The Case for Drafting a Starting Running Back

Last year, we made the case for drafting a safety in the first round. However, much like the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers, we overestimated the importance of such an upgrade to the overall success of the defense. There are plenty of positions in need of help, but only one position commands the pick at number 11.

I doubt I'd impress you with a mountain of statistics, not that I haven't tried. Including the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers won 11 games during the 2002-2003 season. The following year, with mostly the same players, they won just 6 times.

To all those fans insisting that the answer at the 11th pick of the 2004 draft would be a cornerback, I offer this brief statistical overview. The Steelers gave up fewer points this season than they did last season. However, Pittsburgh scored almost 6 points less per game, posting their worst offensive production since 1998.

Yes, even worse than 1999, when the Steelers also went 6-10.

The trouble is explaining the 4-game swing in the final standings. The pass defense theory doesn't cut it. You might make a case for the pass rush, or the sudden lack thereof in 2003, but that hardly points to a pressing need for a top-flight corner in the first round.

Besides all the CB chatter, quarterback (as usual) is a hot topic for conversation. Certainly, the dramatic drop off in scoring production warrants such a debate. However, excepting Tommy Maddox's first go round, the highest scoring season in the last 7 years was in 1997 (just one point less per game than the 2002 Steelers). Yep, the quarterback was Kordell Stewart.

Considering that both Stewart and Maddox experienced dramatic drop offs in scoring production during their second seasons as starters, you would be excused for demanding that the Steelers trade away their entire draft to land QB Eli Manning.

Before you hit that very panic button, ponder the fact that the Steelers' and Stewarts' fortunes followed the flight of the running game. In 1997 and 2001, the running game was the offense.

"When I got here, all we ever saw was eight in the box," said WR Hines Ward this past season. "Now, all we see are seven in the box."

Seeing eight in the box includes 2002, when Maddox lit up opposing defenses, such as the game against the Atlanta Falcons.

"They did the things they had been doing all year; playing a lot of single high and bringing the safety into the box," said Maddox, who threw for a club-record 473 yards and four touchdowns against the Falcons. "They had confidence in their corners to go out there and cover. We were able to hit some big plays."

The opposition respected, no make that feared, the Steelers running attack. The success of 2001 spilled over into 2002. Teams put 8 players in the box, running a cover-3 scheme, or single high safety. This defensive scheme created huge match up advantages that Maddox, Ward, and Plaxico Burress exploited.

That all changed when a number of teams realized that Amos Zereoue and Jerome Bettis were shadows of their former selves. Add to that a banged up offensive line, and the opposition fed Maddox a steady diet of cover-2, no longer needing the 8th man in the box to stop the run.

We dare you to run the ball. We double-dog dare you.

The Steelers wouldn't even do it on 3rd and 1. Burress and Ward expressed their frustration.

"It kind of started in Kansas City, and we got ourselves in one of those deals where we turned the ball over a couple times and we got behind and it just made it hard for us to come back," Burress said. "We weren't running the ball particularly well at that time. It kind of puts pressure on us to work a little harder to get open and find holes in the zone and cover-2. And it kind of puts a little more pressure on Tommy to find us in all that traffic."

Maddox, for the most part, agreed.

"On offense, Hines and Plax are two of our guys that can make a difference in a game," Maddox said. "When you are seeing a lot of cover-2 it's harder to get them involved and give them an opportunity to make those differences in games. In some instances, it is a big deal. That's when you have to attack and hit them somewhere else and make them realize they don't want to play that. Some games, we were able to do that and get them out of it, and in some games we didn't."

Perhaps the league was catching up with Maddox, but the rushing statistics clearly demonstrate that the Steelers offense was one-dimensional. The Steelers had to beat the cover-2 with the running attack.

"Obviously, everybody knows we want to run the ball better, especially if teams are going to play cover-2 against us," Maddox said. "Around here, team's aren't supposed to play cover-2 against us because of the way we can run the football."

The Steelers never ran the ball better in 2003 and Burress' production probably suffered the most from the lack of a running game. Now we are well into the off-season and everyone is wondering what the Steelers will do. Head coach Bill Cowher could not have made the plan clearer than he did in his most recent press conference.

"We have to run the football better than we did a year ago," said Cowher. "I don't think there was a de-emphasis being put on it last year. Contrary to what some people in here may think and even some of the personnel moves that were made that we were not trying to de-emphasize the run. We have to be able to run the football better than we did this past year. There is no doubt."

Certainly, a healthier offensive line would help.

"As an update, Marvel Smith has regained full motion of his shoulder. His strength is back. He is coming into town next week. What we had hoped to be the case was he just needed some time," Cowher recognizing the importance of Smith to the future success of the Steelers. "He does not appear to need any surgery at all. He appears to be a hundred percent. We still have not seen him, but that was probably as good of news as anything we got."

Could a marquee right tackle solve the Steelers problems running the ball?

Certainly, it couldn't hurt. We've all witnessed how better pass protection can transform a mediocre quarterback into a champion. But there's no guaranteeing the health of five players on the offensive line. If it is not Smith, it could be Jeff Hartings or Kendall Simmons.

What the Steelers need is a real threat at running back, a three-down back that can make something out of nothing and force the opposition to once again put eight men in the box. A great offensive line can handle the extra safety. A great back demands that the safety creep towards the line of scrimmage.

Newly anointed offensive coordinator Ken Whisnehunt has made no bones about his philosophy.

"The things we have done the last three years have been good," said Whisenhunt. "We were willing to do a lot different things with multiple personnel and multiple formation groups, having our personnel do the things that they are the best at and not being afraid to try new things. But I think the emphasis and what we do best is run the football.

"That is kind of the way I was brought up in this league. I was brought up in the Joe Gibbs, Dan Henning system and those two guys worked together in Washington and they ran the football."

Many did not recognize the Steelers when they were airing out the football in 2002. But what many did not understand is that all the success throwing the ball was set up by all the success running the ball.

The Steelers may not think that Steven Jackson or Kevin Jones can solve their biggest problem. If that's the case, Pittsburgh could easily draft a quarterback or perhaps a defensive lineman, or maybe even an offensive tackle in the first round. But if Jackson or Jones were any better prospects at running back, you could be assured that they wouldn't be there at the 11th pick of the draft.

There was little mystery last year at this time that the Steelers would be in the market for a new starting safety. We'll get plenty of smoke over the next few months, but no one should lose sight of dire need for a franchise running back in Pittsburgh.

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