Twice in the last ten days the Steelers Nation has been forced to hold its collective breath.
First it was when word leaked that Steelers second round pick Le'Veon Bell was injured in practice. But Bell got a clean bill of health and started against the Redskins in preseason, only to injure his foot.
The logic underlying these collective fights against panic attack is simple:
- Bell is seen as the savior of a morbid Steelers running attack.
While no one wants to see an injury, much less in preseason, perhaps this apprehension over Bell's health is just a tad bit over stated.
How can you say that, you ask?
- Because the Steelers running game in 2012 was as bad as advertised.
That's right, I went there. Before proceeding let's clarify what this article is NOT about.
1. That the Steelers actually had a good running game in 2012.
Attempting to say such would be to ignore the obvious. The Steelers ranked 26th in the league in rushing. None of the three primary ball carries even sniffed 1,000 yards. Doubtlessly rushing totals would seem meager even if compared to efforts dating back to the days of the 14, 12, and 10 game seasons. Heck, for all I know the rushing game was anemic even if you drew correlations historic economic indicators such as GDP and inflation.
Numbers don't lie. We all agree.
Both men have flashed, both men have had their difficulties. Dwyer probably has more pure talent of the two, but Redman has been more consistent. Count me as someone who thinks the Steelers need to lock up Redman as their solid number two back. Dwyer is perhaps a tweener, but must find a way to be a more consistent who can consistently hold on to the ball.
So no Dwyer is "Franco in waiting" or "Redman is Bettis to be" arguments here.
3. That healthy Le'Veon Bell can't help this offense tremendously.
This one should be self-evident if you accept point number 2.
So where does that leave our little bit Steelers revisionist history?
Let's begin by putting last year's running game into context. This context is oh, so important because the same conditions will go along way to determining the fate of the Steelers 2013 rushing effort.
Last year on August 22nd the Steelers surprised many by activating Rashard Mendenhall off of the PUP list. The stated motive of this move was to allow him to practice to get him in game shape. It also came shortly after it was revealed that Isaac Redman had an injury that he'd been hiding form the trainers.
The memory gets a little foggier here, but Dwyer also seemed to be nursing something. While the Steelers ultimately didn't play Mendenhall before they'd planned to, getting him ready to play in case they needed him still remains a legitimate motive.
During the first several games of the Steelers 2012 season the rushing game was as anemic as advertised. This makes perfect sense as both starting running backs were nursing injuries and Willie Colon's transition to guard was taking longer than expected.
In Mendenhall's first game back, vs. the Eagles, he rushed for 81 yards on just 14 carries while Redman tacked on another 41. Hardly Franco and Rocky in their primes, but the improvement was noticeable. The Titans' game represented a step back, as the injury bug hit and hit hard.
However, something important happened vs. the Bengals in Week 7. The Steelers had traveled to Cincinnati, and during the first half Willie Colon got a little fed up with the harassment he was taking from the Bengals rookie LB Vontaze Burfict and after the play ended, pancaked him to the turf, as Ivan Cole explained:
Being pancaked is not about being beaten, it is about being dominated and humiliated. It can be a huge psychological blow to a player, and by extension the unit and the team. As Neal said accurately if somewhat crudely, it establishes "who's the bitch in this relationship". [Sic]
... Colon is violating this rookie, and by extension the Bengals and the state of Ohio on national television. With all due respect to Deebo, Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd, Jack Lambert and others, you have to go back to Mean Joe Greene to find a moment where such open abuse of an opponent was on display.
It is no coincidence that Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards that night. The next week vs. the Redskins, Dwyer rushed for 107 yards with Chris Rainey tacking on another 27. The following week vs. the New York Giants, the Issac Redman exploded for 147 yards.
Commentators of course recognize by giving a perfunctory nod to the "Three consecutive games at mid season with a 100 yard rusher," and one can suppose if you simply look at the numbers, it doesn't seems more of an aberration than anything else.
- But it is the way that the Steelers were running then that's so important.
Ask yourself. Aside from getting healthy, did Dwyer and Redman suddenly take running back pills for a couple of weeks only to see their supply run out?
The reason why they could rush like that was because they had a road grading offensive line in front of them. That road grading stopped about the time that Willie Colon got hurt again. Mike Adams getting hurt didn't help too much either. When Tomlin had to start musical chairs on the offensive line again, so went the running game.
And if you think a (God willing) healthy and more talented Le'Veon Bell is going to change that in 2013 you're fooling yourself. Steelers history proves this.
A (Steelers) Nation That Does Not Learn from Its History Is Doomed to Repeat It
The experience of the greatest post-merger Steelers running back not named Harris proves this.
People forget that after two gang buster years in '96 and '97 Jerome Bettis' production dropped off in 1998 and then again in 1999. There was talk that he was done. Both pundits in the press and fans said that Richard Huntley was better and that it was time to park the Bus in the junkyard.
- It was one of the dumbest arguments about the Steelers I can ever remember having (and I've been around long enough to remember when the conventional wisdom in Pittsburgh was that "Dan Rooney is cheap.")
Bettis didn't "lose a step" or become a worse running back in 1998 and 1999? No. The Steelers run blocking took a nose dive a in '98 and '99 - this much was obvious in the 1998 preseason.
Bill Cowher was able to shore things up by moving Will Wolford from guard to tackle but the line fell apart when Justin Strzelczyk got hurt at mid season. 1999 was worse with Wayne Gandy giving up back to back safeties vs. Jacksonville and Chris Conrad and Anthony Brown alternating at right tackle week in and week out to see who was worse.
Kevin Colbert arrived in 2000 and drafted Marvel Smith, dumped Brendan Stai, and signed Rick Tilski and voila, Bettis suddenly magically remembers how to be a good back again. Heck, when Marvel Smith and Shar Pourdanesh both got hurt, Larry Tharpe - who'd been out of football in 1999 - clearly outplayed the previous season's two starters.
Jerome Bettis didn't find the fountain of youth between 1999 and 2000. Nor did he become a better running back. The Steelers gave him a better offensive line.
Fundamental Truth Remains the Same
Which brings us back to today.
The success of the Steelers rushing attack in 2012 was directly proportional to the health and performance of the offensive line.
The same thing will remain true in 2013. A healthy Le'Veon Bell running behind a good line can probably take the Steelers rushing attack further than Dwyer or Redman but, either way, it all starts up front.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers vs. Redskins Postgame stream
- 5 things we learned in the loss to Washington
- Jarvis Jones just making plays
- Tomlin: Officials will be at practice
- Health and stamina of Steelers to be tested over 10 days
- Steelers injury report: Running backs lead the way again
- Shamarko Thomas Steelers Digest Player of the Game
- Winners and Losers from Monday's loss
- Le'Veon Bell has 'mid-foot' injury
- Steelers sloppy in preseason loss to Washington
- Will Johnson injures hip in loss to Redskins
- Le'Veon Bell injures foot in first quarter against Washington