Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To Run Or Not To Run? The Question that Plagues the Steelers

More than the missed field goal, more than some strange coaching decisions, more than the crowd noise, and more than the Heath Miller fumble, one series from Sunday's night's game has been flashing in my head, Alfred Hitchcock like, with the accompanying strident string score.

After a brilliant return by rook Emmanuel Sanders, runs by Rashard Mendenhall of 4, 6 and 7 yards, a 6 yard screen pass to Mendenhall, and a nice seam route pass to Antwan Randal-El, the Steelers were stifled at the 1/2 yard line.


Can't be. Because, didn't Art Rooney the Lesser issue a dictum that the team should work on running better in 2010 than it had in 2008 and 2009? Didn't Mike Tomlin promise, not that the team would run more, but that the team would run more effectively? Didn't Bruce Arians say that they would be better at running, even if they were still a predominantly throwing team?

And yet ... three shots to go one yard. Three chances for a touchdown mid-way through the 2nd quarter of a scoreless game against the defending Super Bowl champs changes the complexion of the game. Who knows? Maybe after that Drew Brees goes all Drew Brees on the Steelers and rains long bombs down on them all night? But maybe, just maybe, the satisfaction of scoring a touchdown there, gives both the defense and the offense a lift? Or maybe not. But I like 7-0 a lot better than 3-0.

When fans in Pittsburgh scream to run the ball, this is what they're talking about. They're not screaming to run the ball 39 times a game; nobody's calling for a return to "Hey diddle, diddle, Rogel up the middle" days of coach Walt Keisling. Heaven forfend. But I'm not sure that you can just run when you want to. Offensive lines get good at run blocking through practice and through the doing of it. An NFL team, any NFL team with playoff hopes (dare I say it, Super Bowl hopes), should be able to punch the ball in from the one yard line.

Wasn't this precisely the problem last year?

Three problems defined that 2009 five game house of horrors losing streak: (1) defensive letdowns, (2) special teams shit (sorry, there's no other word for the kick coverage units) and (3) a non-existent short-yardage running game.

Of that terrible stretch, I pin the loss to the Chiefs on the special teams, the loss to the Raiders on the defense, and the loss to the Ravens on, well, on the Ravens. That was a close one and it's tough to beat the Ravens in Baltimore with your back-up, back-up quarterback.

But, the losses to the Bengals and the Browns? The defense and the special teams didn't help much, but the Steelers terrible redzone offense contributed mightily to those losses. Yea, mightily, my friends.

Four times the Steelers drove inside the Bengals 20 and came away with four field goals. Shameful.

Even worse, several weeks later, at 6-6 and fighting for their post-season lives, from their performance, you would never have known that the Steelers offense got the memo that it was, gee, kinda important to win the game against the lowly Browns. A Browns team led by Brady Quinn at quarterback, for crying out loud. Putting up a total of six points against the Browns? Well, there just are no words for a performance like that.

The Steelers are 5-2, which is a good thing, so I'm not complaining. They've played themselves into a really good position for the second half of the season and that's a pleasant place to be.

Still, you'll excuse me, but my post-traumatic stress disorder from the 2009 season is really itching and burning. Last year, after seven games, they were also 5-2. With almost identical losses - one to a divisional opponent and one to a non-conference opponent. Hey, they were in great shape! We're going to the Super Bowl again!

I'll believe it when they actual nail down at least 10 wins.

On a sad note, NBA great Maurice Lucas died on Monday after a battle with cancer. Lucas, a product of Pittsburgh's Hill District, is featured in the amazing David Halberstam book, "The Breaks of the Game," which I count as one of the 10 best sports books of all time. (See list, Part 1 and Part 2.) For more on Lucas, check out David Steele's terrific story at AOL's Fanhouse.

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