Harris: Abandoning run leads to lost season
By John Harris, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall averaged four yards on his first four carries against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. It stood to reason that Mendenhall could push the pile on third-and-1 on the Steelers' opening drive.
Mendenhall never received the opportunity.
Instead, the Steelers spread the field with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger operating from the shotgun. Roethlisberger was sacked for a 9-yard loss.
"You figure that is a run down. Third-and-1, that's usually a down for our running backs,'' right tackle Willie said Colon, shrugging his shoulders.
"We're just flat-out trying to get this monkey off our backs. He don't want to leave us,'' Colon said.
The next time the Steelers had the ball, Mendenhall gained seven yards on two rushes. On third-and-3, Roethlisberger worked from the shotgun and was sacked for a 10-yard loss.
Coach Mike Tomlin offered a curious explanation for those two play calls:
"Hindsight is 20/20.''
Apparently, so is common sense.
Instead of trying to overpower Cleveland at the point of attack and sending a positive message to a struggling team, the Steelers attempted to finesse an opponent that had served as their personal welcome mat for years.
"Early on, we had some looks that we wanted to catch them on and thought we could get the ball out of our hands quickly,'' Tomlin said. "We lost a few opportunities, and guys didn't come open, and we got sacked. We couldn't get the run game going that we felt pretty good about going into the game ''
Whatever happened to Tomlin's former battle cry of winning the war of attrition?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but we haven't heard that expression since the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.
The Steelers' offensive linemen are built for the running game. So why aren't the Steelers running more?
It isn't a coincidence that the Steelers offense has struggled all year to attain a comfort level since de-emphasizing the run.
How did the Steelers expect to establish their running game against Cleveland by passing on third-and-1 and third-and-3 early in the game?
The Steelers rushed 22 times for 75 yards in a 13-6 loss to the Browns.
Roethlisberger was 18 of 32 for 201 yards. He was sacked a season-high eight times.
"You want to be able to run the ball against these guys. We run the ball on them every year,'' said backup running back Willie Parker, who had reeled off five consecutive 100-yard games against Cleveland entering this season (including a 223-yard gem in 2006).
"It's just something where you want to stick to the run and keep pounding. But we didn't make enough plays when we were running. We had a lot of mistakes.''
The Steelers have been talking in the past tense a lot lately.
What they used to do, and how they used to play. It's enough to give the Steeler Nation pause and yearn for when the offense ran the ball they way the Steelers now emphasize the passing game like it's going out of style.
With three games to play, it's probably too late to expect the Steelers to suddenly stop passing and return to the run exclusively.
But it sure would be nice to see them develop a better balance between the run and the pass, if for no other reason than to have something positive to build upon entering next season.
After all, the Steelers aren't paying Mendenhall all that money not to touch the ball.