For much of this offseason, we have talked about the high volume of quality backs in Pittsburgh. Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Najeh Davenport, Gary Russell - any combination of those five is quite dangerous and our top 2 is arguably one of the best combos in all of football, even if Mendenhall has yet to take a snap of professional football.
Well, if the group is going to excel in 2008, it is not going to be easy. The Steelers' 2008 opponents are phenomenal against the run, and that goes nearly across the board, save two of our AFC North opponents Cleveland and Cinicinnati.
We all know the running game has been a staple of the Steelers offense for as long as one can remember, but we also know the guard has been changing under Bruce Arians. The offense has aired it out more frequently in recent years, but a successful running game has complimented that development. There's many reasons why Big Ben had a breakout year in 2007, but having his RB, Willie Parker, near the top of the rushing standings for most of the year, has to be considered one of them.
With all the issues surrounding our offensive line following a year when our star QB was sacked 47 times, it's imperative that we're able to slow down opponents' pass rushes and successfully move the chains via the ground game. Let's take a look at how our 2008 foes did against the run in 2007 (league rank against the run in parentheses):
New York Giants (8)
San Diego (16)
New England (10)
Of our 13 opponents, only one is in the bottom third (Cleveland), with Cinicinnati at the very bottom of the second third. We face 3 of the top 5 rushing defenses, and actually that should read 3 of the top 4, as our own rushing defense finished 2007 ranked #3. We also face the #7, #8, and #10 ranked defenses against the run.
When you factor in the reality that Cleveland should be much, much better, and that San Diego is one of the best middle of the road rush defenses a team could ever hope to face, you can see where the concern comes from.
Granted, each year is different and some of these elite 2007 rush defenses will undoubtedly regress some in '08. But the fact of the matter is, unlike many areas of the game, a team's ability to stop the run usually isn't overly dynamic. When you have capable defensive linemen who can clog holes and able LBs to mop up behind them, you're usually set for multiple years. It starts with guys like Casey Hampton up front and they're usually able to sustain a high level of play year in and year out. So, despite whatever variances we may see unfold this coming year, I think it's fair to assume that we're going up against some stout rush defenses.
What does alll that mean for our chances in 2008? Well, potentially a lot of things, none of which are entirely clear just yet. It probably means that Big Ben will again be asked to play the role of Superman for this team. We had trouble grinding out tough yards in tight situations last year. We might encounter the same problem this year. It might mean that our offensive line is put under extrem duress, as they'll obviously be focused on finding the right combination of players and schemes to keep Big Ben upright more often this coming year. But they better not forget about the running game alltogether, because it's going to be tough sledding in that department. And if it is, it might just mean that Ben's put it even more obvious passing situations where opposing defenses can dig in and tee off against our much maligned offensive line.
We'll just have to wait and see what happens, but from the looks of it, this offense is going to have a very tough time getting cheap, easy yards in the running game.