Steelers running attack in need of repair


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It was Jan. 22, 2007, when we first heard Mike Tomlin speak as Steelers head coach, and one question asked of the new man that day was what kind of offense he would like to have.

"A fundamentalist football team that wins by attrition, that's mentally and physically tough," Tomlin answered. "Of course, there's no secret in the National Football League, in order to win you have to stop the run and you have to run the ball effectively. To be general, that's what our football team will be about."

Not lately, it hasn't. Despite efforts to run the ball more effectively starting with the 2012 season, the Steelers have gotten worse. They slipped to 26th in the NFL last season and their record fell to 8-8.

This year, they put even more effort into improving the run. They drafted a halfback with their second pick and installed an outside zone blocking scheme that is run-friendly.

And then Sunday, the Steelers ran 15 times for 32 yards. It is their lowest run production under Tomlin. They haven't had fewer yards rushing since they managed only 21 at Baltimore Nov. 26, 2006, when they were skunked, 27-0.

Teams have shown you can win purely with a passing game (the Giants ground game ranked last in 2011, the season they won a Super Bowl). But the most recent Super Bowl teams ranked fifth (San Francisco) and 11th (Baltimore) in piling up rushing yards last season.

The run has not gone out of favor in the NFL, at least not like it has in Pittsburgh.

Tomlin still believes it vital to have an offense that runs well. Forget that he has not had one of those in a few years or that it appears he does not have one again, he still believes in it.

"I think a consistent running game is really important, not only to be good offensively, but to strike a balance," Tomlin said Tuesday. "We haven't been able to do that to this point. Obviously, we are working hard to do so."

Things did not improve when the Steelers lost three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season Sunday, or when they lost halfback LaRod Stephens-Howling for the season later in that game. They will not get better with the return of rookie halfback Le'Veon Bell this week because he will not play Monday night in Cincinnati and might not for a few weeks or even until the fifth game Oct. 13.

They did get back their 2012 leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, but Tomlin exercised caution when he was asked if Dwyer will play, using the word "dependability," one reason they waived him Aug. 31.

"That depends on his dependability, his ability to get up to speed with the game plan and things," Tomlin said. "He's been away from us for a couple weeks now. Obviously, I don't anticipate that being a major problem, but we'll play it by ear and see how he looks on the practice field and in the classroom."

Isaac Redman, who gained 9 yards on eight carries Sunday and fumbled twice, losing one and a potential touchdown with it, will start. Tomlin said he "absolutely" has confidence in him.

"Obviously, he played a bad game. A lot of us did. He will be given an opportunity to redeem himself. We will see where that takes us."

It better take them farther than 32 yards in Cincinnati or the Steelers will be looking at their first 0-2 start in the past 11 seasons.

There is the Felix Jones factor, which did not factor into the home opener since the back they acquired in a trade with Philadelphia Aug. 23 had no carries in the 16-9 loss against Tennessee.

"He just needs to continue to learn," Tomlin explained. "Obviously, he hasn't been here as long as some of the others, being picked up late in the preseason.

"We got in some circumstances within the game, particularly as the game wore on, where we were down by two scores, we had to pick the pace of the offense up. Some of that requires non-verbal communications. We just thought it would be more sound to go with guys that have been around here longer and that have executed some of the things we were executing situationally better."

The accident scene

Was Maurkice Pouncey's season-ending injury his fault?

In one manner, it was. Pouncey could not get past defensive tackle Sione Fua to go block a linebacker on the zone-blocking play with Redman running to the left. As a result, when guard David DeCastro went to cut block a defensive lineman, he bowled into Pouncey's legs instead.

Tomlin explained it.

"It's just one of the unfortunate elements of football. We're working a zone-scheme block against their interior defensive lineman, and Maurkice was trying to escape and work his way to the second level. The defensive lineman did a good job of not allowing that to happen and holding Maurkice there at the line of scrimmage.

"As David worked to get his head in front of the defensive lineman and execute a legal block, he contacted Maurkice."

Tomlin, on the NFL competition committee that suggests many of the league rules, said he's not in favor of making the cut block illegal.

"No, I like the rule as it is. I think the game is competitive. I'm not one to buy into wholesale changes in terms of the game of football. I like to proceed slowly in that regard and to look at the byproducts of rule changes and how it might affect the game largely as opposed to looking at the direct result of rule changes."

Will newcomers play?

The new kicker the Steelers signed might not kick for them, and the new center they signed might not play for them Monday.

Guard-tackle-tight end Kelvin Beachum played center for the first time in a real game after Pouncey's injury Sunday. The Steelers signed veteran Fernando Velasco, the Tennessee Titans' starting center last season. They also signed center Cody Wallace Sept. 1.

"As we prepare right now, Beachum is going to be our starting center," Tomlin said. "And we're in the process of learning what Fernando is capable of in terms of details, the learning of assignments, not only him but Cody Wallace as well."

As for using 35-year-old kicker Shayne Graham, also signed Monday, it will depend on how quickly Shaun Suisham's hamstring heals.

"He has a chance" to kick vs. Cincinnati, Tomlin said of Suisham. "We are going to work him out at the latter part of the week to determine his availability."

Steelers

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published September 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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