Ward: Pittsburgh Steelers' running game changes subtle, not sweeping
LATROBE, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Steelers' running game went from very good to very average so quickly, even team president Art Rooney II became alarmed.
And when a man named Rooney becomes concerned with a Steelers' deficiency, it often gets fixed in a hurry.
Watch a Steelers training camp practice, however, and it doesn't appear as if an offense that was ninth in passing but only 19th in rushing last season — normally in Pittsburgh, it's the other way around — is changing much at all.
Ben Roethlisberger is throwing better than he ever has in camp. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is expecting another 4,000-yard passing season by his quarterback, even though Roethlisberger will be suspended for at least one-quarter of the season.
And a team that was one of the last in the NFL to regularly use a traditional fullback has one player listed at that position, and he was added only this week.
Beyond Rashard Mendenhall, who gained 1,108 yards last season, the Steelers' running backs include an experienced player coming off a disappointing season (Mewelde Moore, whose rushing yardage dropped from 588 in 2008 to 118) and a bunch with little or no experience (Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Frank Summers).
So what has changed in the running game? To wide receiver Hines Ward, a lot.
During the first week of training camp, the Steelers are emphasizing short-yardage and goal-line situations, two of their biggest weaknesses a year ago. For example, they ranked 22nd in rushing inside an opponent's 10-yard line.
"We're working more on technique," Ward said. "We're concentrating on situational football. We weren't really a good third-down team or red-zone team. And, definitely, on third-and-short we were just not very good at all."
The Steelers didn't score a touchdown last year on third down with 2 yards or fewer to go. Their short-yard deficiency was one reason why they lost five times after leading in the fourth quarter and another time when tied, leading to a 9-7 record that left them out of the playoffs a year after they won the Super Bowl.
"It's not about being more of a running team or more of a passing team for us. We want to be a great situational team, and I think if we can do that everything else will follow," Ward said. "On the goal line, we tried to run the ball and we got stopped or lost yardage. And even if we passed the ball, we couldn't get into the end zone."
While Mendenhall was a 1,000-yard back, he gained about one-third of his yards in two games, rushing for 165 yards against San Diego and 155 against Denver. Beyond those performances, he had a single 100-yard game.
Opening up the passing game for Roethlisberger, as Arians has done, may have created a side effect of de-emphasizing a running game that was the NFL's fourth best during the 2004-07 seasons but was only 21st overall during the past two seasons combined.
Given the Steelers' history of being an exceptional running team — they have rushed for nearly 5,000 yards more than any other team since the 1970 NFL merger — Rooney's offseason proclamation that they must run more effectively was viewed as a sign major changes were coming.
To date, the biggest personnel move was signing right tackle Flozell Adams, a move necessitated not by the running game's shortcomings but by Willie Colon's season-ending Achilles' injury. They drafted Dwyer, but only in the sixth round.
"Who knows if we'll be a running team or a passing team?" Ward said. "But we're going to strive to be a better short-yardage, red-zone and third-down team. And when you convert those, you can get more plays."
Even if they are more passing plays.
"I think what we're interested in is running the ball more effectively," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Our emphasis really hasn't changed whatsoever."