The Pittsburgh Steelers still can’t run. There, the words have been written just as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
In the midst of a mostly upbeat, positive postgame conference Sunday, Tomlin was thrown a pretty mundane question about the Steelers having just rolled up 161 rushing yards during a victory at New England. It was the team’s second-best effort, behind the 183 yards against Houston in the season opener, in what has been a difficult season for the Steelers’ running attack. However, the performance marked the third straight contest in which Pittsburgh ran for more than 120 yards.
That’s when Tomlin, whose team ranks No. 22 in the league at a very un-Steelers-like 106.7 yards per game, turned a tad snarky.
“You know, we still can’t run it,” Tomlin said. “We’re working. That’s what you guys will write, anyway.”
But in giving Tomlin what he expects, the truth is that his 9-3 team still has much to prove about whether it’s a real Super Bowl contender. If, as some observers believe, the running game will be the thing that holds the Steelers back, the next three games provide them a chance to disprove that theory.
Starting Sunday against visiting Dallas, the Steelers play three of the top nine defenses overall. Within that, all three are in the top 12 in run defense, including Baltimore with the No. 3-ranked run defense at 78.3 yards per game.
In short, it’s time for the Steelers to prove whether what they have done against three mediocre-to-bad defenses (New England, San Diego and Cincinnati) will stand up against the caliber of defense they are likely to face in the playoffs.
“I love when people say we can’t run,” Steelers running back Mewelde Moore said. “Keep saying it. It gets me fired up to prove them wrong.”
“That’s fine, let the people say or write whatever they want,” starter Willie Parker said. “It’s getting to be December football, so we’ll find out what we are and do just fine.”
The Steelers were far from fine in the first half of the season as they experienced a massive transition along the offensive line. Between injuries and losing left guard Alan Faneca to the Jets in free agency, the Steelers have only one starter in the lineup from the group that started against Jacksonville in the playoffs last year.
“Our biggest thing has been learning to work together, getting that continuity that everybody talks about,” said center Justin Hartwig, a free-agency pickup in March. “In the early part of the season, we had new guys everywhere and defenses were exploiting us. You could see it. It was obvious. But you see something, you go over it as a group and then deal with the next thing that comes up.”
An even bigger problem was the instability at running back. With Parker starting to show signs of wear, the Steelers used a first-round pick on Rashard Mendenhall, a power back from Illinois. Unfortunately, Mendenhall’s season lasted just four games and 19 carries before he was knocked out for the season with a shoulder injury. Not surprisingly, Parker has been limited, missing five games with a variety of injuries.
That has forced the Steelers to unexpectedly lean heavily on Moore, who was projected to be the third-down back. In turn, Parker has had to learn to deal with a timeshare situation.
“You do whatever is needed and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” said Moore, who is not the typical grinding runner that makes his money in December. “They’re learning to use us in different ways and keep the defense off balance.”
Said Parker: “Everybody wants to be the main guy. That’s what I want. But I haven’t been out there every game, so what are the coaches supposed to do? The goal right now is for me to keep healthy and get us headed into the playoffs. It’s not some secret.
“I’ve done it in the past. I can do it again. Just watch.”
Of course, it’s not impossible for a team to make a drastic improvement in the running game as the season goes along.
Last year, the Packers struggled throughout the first half of the season. They topped 100 yards rushing only twice. They were held to 56 yards rushing or less in four of the first eight games of the season. But with Ryan Grant starting at running back, the Packers rolled off five straight with more than 100 yards and topped that threshold in seven of their final eight regular-season games. They also had back-to-back games with more than 200 yards, in the regular-season finale and the first playoff game against Seattle.
A similar run of fortune would be welcomed in Pittsburgh, which desperately seeks a continuance of balance on offense.
Early in the season when the running game couldn’t go anywhere, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was taking the brunt of the punishment. Facing more long-yardage situations, Roethlisberger was sacked 28 times and was intercepted 11 times in the first nine games. He took the brunt of criticism for the failures of the offense.
Over the past three games, as the running game has begun to revive, Roethlisberger has been sacked five times and intercepted only once. Of course, New England, San Diego and Cincinnati aren’t exactly dominating anybody this season. Starting with the Cowboys, the Steelers will get a much better measure of what they can do.
“Hey, like I said, this is December football. You have to prove yourself right now, get on a roll and carry that into January. At least that’s the plan,” Parker said.
And until the Steelers prove it this month, Tomlin is still probably right.
The Steelers can’t run.