Steelers deluding selves with running game?

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The problem with the Steelers' offense isn't so much the receivers or the quarterback. It's a running game that's not keeping defenses honest.<br><br> The Cleveland Browns have dealt with the problem ever since they came back to the league in 1999. For the Steelers, it's a new and very real problem, and subsequently not quite so understandable.

After all, Amos Zereoue has prepped four years for this opportunity but his statistics barely measure up to those of William Green, the slow-starting young running back for the pass-happy Browns.

Zereoue has gained 224 yards on 60 carries (3.7 average). With nine more carries, Green has 10 more yards, but running woes are nothing new to the Browns, who've leaned heavily on the pass the last four years.

Under Coach Butch Davis, last year's 31-69 run-pass yardage ratio for the Browns was a slight improvement over his first year in Cleveland.

For the Steelers, the current 24-76 run-pass yardage ratio would mark an all-time low for the running game if it continues. The previous low under Coach Bill Cowher was the 32-68 ratio during the AFC championship season of 1995.

Cowher, though, doesn't necessarily believe the low rushing output is indicative of his team's ability.

"The two games we lost we were involved with having to play catch-up in that second half," he said. "I think if you look at the first halves, that may be more indicative of where you want to keep the balance rather than the whole game."

Well, in the first halves, the Steelers have actually gained less yards on a percentage basis. Through the first four games, the Steelers have gained 23 percent of their total first-half yardage on the ground.

Clearly, the Steelers are having trouble running the ball. Does Zereoue have a prescription for the problem?

"We played a good defense last week. I think they were No. 1 against run," he said. "We had some early success against them then made a couple mistakes and had to resort to throwing the ball. It's still early so I can't really start panicking.

"Would I like to see more touches and more success with the running? Of course, but it's early." The Steelers gained 69 yards on 25 carries last week for their lowest per-carry average of the season (2.8). For the season, they're averaging 3.1 yards per carry, a full yard below last season's average and nearly two yards off their 4.8 average in 2001.

Is it the offensive line?

"Sometimes it's there; sometimes it's not," Zereoue said of running room, but it was a topic he didn't wish to discuss. Cowher wouldn't blame the line, either.

"There weren't a whole lot of problems, to be honest with you," Cowher said. "That was a good defensive line (last Sunday). I thought those guys battled pretty good."

Is it Zereoue himself? Is he dancing too much instead of hitting the hole?

"When you normally would try to make somebody miss, you find yourself sometimes just going at it and trying to make some positive yards," he said. "So, yeah, that's one of the things I've been trying to do."

Would he be better suited running out of a spread formation?

"I'm not the offensive coordinator," Zereoue said. "But it's easier when you're the third-down guy. They spread 'em out and you have some lanes. It's a little different when you're an every-downs guy and you have to stay within the whole game plan.

"We've had success early in the games and sometimes we find ourselves down and have to pass the ball, but each half I'm up to 40-45 yards and in the second half we have to throw the ball." Well, as with Cowher's statement about the first half, Zereoue is off a bit. He's actually had 14 more second-half carries and gained 12 fewer yards. Perhaps delusion is part of the problem. Yet, there was nothing delusional about last Sunday's failure on four plays from the Tennessee one-yard line in the final minute of a 30-13 loss.

"It had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. It was a pride factor," said guard Alan Faneca. "You're down there, you've got to get it done.

"You know, I'm pretty hot. I'm not around here to lose games. Nobody else is either. To hand the game over like that when we should've won the game gets me fired up a little bit, so I'm ready to go."

So, too, finally, might be the running game.

By Jim Wexell

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