Steelers notebook: Team likely to reconstruct blocking style

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The Steelers have rushed for 75 yards in the first two games of the season, which is the same amount of yards "Fast" Willie Parker covered in the longest run in Super Bowl history in 2006. It has taken the current Steelers running backs 31 attempts to match the historic trip Parker took through the Seattle defense in Super Bowl XL.

If that's not enough to drive the point home about the Steelers' running woes then consider this: 34 players in the NFL this season have rushed for more yards than the entire Steelers team.

It should come as no surprise then that the paltry rushing statistics represent the worst two-game start to a season in franchise history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.


The lowdown


The worst rushing offenses in the NFL through two weeks:

Team ranking -- yards -- Yards pg

32. New York Giants -- 73 -- 36.5

31. Steelers -- 75 -- 37.5

30. Jacksonville Jaguars -- 105 -- 52.5

29. Cleveland Browns -- 112 -- 56.0

28. Miami Dolphins -- 121 -- 60.5


The leading rusher Monday night in a 20-10 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals was Felix Jones, who had 37 yards on 10 carries. The leading rusher in the Week 1 loss against Tennessee was LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had 19 yards on six attempts.

No wonder coach Mike Tomlin channeled Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll Tuesday when he was asked about running-game issues.

"The problems are many," Tomlin said.

The coaches have identified the major problems and are trying to implement solutions this week. They are shrinking the playbook and planning to call more outside zone running plays.

The Steelers practiced zone blocking through the spring and summer and expected it to be a staple of the offense, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley has not called one zone running play since Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was injured early in the opener against Tennessee on an outside zone play.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert said using the zone blocking more will help jump-start the running game because opposing teams understand how to stop the plays the Steelers have been running for years in their power- blocking scheme.

"We're going to use that a lot more," Gilbert said Wednesday after practice. "We barely used it in first two games. That will really help us out. Teams saw we were a gap, downhill team. Now, we can throw different stuff at them and change it up.

"We can go power or use a zone scheme. We got away from it after Pouncey went down. We haven't used it. That was working for us in the preseason when we were knocking out yards. I think we'll come back to that this week."

The Steelers have not rushed for more than 100 yards in eight consecutive regular-season games, dating to 2012. This from a franchise that used to churn out individual 100-yard rushers on an almost weekly basis.

Jerome Bettis had 50 100-yard rushing games in his career. Franco Harris did it 47 times. Parker, in a much shorter career, did it 26 times.

But it appears opposing teams have caught on how to stop the Steelers. Or the current linemen aren't as effective as their predecessors. Whatever the case, the zone blocking is making a comeback, and the linemen are buying in that it will help them.

"A lot of teams know [us] as a power team," Gilbert said. "When they see us in certain formations, they're going to bring a safety down to the box. Teams know who we are. They study us for years. We have to get this outside zone scheme going so it can free up our receivers. We'll open it up and go play-action so we can create big plays for the receivers.

"We're going to go back to what we're best at. That's by minimizing the playbook and doing all the plays we're good at."

Miller returns to practice

Tight end Heath Miller was a full participant in practice for the first time since last season, and his availability for the Chicago game Sunday night will be determined later in the week. Miller, rehabilitating from major knee surgery, was activated to the 53-man roster after training camp but did not play in the first two games.

"We'll see how it feels in the morning and try to keep pushing it and see if it holds up," Miller said after practice. "After two or three days in a row, we'll see where we're at. I felt pretty good. I'm encouraged by how I felt today."

Adjusting the approach

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. In years past, the Steelers dictated to other teams and forced them to adjust.

With an 0-2 record and problems aplenty on offense and defense, veteran safety and captain Ryan Clark said the players and coaches have to take a different approach.

"We have to find the best way for this team to be effective, the best way for this group of people to be effective," Clark said.

"What we have to do now is lean on our strengths, not to necessarily mask our weaknesses, but to overcome our weaknesses. The people on the team have to understand where we're strong, what we're good at. The coaches are finding ways where the positives can outweigh the negatives.

Quick hits

In addition to Miller, nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) and cornerback Curtis Brown (illness) were full participants in practice. ... Running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (heel) were limited participants... Cornerback Cortez Allen and defensive end Brett Keisel (calf) did not practice. ... The Steelers signed defensive back Devin Smith to the practice squad to replace Isaiah Green, who was activated to the 53-man roster Tuesday after kicker Shayne Graham was released. Smith, who played at Wisconsin, spent training camp with the Steelers.

Steelers

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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