Mike Tomlin gushed about the running backs and the potential of the ground game Tuesday.
The Oakland Raiders backfield, that is.
"All of their backs are capable of making house calls," Tomlin said.
He's not so impressed with his own through the first two games, and he talked about cutting back the number of different plays in their repertoire because of it.
"We haven't run the ball as well as we have liked," Tomlin said.
The Steelers have 141 yards rushing in two games and a paltry 2.6 yards per carry, both ranked 30th in the NFL. Jonathan Dwyer leads them with 71 yards on 21 carries and Isaac Redman has 45 on 23runs. Their other two backs, Chris Rainey and Baron Batch, have six carries between them for 8 yards combined.
Last season, the Steelers averaged 4.4 yards per carry for 16 games.
Among the only two NFL teams behind the Steelers in effectiveness on the ground are the Raiders. Despite Tomlin's praise of Darren McFadden and his running mates, Oakland has only 68 yards rushing and averages just 2.0 per carry.
Tomlin did not identify what the precise problem is for his own team. He declined to single out individuals, although it appears at times the backs are not hitting holes that are there for them.
"I'm not interested in assigning blame in that regard. I will take responsibility for it. The reality is we've got room for growth."
Helping that might be the return of Rashard Mendenhall to the stable of backs. He has practiced the past two weeks after having mid-January ACL surgery, but has not dressed yet for a game. The Steelers will step up his work in practice this week.
"Maybe we will bump him around a little more in practice this week," Tomlin suggested. "He has done a nice job of running and cutting at full speed. Now, let's see if he can play a little football. We will thud him up a little bit on a day we are allowed to carry our pads and see if he can respond positively to it."
Redman and Dwyer responded more positively in a 14-play, 75-yard fourth-quarter drive that consumed 10 minutes, 13 seconds Sunday and put the Jets away. Redman scored on a tackle-breaking, 2-yard run. Dwyer ran 7 yards on the previous play and the two backs combined for 30 yards on seven carries in that drive.
It was their most impressive performance of the day, but not enough to suit their coach.
"That's not what I'm looking for," Tomlin said. "I'm actually looking for better than that."
Ben Roethlisberger's effectiveness as a passer has eased the failings of his runners, especially in critical portions of the game.
He leads all quarterbacks in third-down passing efficiency with a 146.8 rating. He has completed 19 of 25 passes for 251 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on third downs. Among them was his 37-yard scoring pass to Mike Wallace on third-and-16 Sunday. The Steelers converted eight of 15 third downs against the Jets.
"We kept drives alive, and it allowed us to possess the ball," Tomlin said. "On our last 10-minute drive, we were 4 for 4 on third downs. When you do that, you put yourself in position to win."
The Steelers have converted 19 of 34 third downs in two games, a 55.9 percent success rate that leads the NFL.
The Steelers signed cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke Sept. 6 after the Raiders waived him three days earlier, and he has had an immediate impact on special teams.
Van Dyke downed a punt at the 1 at Denver and might have caused New York's Jeremy Kerley to muff a punt as he bore down on him Sunday as the first man down for the Steelers.
"He's done a great job," Tomlin said. "He's downed a punt for us. He was there for that play on that mishandled punt last week. I thought he showed awareness as a punt-return guy, pushing a gunner into the end zone who was trying to down a ball. Obviously, he's been an asset to us in that area."
His play on special teams, wasn't necessarily the reason the Steelers signed him. The Raiders drafted him in the third round in 2011, the same year the Steelers drafted cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth rounds. Van Dyke, who played at Miami, went 14 spots before Brown.
"Quite frankly, the things that attracted us to him are the same things that attracted us to him when he came out in the draft," Tomlin said. "We thought that he was a long, fast kid with man-coverage ability. We compared him very favorably to Cortez Allen and really took a similar approach to those guys. He's in that draft class with Cortez and Curtis Brown, and we're thankful to have three young corners from a draft class just a couple of years ago in our program."
Neither James Harrison (knee) nor Troy Polamalu (calf) practiced or played last week, and it looks as if they might not do so this week, either.
"We will take the same approach that we took a week ago in regards to their availability," Tomlin said. "We simply are going to work day to day and look at how their body responds to the work. We will start with informal workouts and work up to practice at some point."
Tomlin said linebacker Chris Carter and safety Ryan Mundy have "done a solid job" replacing them.
He added others to the injury list this week, saying all could be limited in early practices: tight end Heath Miller (ribs), offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (groin) and Dwyer (turf toe).
Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (knee), who has not played since the first preseason game, "is moving closer to game readiness."
First Published September 19, 2012 4:00 AM