I am actually shocked that somebody hasn't turned the hopelessly inaccurate statement uttered at the early stages of any Steelers broadcast into a drinking game of some sort. Inevitably some broadcaster will rehash the tired narrative about how the Steelers are a smash mouth football team built around a powerful running game and a punishing defense.
That reputation started to evolve over fifty years ago with the hiring of legendary HOF HC Chuck Noll and the first round selection of the face of the franchise Mean Joe Greene. They laid the foundation for what would become the Steel Curtain, a dynasty like no other. They drafted Franco Harris a couple of years later, developed a winning culture by playing a hardnosed brand of football that matched the work ethic of their community, and they never looked back.
For four decades the Steelers never ventured far from their tried and true philosophy. That all started to change about a decade ago as the Steelers became more dependent on Ben Roethlisberger's passing prowess, especially as the defense started to decline due to advancing age and early round draft misses on that side of the ball. The Steelers wanted to score more points because they needed to score more points to match what the defense was surrendering with regularity.
The Steelers enjoyed their share of good fortune on draft days, but mainly on the offensive side of the ball. Second round selection Le’Veon Bell turned into a star as the Steelers built their running game around his talent and preferences. At first glance, all appeared well with the Steelers rushing attack, but there were problems lying just under the surface that were overlooked as the Steelers tried desperately to build a championship caliber defense to match their high powered offense.
Think back over the past decade for a second. When was the last time that you actually felt confident that the Steelers could convert a 3rd and 1 or a 1st and goal by running the ball? I can wait, because if we are being honest that could take awhile. Even with Bell at the height of his powers, the Steelers often struggled to convert in any situation where the defense knew that the Steelers wanted to run the ball. Considering the avenues utilized by the Steelers to build a offensive line capable of maximizing Bell's effectiveness, these struggles should have been expected.
The Steelers; while also being mindful on protecting their biggest investment and most valuable player in Ben Roethlisberger, built an athletic offensive line that focused on mobility and length over power and push. They built the line through a couple of first round selections and the good fortune of some wise free agent reclamation projects. The Steelers offensive line has consistently excelled in pass protection over the second half of Roethlisberger's career, and they complimented Bell's running style to a tee. Even during this tenure, the Steelers struggled in short yardage situations to effectively run the ball.
Needless to say, things haven't improved as unique talents have gone elsewhere, and injuries and advancing age have decimated the offensive line. Suddenly the Steelers find themselves with a championship caliber defense, but lack a functional running game able to support their talented passing attack. They finally hit rock bottom by finishing dead last in the NFL last season running the football. But every week you could count on some reference from the television broadcast crew about the Steelers reputation of being a smash mouth running offense. They should have been required to turn in their union card.
Based on some not so subtle observations from last year's NFL Draft acquisitions, I believe that the Steelers are in the process of reverting back to their old school means of operation. Starting with the fourth round selection of Kevin Dotson, I believe that the Steelers mean to address their lack of power and push across the offensive line. Dotson is a road grader of a offensive lineman, who's mobility is basically limited to running over any defender who has the misfortune of getting in his way.
With the NFL Draft less than two weeks away, the Steelers find themselves needing to replace at least three starters on the line. The manner in which the Steelers go about filling these openings will finally reveal their plans for the unit moving forward. I fully expect the Steelers to focus on adding more power oriented run blocking prospects in this draft class to continue their transition back to a more complete and balanced offense.
The Steelers total inability to run the football last season had to be embarrassing for such a proud franchise. By all accounts, the results were unacceptable. Hopefully next year the Steelers will finally be able to once again live up to their reputation.