Run game still lagging

<b>LATROBE -</b> Wednesday night at Latrobe Stadium, in the wildly popular goal-line drill, a Steelers offense that had been stressing a physical style of play lined up with a jumbo formation that included jumbo guard Keydrick Vincent at tight end.

There was little doubt the offense would run the ball four times if it had to.

Suffice to say, a fifth try was necessary.

The defense stuffed two runs by Duce Staley and then two runs by Jerome Bettis and ended up somewhere between the 3- and 4-yard line after starting at the 5.

Certainly, the defense played well, even without Kendrell Bell and the first- and second-team left outside linebackers, and the defense HAD to know what was coming. Still, it left the coaching staff shaking its collective big, giant head.

Perhaps there hasn't been much improvement made since last year's running game finished 31st in the NFL.

"It's hard to assess that," said Coach Bill Cowher a day later. "It's going to take some of the preseason games. It's like the passing game sometimes. It takes time. There's timing involved, getting involved in doing things at full speed. It's getting good work against our defense because we've been pretty good defensively against the run, so the more we work against our defense I think it's going to help us."

The Steelers can't blame injuries. Marvel Smith is back at left tackle; Kendall Simmons says he's playing better than ever at right guard; Alan Faneca is the best left guard in the world; even Oliver Ross was said to have enjoyed his finest moments earlier that practice.

Could it be the running backs? Bettis weighed in this year at a svelte 249 pounds and has run in practice the way he's run the last two seasons. Staley, the big-ticket free-agent acquisition, believes he's as quick and strong at 29 as he's ever been with the Philadelphia Eagles. Fullback Dan Kreider is still blowing linebackers up.

"It was good play by the defense," Cowher said. "They did a good job of penetrating."

Perhaps the Steelers miss tight end Mark Bruener. Listed first on the Houston Texans' depth chart, Bruener spoiled the Steelers and their fans ever since the 1995 championship run with his blocking.

Bruener was released this year and his replacement was supposed to be Jerame Tuman, who leap-frogged Jay Riemersma on the depth chart. But Tuman has been on the PUP list since the start of camp with an elbow injury. It's left Riemersma, rookie sixth-round pick Matt Kranchick and perennial third-teamer Matt Cushing to fill the void. Oh, and Keydrick Vincent.

"It's hard," new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said of replacing Bruener. "We're trying to find a guy who can do that for us. Without Jerame out there it's been kind of hard to evaluate that. Matt does a good job for us and Jay is doing a good job. But we're trying to find out if we've got one of those guys to block the corner. We think Jerame can do it. He's done it for us in the past. That's why he was promoted on the depth chart. But it's really hard until you get into a game, a preseason game, when it's live action, and you really see them finish the blocks to know for sure if they can do it."

Riemersma has a reputation - which Whisenhunt disputes - of being a soft blocker. Kranchick was a wide receiver at Penn State before becoming that team's pass-catching tight end. With the Steelers thus far, he's shown neither the ability nor inclination to block in-line. Cushing's value rests in his versatility. He can block a little, catch a little and play fullback. None of them can seal the corner on the Steelers' trademark BOSS play, where the Back is isolated On the defense's Strong Safety. It was a play made successful by Bruener.

"A lot of our run game is predicated on having a guy that can do that job," said Whisenhunt, the former tight ends coach. "Now we've kind of evolved a little bit, and we've got a couple of different things that make it not so critical to have a guy like Bruener blocking, but obviously our bread-and-butter play, where Jerome has made a lot of yards from, has resulted from us having a good tight end. So if we can't find a guy that can do that job, it may limit us in running that play as much, but we're still going to try to run it."

On the BOSS sweep, the tight end seals the corner while a guard and tackle pull and make kick-out blocks. The back normally splits the crease.

"What it all comes down to is that tight end setting that edge," Whisenhunt said. "We've got to see if those guys can do that."

Does it concern the new offensive coordinator?

"Not right now," Whisenhunt said. "It's still early in training camp. I coached those guys. I felt they could do it when I coached them. I think they can do the job. I think we'll adapt however we need to adapt to be successful."

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