The Pittsburgh Steelers definitely improved their rushing attack this year compared to in '09. Rushing yards, yards per carry, rushing touchdowns -- all up. And Football Outsiders' metrics would also agree that the Steelers were a slightly improved rushing team compared to a year ago. There were certainly some rough patches -- both regular season games against the Ravens, the Week 7 win over Miami, the Week 3 W over Tennessee, most notably. But in '09, the Steelers only posted 115 or more team rushing yards in six of their games, and the offense eclipsed the 200-yard marker just once in a meaningless Week 17 win over Miami. This year, the Steelers have nine games with 115 or more rushing yards, and two with at least 200. Care to guess which regular season games they fared best in? The top performance came in their overtime win against the Buffalo Bills (206 yards). Not surprisingly, the Steelers racked up yards on the ground in blowout wins over Tampa Bay (201) and Oakland (162). But somewhat surprisingly, the Steelers fourth best rushing output came in their Week 15 loss to the Jets.
Any way you look at it, the Jets' rush defense is formidable. Football Outsiders has them as the second-highest ranked rush defense behind the Steelers. By traditional metrics, they were nearly as good, finishing the year just behind Chicago in third place for fewest yards allowed (1454). So, let's take a look at the success the Steelers had rushing the football about a month ago when they hosted the Jets at Heinz Field. First, here's all the rushing plays in the game not including Ben Roethlisberger's two rushes.
1-10-PIT47(13:09) R.Mendenhall up the middle to 50 for 3 yards (D.Harris).
2-7-50(12:47) R.Mendenhall right tackle to NYJ 45 for 5 yards (D.Harris; C.Pace).
3-2-NYJ46 (9:15) I.Redman right guard to NYJ 39 for 7 yards (B.Pool, D.Harris).
2-10-NYJ39 (8:29) R.Mendenhall left end to NYJ 34 for 5 yards (S.Pouha).
1-10-PIT4 (:41) R.Mendenhall right tackle to PIT 13 for 9 yards (D.Revis).
2-1-PIT13 (15:00) R.Mendenhall right tackle to PIT 16 for 3 yards (B.Scott).
1-10-PIT44 (12:50) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Moore left guard to PIT 50 for 6 yards (B.Pool, B.Scott).
2-4-50 (12:09) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Moore up the middle to NYJ 48 for 2 yards (C.Pace).
2-6-NYJ11 (8:20) R.Mendenhall right guard to NYJ 9 for 2 yards (M.Devito, D.Revis).
2-1-NYJ30 (1:09) (Shotgun) R.Mendenhall right guard to NYJ 24 for 6 yards (C.Pace).
2-6-PIT30 (14:18) R.Mendenhall up the middle to PIT 36 for 6 yards (S.Pouha).
1-10-NYJ41 (12:51) R.Mendenhall right end to NYJ 37 for 4 yards (A.Cromartie).
1-4-NYJ4 (9:46) R.Mendenhall up the middle to NYJ 2 for 2 yards (D.Harris).
2-2-NYJ2 (9:07) #64 Legursky and #99 Keisel report as eligible receivers. R.Mendenhall up the middle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
2-10-PIT25 (5:01) R.Mendenhall up the middle to PIT 29 for 4 yards (D.Harris).
1-10-PIT31 (3:36) (Shotgun) R.Mendenhall up the middle to PIT 37 for 6 yards (B.Scott).
2-4-PIT37 (2:59) R.Mendenhall up the middle to PIT 38 for 1 yard (S.Pouha, D.Harris).
1-10-PIT28 (10:00) (Shotgun) R.Mendenhall right end to PIT 39 for 11 yards (D.Harris).
1-10-PIT39 (9:30) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Moore left end to PIT 41 for 2 yards (D.Coleman).
1-10-PIT3 (2:45) (Shotgun) M.Moore right tackle tackled in End Zone for -3 yards, SAFETY (J.Taylor).
Nothing necessarily screams 'awesome performance' by Rashard Mendenhall and the Steelers offensive line. But a couple of interesting notes.
- Notice the lack of 'stuffed' runs? Football Outsiders defines a 'stuffed' rushing attempt as one where the ball carrier gets tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Just one on the day. Of course, the lone 'stuff' resulted in an untimely safety. And there were a handful of minimal gains of just two yards, but by and large, the line did a nice job giving Mendenhall at least a modicum of room to operate with.
- On the season though, the Steelers had an unhealthy percentage of 'stuffed' runs. Nearly 1/4 (23 percent) of the team's rushes went for negative yardage or no gain. Only five teams had a higher percentage of unfruitful rushing plays. (DET, CHI, TN, WAS, SEA).
You know Rex Ryan and the Jets are going to concentrate on confusing Ben Roethlisberger and limiting the big play down the field to the Steelers' speedy young wide receivers. That should free up some room to operate in the running game. There's an understandable temptation to put the game almost entirely in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, but I think the Steelers would be wise to run the ball 25 times like the did against the Jets in Week 15. It would shorten the game and not put too much undue pressure on the Steelers defense to bottle up the Jets' weapons on the outside; it might open up some opportunities in the passing game at opportune moments when the Jets have been sufficiently warned that a rush might be coming; and if Mark Sanchez gets off to an even somewhat slow start, I could easily see him panic just a bit and begin forcing things as he thinks to himself that he time's-a-ticking.
More on the solid job done by the Steelers offensive line against the Jets soon.