When the Pittsburgh Steelers signed LeGarrette Blount in the offseason, they envisioned the veteran running back as a brawny change of pace behind bouncy starter LeGarrette Blount.
It hasn't quite worked out that way.
Ben Roethlisberger's avalanche of touchdown passes has overshadowed a startlingly ineffective running game near the goal line. Ten weeks into the season, the Steelers (6-4) have just three rushing touchdowns. Only the winless Oakland Raiders have less.
And while Pittsburgh has survived thanks to Roethlisberger's MVP-caliber season, when he has struggled Bell and Blount haven't exactly been able to carry the burden. The Steelers haven't rushed for a touchdown since Week 3, a span of 191 carries.
"I just want to score touchdowns, whether I'm in the game or not," Bell said.
While Bell is quickly becoming one of the most versatile backs in the league — his 1,213 all-purpose yards are tops in the AFC — he didn't anticipate having twice as many receiving touchdowns (two) as rushing scores (one) at this point.
It's a number that remained static in Sunday's 20-13 upset loss to the New York Jets. Bell and Blount combined for a season-low 37 yards rushing. An early 17-point deficit didn't help but when Pittsburgh had a chance to start one last rally in the fourth quarter, the running game disappeared.
A penalty gave the Steelers the ball at the New York 1 early in the fourth quarter. Blount was stopped on first down for no gain. On second down, Blount moved to his left and found nowhere to go, retreating and losing eight yards. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal when Roethlisberger threw incomplete on third down.
Coach Mike Tomlin isn't panicking even after the Steelers failed to go over 100 yards rushing for the third time in their last four games. The Steelers won three of those games behind Roethlisberger's 14 touchdown passes, eight of which came inside the opponent's 20.
"We want to be a balanced offense so that we can be what it is we need to be on the week-in and week-out basis to increase our chances of winning," Tomlin said. "I believe we are striking that balance."
Maybe, but the Steelers don't have an offensive line dotted with high draft picks solely to keep Roethlisberger's jersey clean. They want to be effective running the ball, too. While Bell is averaging a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, that number takes a hit when the Steelers get close to the opposing goal line. Bell's average dips to 2.2 in the red zone. Blount has been even less effective, averaging a paltry 1.7 yards per carry in the same area.
While guard Ramon Foster said the Steelers would "absolutely" like to be better at punching it in, he pointed out that for all the things the Jets struggle with, they're good at stopping the run.
"But those guys earn checks on the other side too," Foster said. "It's our job to make sure it happens and we didn't whenever we ran the ball."
The Steelers are a respectable 15th in yards rushing per game. But their inability to get any push in tight spaces has forced offensive coordinator Todd Haley to get creative.
In a Monday night win against Houston, Pittsburgh opted for a wide receiver option pass with Antonio Brown from the Texans 3. Brown hit Lance Moore for the score, but the call itself raised eyebrows. Haley called it part of an aggressive mindset that trickles from Tomlin on down.
It's a mindset that apparently wanted to see what a 36-year-old linebacker could do with the first offensive snaps of his career. Harrison entered in a goal line package in the fourth quarter, serving as the lead blocker for Blount on one play and running out in a pattern on another.
"James is a talented guy, he likes running down the center of people," Tomlin said. "That's an asset that could be valuable for us in short-yardage and goal-line and is and we're going to utilize it."
The Steelers just need to do it better. With the weather about to turn colder and the tight AFC North race heating up, the Jets provided a pretty solid blueprint on how to keep Roethlisberger under wraps: mix up coverages and dare Pittsburgh to beat you on the ground.
"That's why we work," Tomlin said. "We'll keep working."
NOTES: Tomlin called S Mike Mitchell's leap over the line of scrimmage with the Jets in victory formation "not professional." ... S Troy Polamalu, LB Ryan Shazier and CB Ike Taylor will miss next Monday's game with Tennessee.
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