On the Steelers: It's all about the running game now
The Steelers Rashard Mendenhall carries during practice on the South Side Wednesday.
The pressure is on Isaac Redman, right, and Rashard Mendenhall to help the Steelers develop a balanced offense -- something they haven't had this season.
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Steelers defensive players never have been bashful about revealing their game plan each week, at least the bottom-line portion of it.
Stop the run so "we have to make these offenses one-dimensional,' linebacker LaMarr Woodley repeated a long-held mantra.
The Steelers want offenses to throw the ball because they cannot run it, whether those offenses are led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Mark Sanchez.
The idea behind it is by forcing teams to throw when they cannot rely on the run, big plays such as sacks, interceptions and turnovers will follow.
The philosophy may be a good one, but it isn't working for the Steelers this season. The defense has been unable to make offenses one-dimensional by stopping the run and have few big plays to show for it. And the offense has become one-dimensional by not being able to run.
Judging by their own stated goals, those are not healthy signs. They believe, however, that they can change things on both ends before the game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field.
Helping feed that optimism will be the return of two of their biggest defensive stars and playmakers, outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. On offense, their leading rusher the past three seasons, Rashard Mendenhall, will play for the first time.
"We haven't been doing a great job going out there and shutting down the run and forcing them to pass,' Woodley said. "We haven't put them in third-and-long situations. We're putting them in situations to allow them to get rid of the ball fast."
Perhaps because of that, the Steelers have only five sacks and have forced two turnovers in three games. That puts them on pace in each category to have fewer than they did last season, when they had the fewest sacks (35) and turnovers (15) in a long, long time.
But then, it's early.
"That's the kind of thing with this defense, if you can't make teams one-dimensional, it makes it tough on you,' nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "And we haven't been doing that, we've let people run the ball on us."
Too bad their offense can't get that kind of cooperation from the defenses it has faced. Not only has that offense been one-dimensional, it's been one-sided. While they rank next to last in the NFL with a puny average of 65 yards rushing per game to go with a 2.6-yard average per carry, Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers have lit up stadiums.
Roethlisberger's 109.2 passer rating ranks second in the NFL. His eight touchdown passes are tied for second in the AFC, his one interception tied for lowest in the AFC and his 68.3 completion percentage is second in the conference.
Heath Miller's four touchdowns (tying his total for the past two seasons combined) are tied atop the NFL even though the Steelers have played one fewer game than all but one other team.
Imagine how much more dangerous that passing game might be if they had a running attack to go with it.
"I feel like we've got a lot of weapons and you can have run-game alternatives -- quick screens, quick passes, things like that that pick up 4, 5, 6, 7 yards," Roethlisberger said.
"If you're not able to run the ball, you've got to find ways to possess it. For not being able to 'run the ball,' we've possessed the ball a lot and we've converted a lot of third downs. We've kept our defense off the field, which is always a goal of ours to let our defense rest as much as possible. We have to keep possessing it, not turning it over, and that's big for me, is not to turn the ball over. We have to just keep trying to find ways to win games."
Mendenhall's return could help, but he has not played in a game since he tore his anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 1, so his timing could be off, too.
Safety Ryan Clark said it's no surprise that, without Mendenhall and with all the talent in the passing game, the Steelers have leaned more on the pass.
"When you look at the play sheet and you're thinking, 'Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger,' and then looking, 'OK, these weren't the guys [in the backfield] we intended to be the starters,' where would you call the plays?
"I think adding Rashard is going to make teams play us a little differently And once we can say, 'OK, we can go yard running the ball, or if you want to make us pass, we have these three guys out here who are hard to stop' -- plus I think Heath [Miller] is the best tight end in the game right now.
"Sometimes, I think just personnel dictates what you can do. We have very good running backs with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, but there's a reason Rashard goes in the first round, there's a reason you pick guys where you pick them. And he's done it. I think having him back helps us."
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has tried to break rookie back Chris Rainey free, but he hasn't been able to do it the way he did in the preseason.
Rainey has six carries for 15 yards, four receptions for 27, one punt return for 13 and four kick returns for 89.
In the preseason, he ran 41 yards for a touchdown, caught a short pass and ran 57 yards for another, and had two long touchdown returns on punts canceled by penalties.
Haley and Roethlisberger said defenses are on the lookout when Rainey enters the game, and may be keying on him.
Said Roethlisberger: "It feels like when he's out there, they're all yelling 'Watch the trick play, watch 22.' They all know something is going on when he's out there.
"That's why we have to keep utilizing him in different ways."
Haley promised he will.
"The key with him is that we have to get him into the flow of the offense at some point when everybody is comfortable. When he is making regular carries, I think maybe he won't be noticed as much."
Everyone practiced for the second consecutive day and all seem ready for Sunday, which would make the Steelers healthier than they've been since the season began.
Harrison is expected to make his first start on the right outside, Polamalu at strong safety and Mendenhall at running back.
The only starter who remains out is rookie offensive guard David DeCastro, who was placed on injured reserve and designated as the one player who can return. He will be eligible after the eighth week of the season.
DeCastro, who had knee surgery after a preseason injury, continues to work out at the team's facility and has been walking without a limp or a brace.
First Published October 5, 2012 12:00 am