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Steelers pathetic run game has been productive enough

The Steelers may be finding success through the air, but their passing game is benefiting from their failures on the ground.

Mitchell Leff

The time has come to drop the facade of being surprised by the Pittsburgh Steelers and their inability to run the football like they used to, or like the 30 other teams ahead of them in the stat books.

To be fair, the 31st ranked rushing Steelers did have a bye week in Week 5, giving some teams the advantage of an added game to boost averages; but the team's 29th ranking of 3.1 yards per carry only bolsters the pessimism over another game making enough of a difference.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, their running game doesn't have to improve.  It wouldn't hurt mind you, but it doesn't need to for the team to win games.  It has already been productive enough to be a positive asset to the Steelers slow starting offense.

Granted, an improved running game could have been the difference between starting 0-4 and notching the team's first win prior to the Week 6 contest against the New York Jets.  It could be said the team won in spite of its running game.

Truth be told, the Steelers beat the Jets because of it; not because they have been successful when they have run, but because they have done it so often in obvious situations.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been on a fan-fired hot seat during the team's winless start to the season, especially over calls like end arounds to Jerricho Cotchery and three-and-out series full of running plays which fail to pick up first downs.  While first-downs and yardage are the prime directive for any running game, there is more to successful rushing than just stats.

The Steelers have been audibly emphatic about reestablishing a dominant running game.  Opponents know they are looking to run, and have been playing accordingly.  It's almost understandable why Pittsburgh's running backs can find holes to run through few and far between, considering defenses are loading the box and playing run first.

Just saying you want to run the ball isn't enough to force that kind of commitment from an opponent's defense, you have to put your money where your mouth is - on first down, on second and short, and even third-and-short - even if it doesn't work.  The Steelers have stuck to their guns, and defenses have been sticking their fingers tightly in the barrels forcing it to all blow up in their faces.

So, why continue to do something if it has proven it will fail more than it will succeed?  Because it's part of the plan.

The first trick Haley's offense uses is a quick slant to exploit the man coverage resulting from over aggressive safeties spying run.  Once defenses have seen the slant a few times causing safeties and corners to keep an eye on the receiver and back out of bump coverage, Haley attacks with the bubble screen to draw the defense back toward the line of scrimmage.  The failures of the running backs along the way only further entice the defense to heed the call to the line.

Then, we see Haley flip to the second page of his playbook.  Playing off the basics, we see plays like the fake screen resulting in a deep completion to Jerricho Cotchery against the Chicago Bears; or the beautiful 55-yard play-action pass to a posting Emmanuel Sanders in the Jets victory.  These plays do not happen without the commitment to the run, success or not.

The best part about their struggling running game is it can only improve.  Rookie Le'Veon Bell played in only his second NFL game against the second best rushing defense in the league.  Felix Jones leads Bell by a single yard overall, and boasts the team's best YPC average of 3.8 among running backs.  Jonathan Dwyer has brought his pass protection skills, durability and occasional big runs with him back to Pittsburgh, and has used them to take Isaac Redman out of the equation.  Outside of injury, the Steelers know who will be carrying the ball, and when, for the rest of the season.

The offensive line is finally seeing a similar sense of consistency, outside of left tackle.  Fernando Velasco has eased the loss of Maurkice PounceyDavid DeCastro is progressing nicely in his first full season.  Ramon Foster is staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup, and Marcus Gilbert has climbed out of his own hot-seat.  If the team can get Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams or Levi Brown to grab the LT position by the reigns, chemistry will continue to grow with all five pieces of the puzzle in place.

The passing will also eventually reciprocate and open up lanes for the running backs.  Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller have benefited from the emphasis on the run; and defenses will be forced into dropping more into coverage and backing off the attack if current trends continue - especially winning.  At this point, not only would the running backs benefit from a softer defensive presence, but the hits and pressures on Roethlisberger will decrease as defenses dial down their blitzes.

The Steelers will continue to be a run-first team, even if they are not a first-ranked running team; because they have been just productive enough to keep the attention of opposing defenses.  The team proved on Sunday, they can win with the contributions of the backs as they are.

If the running game improves at all, so will the Steelers - and they're already technically on a winning streak.

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