblivious to the fact that teams that lose the opener are less than half as likely to reach the playoffs as teams that win it, the Steelers allowed their running game to evaporate into the North Side darkness with stunning quickness.

It's not new that the Bruce Arians offense throws it better than it bangs it, and its NFL ranking of 23rd in rushing last year was widely lamented as depressingly un-Steelerworthy. But as the world knows and a sixth Lombardi Trophy will attest, you can get away with it.

Maybe you can get away with the 23rd-best ground game in a 32-team league, but can you get away with 32nd?

You might find out, unless, of course, someone up front eventually gets around to knocking somebody backward.

Check back in a few weeks.

"Obviously, we'd like to run the ball a whole lot better," said tight end Heath Miller, who caught eight of Ben Roethlisberger's 33 completions for 64 yards. "Ben's the best player in the offense, so we play to his strengths. But we're still capable of running the ball. The running game is very complicated. If one guy gets beat, it breaks down."

A lot of guys got beat last night.

Parker had eight carries in the first half, resulting in 9 yards. Rashard Mendenhall had two carries in the first 30 minutes, gaining 3, but in fairness to the former No. 1 pick out of Illinois, he could easily have had 4 yards or more had he not run directly into Roethlisberger on his first official rushing attempt of 2009. Few, if any, of the 65,110 on hand paid good money hoping to see Big Ben make a tackle, particularly in his own backfield, but that play typified the ground game.

By the time Tennessee's Rob Bironas thumped home a 45-yard field goal just to snap a 7-7 tie early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had run the ball 17 times with 13 of those plays gaining 3 yards or less.

Parker's longest gain of the night, a semi-nifty 9-yarder, was halved by a holding penalty on Hines Ward.

It was borderline miraculous for this team to win 15 games a year ago with a running game that was mostly a rumor (the Steelers got two 100-yard rushing performances in the season's final 10 games); it'll be something else entirely to win with one that's a grade one toxin.

In the second half, Mike Tomlin gave Parker and Mendenhall every opportunity to establish something behind an offensive line that was taking cover. Parker gained 8 yards on his first carry, but in the only sequence in which he carried on three consecutive plays, gained 1 yard total on the final two and forced still another punt. Arians maintained his patience, sending Willie up the middle for 4 on the next possession, and Willie lost 3 on the next carry.

Cue Mendenhall.

Three yards, then no yards.

Mewelde Moore anyone?

Mewelde was pretty much Moore of the same, turning third-and-1 at the Tennessee 9 late in the game into fourth-and-1 with little difficulty.

"We're not going to abandon anything that we believe in and we set out to do in any given week," Tomlin said of his persistence in the face of powerful evidence. "I ask our guys to play like that and I have to coach like that. As good a defensive front as Tennessee has, we've got to do a better job if we're going to show up consistently in victory lane."

While all this was going on, Roethlisberger played 60-plus minutes of schoolyard ball, running for his life in spots and working on his improvisational skills in others, getting just enough time to find just enough open people to keep the Steelers in the game. Ward's last minute fumble inside the Titans' 5 looked as though it would be remembered as lethal, but the running game had long since sucked the life from the offense.

That Ben resuscitated it enough to steer it 63 yards on 10 plays in overtime was a small victory. Luckily he ran only two running plays, which picked up another 3 yards.




Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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