Return of running game a must for Steelers offense
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The Steelers signed another cornerback Tuesday, placed two more players on injured reserve and contacted the missing persons bureau to help find a running game that vanished more than a month ago.
Not since Nov. 18 have the Steelers topped 100 yards rushing as a team. Not since Nov. 4 have they had an effective running game, when Isaac Redman chewed up the New York Giants for 147 yards.
The ground game they discovered at mid-season nearly has ground to a halt. It has slipped to 26th in the NFL in yards per outing at 96.5 yards and 26th in the NFL with an average of 3.8 yards per carry.
Now, more than ever, they need to rediscover how to run the ball as they return to the not-so-friendly confines of Heinz Field, where they lost their past two games and needed overtime to beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs in the game before those.
The Cincinnati Bengals come to town for a 1 p.m. showdown Sunday with more quarterback sacks than any defense in the NFL (43). Nothing says protect the quarterback more than a good ground game.
The good news for the Steelers is they ran for more rushing yards than they have all season when they piled up 167 in a 24-17 victory at Cincinnati. The not-so-good news is that happened two months ago (Oct. 21).
"We were successful in running the ball against these guys the last time," coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. "We don't anticipate that it will be easy just because that has been our past experience. But we are comfortable with the formulation of a plan and we look forward to having those guys being a big part of what it is we do."
The Steelers will welcome back Rashard Mendenhall from his one-game suspension, but how that will help their running game is anyone's guess. He has 113 yards and a 3.3-yard average per carry in his injury-marred season and was effective in just one game.
Tomlin indicated they will stay the course with their backfield rotation, which would indicate Jonathan Dwyer will start, Isaac Redman will back him up and Mendenhall may or may not dress.
"I'm happy with the rotation as it is now," Tomlin said. "I look forward to getting Rashard back in the building and participating with his teammates and kind of letting that participation lead us in terms of etching a potential role for him."
Dwyer leads the Steelers with 532 yards rushing and has a 4.1-yard average. But he had only 22 yards on nine carries against Dallas and led them with 32 yards on eight carries against San Diego. Redman, who has 380 yards and a 3.8-yard average, ran for 30 yards against the Cowboys on three carries, and had 0 yards on two carries against San Diego.
The Steelers managed only 69 yards rushing in each of the past two games.
"I would like to see them get it more, particularly a defined, featured runner," said Tomlin, who has not had one of those most of the season. "We haven't for a variety of reasons. We're not going to make excuses for that, but we're excited about the plan that we potentially have put together this week."
Dwyer looked to take over that featured position when he ran for 122 yards in that game at Cincinnati and 107 the following game against Washington. But he came down with a thigh injury and has not come close to that production since then.
Part of the explanation for the downturn in their ground game could be the shuffling of the offensive line. The Steelers have used five line combinations in their past five games, four of which were losses.
"It's all interrelated, not only injuries with the offensive line but in the backfield itself and, of course, game circumstance," Tomlin said. "They are what they are. We're excited about the plan that we're putting together today."
2 out, 2 in
The Steelers placed starting offensive left guard Willie Colon and cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke on injured reserve to make room for Mendenhall and veteran cornerback Justin King on the roster.
King, who played at Gateway High School and Penn State, might help immediately on special teams and also get up to speed quickly at his position to help a group of corners ravaged by injury. He signed a one-year contract and would be an unrestricted free agent in March.
"He should be a quick study and a guy that fits in quickly," Tomlin said of King, a 2008 fourth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams who was cut by the Indianapolis Colts a month into the season after a groin injury. "We will get a sense of what he is capable of doing throughout the course of the week. Maybe he is able to help us in this football game."
Tomlin declared Ike Taylor out for his third game with a hairline ankle fracture but was optimistic that cornerbacks Keenan Lewis (hip) and Cortez Allen (groin) could be ready to play this week.
In other injury news, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (cracked rib) will be limited in practice, and they will determine if he can play as the week progresses, Tomlin said. Offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) will return to practice after missing the past three games.
• Tomlin said wide receiver Antonio Brown will return punts despite his fumble and his failure to field a punt in Dallas: "He's a dangerous return man, one that can be an asset to us."
• The coach praised the work Sunday of two rookie offensive linemen, guard David DeCastro, making his first start, and tackle Kelvin Beachum: "That's arrow pointed up on those two. We're really excited about their contributions."
• The NFL Network's "A Football Life" will feature the Immaculate Reception tonight at 8. It includes interviews with many of those involved in the play 40 years ago this Sunday.
First Published December 19, 2012 12:00 am