Last year, the Steelers slipped to 31st in the league running the ball at just 93 yards per game. That put too much pressure on the passing game to move the ball.
The result was an offense that was less productive than it had been in 2002 and a fall from a 9-6-1 record to 6-10.
But head coach Bill Cowher and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt came into this season committed to re-establishing the running game. And behind Duce Staley, the team's big free agent signing, and a relatively healthy offensive line, the Steelers are averaging 126.5 yards rushing, good for seventh in the league.
The offense is much less reliant on the passing game, which takes pressure off rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It is also responsible for a 3-1 start that has the Steelers atop the AFC North standings.
"We're running the ball a lot more on first down this year than we did last season," said center Jeff Hartings. "And we've been more successful doing it. We're getting four and five yards on first down and it's giving us a lot of options on second down."
The numbers would back Hartings up. The Steelers have run the ball 58 percent of the time, compared to 44 percent of the time last season. And they've been more productive. The team averaged just 3.3 yards per rush last season, but is averaging 3.8 yards this season, bolstered by Staley's 4.3-yards-per-carry average.
"I'm definitely licking my chops every week knowing that I'm going to get the ball," said Staley, who's averaging nearly 22 carries per game and is seventh in the AFC with 372 yards rushing. "I'm just thankful to be in a situation where I can be productive."
Staley was downgraded to questionable earlier this week because of an infected toe, but practiced Friday and should be ready to play Sunday against the Browns.
You would think the wide receivers would be upset the team is running the ball so much this season. But that has not been the case.
"We have the weapons to pass all day," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who has remained productive, leading the AFC with 28 receptions for 394 yards. "But that's not going to get us anywhere. The year we went 13-3 (in 2001), we were balanced."
The Steelers' commitment to the running game will get a big test Sunday when they host the Browns (2-2) at Heinz Field. Cleveland's run defense is eighth in the NFL, allowing 100.8 yards per game. The Browns, however, are 26th in the NFL against the pass, giving up 236.8 yards each game.
"If you look at (Cleveland's defense), there is not a great collection of players," said Cowher. "But I'll tell you what, they have a lot of good players who play hard. They are making plays. They will test our patience and our persistence because these guys will not find themselves out of position. They are not going to beat themselves. We are going to have to make sure we go out there patiently against this football team."
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