On the Steelers: Offense faces identity crisis
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward on his team's offense: "We're trying to be balanced as much as we can."
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Is it time for the Steelers to abandon their running game on offense and start opening things up?
There is little doubt the coaches have strived not only to improve their running game this season, as urged to do so in January by team president Art Rooney, but to run more often as well.
The Steelers have run on nearly half their plays (49.3 percent). That compares to 42.2 percent last season. Partly as a result, their total yards on offense has dipped more than 15 percent, from 371.3 yards last season to 313.6 this season, from seventh overall last season to 24th now.
Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating of 97.1, his completion rate of 62.7 and his yards per attempt of 8.25 are all not far off what he accomplished last season, yet he is averaging only 217.3 yards per game passing compared to 288 last season.
And it's not as if the Steelers' running game has improved much. They ranked 19th in the league last season with an average of 112.1 yards per game. They rank 13th in the league today having improved by just one yard per game, to 113.1.
They run it more often, not more effectively.
"Somebody asked me what's the identity of our offense?" Hines Ward said. "We're trying to be balanced as much as we can. I don't know. We're not trying to do it to try to appease the owner and what everybody thinks we ought to do. We're just trying to find ways to win ballgames."
Yet, the pressure to run the ball more effectively did come down from the top, and coach Mike Tomlin signed off on it. And the results haven't exactly been bad because the Steelers are 6-3 and tied for first in the AFC North Division. They were 9-7 and missed the playoffs last season.
Still, they could not run Sunday against the New England Patriots after the Cleveland Browns topped 200 yards against the same defense a week earlier. When the Steelers finally opened up, Roethlisberger threw for 288 of his 387 yards passing in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers scored 23 points.
"I'm sure B.A. probably feels pressure whether it's from the fans, the media, the coaches -- wherever it comes from -- to run the ball," Roethlisberger said of his coordinator, Bruce Arians. "That probably puts him in a little bit of a bind."
Roethlisberger added that the ratio of runs and passes are right where they want them.
"I don't know any quarterbacks who want to run the ball all the time. But I've always said let's be balanced. I've never been one to say let's go out and throw the ball 60, 70 percent of the time. Let's just be balanced, 50-50."
Arians noted two problems he would like to fix: They are running an average of six fewer plays per game this season compared to last because they have converted 36 percent of their third downs, and they are not doing well on the first drive of games -- two touchdowns, one field goal and three turnovers in nine games.
"We had a couple of games where we weren't very good on third down and couldn't maintain possession," Arians said. "The points are OK, not where we want them to be but, yeah, the total yardage, we're not throwing the ball nearly as much as we did last season."
They average 22.2 points per game this season as a team after averaging 23 last season and 21.7 in their Super Bowl season of 2008.
They believe they should be doing better.
Perhaps it is the Santonio Holmes factor. Mike Wallace has done a nice job replacing Holmes and, in fact, is having a better season than Holmes. But there has been no Mike Wallace to replace Mike Wallace as the fleet-footed No. 3 receiver. Antwaan Randle El averages 12.1 yards on 17 receptions in that role.
Ward said they miss that Holmes-Wallace combination.
"You can't replace a guy like that," Ward said of Holmes, who helped the New York Jets win their past two games with big catches in overtime, one for a 37-yard touchdown against Cleveland last week on a 7-yard slant. "You put him on the backside, and he catches a slant, he's taking it. Prime example was Cleveland; he took it to the house.
"He's still a great wideout. He has that run after the catch threat that you miss. Right now, we're relying heavily on Mike going deep and making plays. He's done a wonderful job of that, but you can't score like that every time. You have to look elsewhere."
They'd like rookie Emmanuel Sanders to fill that Wallace '09 role but he's not ready.
They also have been terrible inside the 10, particularly over the past four games. They have had to settle for field goal tries six times in those four games after a series died inside the 10.
What to do about it? Keep trying.
"Get it identified why and keep your poise on the sideline," Arians said, "because there's a long way to go."
Chris Kemoeatu put in a full practice for the first time in two weeks and is ready to return to start at left guard after he missed the game Sunday with sprains of his knee and ankle.
Ward went through a second consecutive day of practice in full pads, but safety Will Allen still has not practiced. Both Ward and Allen left the New England game with concussions.
"I've been here seven years," Arians said, "and that's the best two practices Hines had in five of them because he hadn't practiced on Wednesday in a long time. But he wanted to prove to everybody he was healthy and, boy, he had two great practices and showed a lot of the younger guys how to do it."
Troy Polamalu (Achilles) did not practice again, Nick Eason also missed again with an illness, and Brett Keisel (hamstring) went through another limited practice.
Lawrence Timmons (hip) went through his first full practice of the week as did rookie cornerback Crezdon Butler (thigh).
First Published November 19, 2010 12:00 am