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Run game rhetoric looms over 2014, much like it has the last few years

Run the ball to keep defenses from taking away the Steelers' best weapon, Ben Roethlisberger. That philosophy is a bit more current and effective than the notion of just rushing 35 times a game.

Jared Wickerham

There's time to talk the talk, and there's time to walk the walk.

Or, run the run, as it were.

Tribune Review columnist Joe Starkey doused building flames of optimism of a dominant Steelers ground attack in 2014 in a piece written for Sunday's publication by pointing to something we've all heard before; or just by pointing out the fact we've all heard it before.

The Steelers running game will be improved this season is a mantra we've heard each late July since 2010. There have been ups but mostly downs.

BTSC used the concept of a surge in the running game as its centerpiece of The Renegade, the 2013 season preview issue. Needless to say that fell a bit short of expectations - although the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey eight snaps into the season can shoulder some of the blame for that. Not just in the sense the Steelers lost probably its best all-around offensive lineman but the time necessary to replace that player essentially at the earliest point possible after the season began.

As Starkey points out, the Steelers gained 1,383 yards on the ground last year, the lowest the team has run for since the start of the 16-game season in 1978. The team has lost more fumbles running the ball (17) than it has rushed for touchdowns (14) in the last two seasons. Perhaps the fact the team is a dead-even 16-16 in that time speaks to those statistics.

It's fair to point out the rhetoric usually repeated this time of the year. Running the ball seems like the divine philosophy, only to be cast aside when the bullets of the season start flying through the air as frequently as run game-substituting short passes.

That philosophy is grounded in a time-honored theory of a simple game. Control the ball, move it into the enemy's territory, and cross into its end zone. Then force the opponent to protect it themselves, lulling them into a state of mild panic, forcing the wrong play at the wrong time. Take the ball back, control the ball again.

Few things appear more dominant in the game of football than scoring two rushing touchdowns on a team's first two possession after choking the defense into a three-and-out series followed by a turnover. The game goes longer than that, but staking a defense team to a two touchdown lead on two possessions changes the context of the game completely.

But along with the lack of run game, the Steelers haven't had that defense, either. The leads they never had early in the season were not at all sizable enough to feel that ground-churning comfort was within reach. If they even had a lead, it was one missed tackle or one blown assignment from going away. Sometimes, it was the opposite. The Oakland Raiders, by and large recognized as an inferior team before kickoff of their Week 8 game, powered ahead to a 10-0 lead off a blown assignment by linebacker Lawrence Timmons that led to the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history, and a blocked punt set the Raiders up for an easy field goal.

Nevermind the Steelers choked out the Raiders for the vast majority of the remaining game (and Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham missed two field goals from under 40 yards), the defense and special teams made big mistakes that put the team behind early. The running game would never materialize anyway (they rushed 19 times for 35 yards).

We speak of getting the running game going and how great things will be when LeBackfield is going off for five yards a pop, but ultimately, it's a pass to set up the run league. Stopping both while the offense doesn't have the ball is more instructive of an example of a time in which rushing success needs to be established.

Not using quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a mistake. The idea of putting together athletic offensive linemen in an effort to boost a zone-running game makes sense, but not if the plan moving forward is going to take the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands. Much of this comes down to in-game and per-opponent strategy, but the fact Roethlisberger threw out of play-action less than all but one quarterback in 2013 speaks volumes to a lack of ground game as well as a lack of setting up the team's best player in a position to succeed.

Run the ball to set up the pass, don't try to make 2014 out to be a unique snowflake in comparison to past years. Rushing success should bolster Roethlisberger's highly advanced control and decision-making skills. One begets the other, and that shouldn't be forgotten.

Getting the ball back from the opponent wouldn't kill them, either.