Is Steelers’ RB coach Kirby Wilson running out of time?

USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Steelers handily defeated the Cleveland Browns, Kirby Wilson's running back corps continues to show an inability to gain rushing yards when they are needed, an ongoing vulnerability that could prove to be the achilles heel in any meaningful playoff run.

While the DC Steel City Mafia crowd was loud and boisterous throughout the Steelers 27-11 victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday afternoon, one spectator kept bending my ear about the sorry state of the Steelers running game.

"Watch", he said early in the second quarter when the Steelers were in the huddle before their third and two attempt at their own 12 yard line; "they're going to pass the ball. They rarely run on third down because they know the defense can stop them". Sure enough, Roethlisberger attempted a pass to Heath Miller but it was incomplete and the Steelers punted for the second of what would be seven times. The Steelers faced fourteen third down conversions but made only four; of those four, only one came by the run. While the Steelers executed a balanced offensive attack, gaining seven rushing and 12 passing first downs, as I watched the game I paid attention to what the man said, and he was right.

The Steelers ran the ball 34 times for 85 yards for a 2.5 average; they had no rushing touchdowns and failed to get rushing yardage when they needed it except in the fourth quarter. In the third quarter, facing a 3-1 on Cleveland's 45 yard line, they failed to gain the yard; they went for it on fourth down and again failed to gain the single yard needed for a first down and squandered a scoring opportunity.

Against the Browns and their revolving door of injured and inept quarterbacks, the Steelers were able to easily overcome their inability to "run more effectively". But against a team that can score points, and in a season where every remaining game is a "must win" situation, sooner or later this game of Russian roulette the Steelers' coaching staff seems to be playing with Art Rooney's mandate is going to misfire, with devastating results for the season and for someone's career.

Steelers franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the team's sole offensive hope for any meaningful success this season had his second game in a row (and fourth of the season) where his passer rating was over 100 (102.2 vs Browns, 119.4 vs Lions). There were times in both games, despite the Steelers ultimately winning, that the defense was unable to stop either the Browns or Lions from moving the ball and in the case of the Lions in the second quarter, scoring an obscene number of points. Had Roethlisberger not been playing at the level he has been, there was no running game to fall back on.

Kirby Wilson became the Steelers' running back coach in 2007 to replace long time coach Dick Hoak. Wilson came from the Arizona Cardinals where he was the RB coach from 2004 through 2006; previously he was the RB coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2002 and 2003 seasons while a young Mike Tomlin coached the defensive backs.

Dick Hoak spent 35 years as a Steelers coach, joining Chuck Noll's staff as an offensive backfield coach in 1972 and then being named by Bill Cowher as his first (and only) running back coach in 1992. During the Cowher/Hoak regime (1992-2006), the Steelers led the league in rushing three times, and accumulated 30,000 total ground yards; the only team to reach that number during that period. In the seven year period of 2000 through 2006 the Steelers ranked third in total rushing yards with 15,309 behind only the Denver Broncos with 16,107 and the Atlanta Falcons with 15,450 but finished seventh overall when taking the rankings in all rushing categories into account.

Dick_hoak_steelers_2_medium

The Steelers' run game during this period wasn't terribly efficient, ranking in the middle of the pack, but it was highly effective. They ranked fourth in total number of touchdowns and third in total number of first downs and seventh in fumbles. The run game was the mainstay of the Steelers offense; with quarterbacks the likes of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox before Ben Roethlisberger arrived, the Steelers had to run effectively to score. During this period, Hoak's Steelers ranked number one in total rushing attempts, followed closely by the Broncos. Thus, the sheer number of times the Steelers ran caused the Steelers overall effectiveness to be diluted; the Steelers only ranked sixteenth during this period in terms of first down efficiency, at 22.2 percent.

Compare the run game under Hoak with how the run game has fared under Wilson in his six years and 11 games, from 2007 through last Sunday:

Steelers_kirby_wilson_medium

The Steelers have fallen from seventh in the NFL to 25th There are plenty of excuses and reasons why the Steelers can't run: offensive line injuries or poor draft choices being the first two that are often mentioned. But at the end of the day and despite the patience of Job the Rooneys exhibit towards their head coaches and the staff those coaches select and retain, at some point the Rooneys are going to demand action be taken and changes made.

Hoak and Wilson were contemporary running back coaches; Wilson was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 and 2003, and the Arizona Cardinals from 2004 through 2006 during Hoak's last seven years with the Steelers. Here's how their respective units performed during those two periods:

Hoak_vs_wilson_medium

Granted Hoak had the benefit of remaining with one team during the entire period illustrated above while Wilson switched teams. However, both the Bucs and the Cardinals failed to improve under Wilson; the Bucs ranked better overall before Wilson, the Cardinals didn't improve.

Thus, throughout his long career as a running back coach, it can't be said that Wilson has exactly lit the league on fire with his various backfield units' performance.

Remember Art Rooney II's comments in January 2010 where he said he and Tomlin agreed that the Steelers had to begin running the ball more effectively? Remember how a year later Bruce Arians, who never passed up a chance to have his QB throw even when a run was the smarter play to call, was mysteriously "retired"?

For the period of 2007 through 2013, I've broken out the Steelers' rushing performance into two sections; "Before Rooney's mandate" and "After Rooney's mandate":

Rooney_mandate_medium

Thus it appears Kirby Wilson's pattern throughout his career is continuing with the Steelers; the teams he joins ran better before he got there, or didn't improve. While the Steelers have improved since the mandate in terms of gaining first downs, they can't do it this year when they need to, and while the team improved in terms of its ranking for TDs, and first down efficiency, they have dropped in overall ranking in the NFL, from 18 to 20.

While Todd Haley has been the object of much scorn from the moment he was hired, in his first two years his positive influence has readily been seen in the caliber of Roethlisberger's play and the overall effectiveness of the team's offense. Injuries to key personnel have retarded the progress Steeler Nation had hoped to be seeing by now under Haley, and the changes it hoped for with the departure of Bruce Arians remain only partially fulfilled, but nonetheless progress is evident; that is except for the running game.

And while Kirby Wilson's running back unit has not been immune to the same injuries, he has in fact had a couple more years to achieve Rooney's mandate than Haley has, which is to get the Steelers running effectively. It's third and long in terms of the Steelers chances for the playoffs this year; should the Thanksgiving Day game against the Baltimore Ravens or some other game be lost because the Steelers couldn't get the running yards they needed when they needed them the most, Kirby's time with the Steelers may finally run out.

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