Let the debate continue - are the current version of the Pittsburgh Steelers better off airing it out rather than trying to fruitlessly try to establish the run? During Sunday's 14-17 loss to the Chicago Bears, the Steelers once again had trouble getting things going on the ground early in the game. Meanwhile, the passing game was clicking on all cylinders. Big Ben led the Steelers offense right down the field on a 13-play 92-yard scoring drive to start the game. The drive featured four Willie Parker runs and nine passing attempts by Big Ben, eight of which were completed. The tempo of the drive was stellar.
On the Steelers next possession, they picked up right where they left off. Willie Parker ripped off a couple of nice runs and Big Ben continued to keep the chains moving. His 21 yard completion to Hines Ward on 3rd and 11 from the Pittsburgh 41 put the Steelers back in Bears territory. They were threatening to really put the pressure on the Bears for the remainder of the game with another score.
Then Big Ben got a bit greedy and forced a ball to Mike Wallace on a deep route to the end zone. I'm not entirely sure of this without re-watching it first, but I'm confident saying that Wallace was not Big Ben's first or second option on that play. In fact, he was probably his 4th or 5th. But Ben was feeling it, the protection had been good up until that point and he took a chance. But by going through his progressions first before throwing, Roethlisberger gave the Bears pass rushers just enough time to get to him and disrupted his throw. It was vastly underthrown and picked off by Charles Tillman.
The Steelers offense never really had the same tempo and rhythm the rest of the game.
But that isn't really the point of this post. Rather, I wanted to comment on how I thought that early success passing the ball could have yielded bigger dividends in the running game later in the game. The Steelers only ran the ball 22 times against the Bears. They picked up 105 yards though on those rushes, good enough for 4.8 yards per carry. 39 of those yards came on Rashard Mendenhall's impressive tough run in the third quarter. But there were other positive runs in the game as well. Willie Parker, who finished with , had two 12 yard runs as well as a 13 yarder. He also unfortunately had five runs that resulted in negative yardage or no gain. Three of those five negative plays however came in the 1st half and the fourth was the opening play of the 2nd half.
It could have just been me, but I felt the Steelers running game was finally get its legs in the second half. It was partly circumstantial, but I also thought they didn't lean on the running game quite enough after finding some success. On the final drive of the game, there was one instance in particular where I felt the Steelers should have gone to the run. It was 3rd and 2 from the Chicago 25. The Steelers were already in Jeff Reed field goal range yet there was about 3:30 minutes left on the clock. Plenty of time for Pittsburgh. And plenty of time for Chicago even. On the 10-play drive, the Steelers had dropped back to pass 8 times and ran the ball twice. On one of the dropbacks, Big Ben scrambled for a clutch 1st down pickup. Mewelde Moore picked up 15 yards on one of those runs, as Chicago's defense was looking pass all the way with Pittsburgh in the no-huddle. On the 3rd and 2 play from the 25, the Steelers predictably dropped back to pass, as they did almost 100% of the time last year in 3rd and short situations. Chicago was of course looking pass and Big Ben had nobody to throw to, eventually settling on a deep pass to Holmes in the endzone that was broken up.
Anyway, given how the offensive line was playing and how hard Rashard Mendenhall had been running during his limited opportunities, I would have loved to see him get the ball. At worst, Chicago's either forced to use one of their timeouts or precious seconds tick off the clock.
It wasn't meant to be for the Steelers today. There will be other similarly frustrating games throughout the 2009 season. We'll see how Pittsburgh responds to its first dose of adversity since winning their record setting sixth Lombardi Trophy last February. I think they will be fine, particularly when Troy Polamalu returns from injury, but one of the most essential elements of winning in this league is making adjustments on the fly. There will be many made by the Steelers, no doubt about it. To me, it will be interesting to see if one of those is a willingness to trust in the running game with the game on the line, even though recent history says that may not seem like the best course of action.