Bruener and the running game are here to stay

The Steelers made a bold move to grab Troy Polamalu in the first round of the recent NFL Draft. While Pittsburgh was clearly addressing a poor pass defense, they also had something else in mind on draft day - RB Larry Johnson out of Penn State. The Steelers would also pick fullback J.T. Wall on day 2 after taking bruiser Verron Haynes the year before.

Speaking of the 2002 draft, the Steelers first pick was OG Kendall Simmons, a player noted for his run blocking ability. The wheels may be coming off the Bus, but Pittsburgh is still a run-first team.

Perhaps the aging of Jerome Bettis and his recent spate of injuries, which certainly hampered his production, have many who cover the NFL speculating that Mike Mularkey will move the Pittsburgh Steelers to an offense oriented towards the pass. Certainly, the Steelers threw more with Maddox at quarterback and the duo of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress was perhaps the most productive in the league. Did that occur because Pittsburgh could no longer run the ball effectively?

Given the way the Steelers have drafted over the past few years, the front office may have shared the concern. However, Pittsburgh may have passed more because the defense put the team in a hole. The ground game doesn't work well for comebacks and shoot-outs. But despite Bettis' waning career, the Steelers still have the personnel to run the ball if they see fit.

"I certainly hope people think we're a throwing football team," offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said about all the recent talk. "We'll run it down their throat if they do."

Relative to 2001, the 2002 Steelers certainly did not look like a run-first team. Relative to the rest of the NFL, though, Pittsburgh still has a potent ground attack. The Steelers were third in the league in rushing attempts, first in time of possession, and 9th in rushing yards per game.

"I don't see it as other people do," Mularkey said. "I just felt we were in different circumstances than we were the year before. We had to throw the ball more because of circumstances."

One could be forgiven for thinking that "different circumstances" entailed the switch at quarterback, from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox. But the stats tell another story and the rest of the AFC North still lags behind the Steelers ground game. Baltimore was 19th in rushing attempts in 2002, while Cincinnati was 19th and Cleveland lagged far behind at 26th. The North as a whole looks to have become more pass-oriented, but the Steelers are the exception instead of the rule. Looking at yards per game on the ground, the Ravens were 16th in the NFL (about 20 yards behind the Steelers), the Bengals were 21st (24 yards behind), and the Browns were 23rd (a huge 32 yards per game behind the Steelers).

The Steelers still held this significant advantage in the running game even though Bettis was hampered by injuries for much of the season, and both Bettis and Zereoue entered into the 2002 season in less than ideal shape. This off-season, both Bettis and Zereoue are in excellent shape and the Steelers stable of running backs looks as good as it ever has. Even if it did not, the problem with the Steelers offense last season was not the demise of the ground attack.

"I find it scary," Mularkey commented on the shortcomings of the Steelers offense in 2002, "how good could we have been and how many more plays and how much more time would we have had the ball if we didn't turn the ball over. We could have been scary-good."

Early on in 2002, the problem was fumbles. However, once Stewart was benched in favor of Maddox, interceptions were the problem. Maddox reminded everyone why he was nicknamed "Turnover Tommy" coming out of college by throwing a slew of interceptions. As a result, Mularkey has been rather lukewarm in his endorsement of Maddox as the Steelers starting QB. Maddox personally gift-wrapped the game for the Houston Texans in what almost cost the Steelers a playoff appearance.

The current hope is that another year in the system will help Maddox improve his reads and make fewer mistakes. But the opposition also has another year to study his tendencies and adjust their game. Turnover Tommy is not likely to disappear over night.

Keeping that in mind, the Steelers will turn back to a running game that, for all intensive purposes, is still there to be utilized. Add to that the shift in the NFL from linebacker-like safeties such as Lee Flowers to speedier cover men such as Dexter Jackson, and 8-in-the-box may not look as formidable as it has in the past. NFL teams across the board may "rediscover" the wisdom of a strong rushing attack.

Don't expect Mularkey to go all out passing, even finding the rarely used tight ends (the promise every off-season). Tabbing TE Jay Riemersma in free agency may have more to do with spiting Buffalo Bills GM Tom Donahoe than signal a shift to a pass-first philosophy.

"They got a new GM in there," Riemersma recently commented about Donahoe, who replaced John Butler. "I got along well with John Butler. I didn't necessarily see eye to eye with some of the things that took place there in the last few years."

Bill Cowher probably brought in Riemersma on that count alone because he couldn't resist sticking it to Donahoe one more time. But that hardly spells the end for cap weight king TE Mark Bruener.

Bruener, if he can stay healthy, will solidify the ground game. Not only that, he will help stabilize a tackle situation that must have the Steelers coaching staff feeling a bit insecure. Starting RT Oliver Ross is largely untested and LT Marvel Smith will be returning to a position he has not manned since college. Bruener will be a calming influence and his availability to run block will tempt a team that is likely paranoid that Maddox could be knocked out of the season as a result of a missed pass protection assignment by Smith or Ross.

If Maddox does indeed miss a few games, Charlie Batch is not the answer. The running game will be called upon, once again, to carry the offensive load.

Jim Russell

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