The Pittsburgh Steelers have earned a well-deserved reputation over the years as a team that wants to run the football and control the clock.
But nothing the Steelers have ever done running the football can come close to matching the way the Atlanta Falcons are running the ball this season. The Falcons are on pace to not only break, but shatter NFL records for both rushing yards in a season (3,165 by New England in 1978), and yards per attempt (5.74 by Cleveland in 1963).
Interestingly enough, the Falcons have taken a page out of West Virginia University's offensive playbook, utilizing quarterback Michael Vick to run the spread option with running backs Warrick Dunn and Jerrious Norwood.
"They've got the old option draw back in," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher of the Falcons who are averaging 6.4 yards per carry and are on pace to rush for 3,712 yards.
"You see it in college all the time. I should call up some college coaches about defending that thing they do. You're talking about the team that's clearly ahead of everyone and setting records rushing the football."
Steelers rookie safety Anthony Smith faced West Virginia's spread option last season at Syracuse. The Orange finished the season just 1-10, but gave Wesst Virginia fits, limiting the Mountaineers to just 183 yards rushing in a 15-7 loss.
Syracuse's strategy on that day?
"We basically just tried to contain it and make the quarterback work up the middle instead of the outside," said Smith. "We blitzed from the outside and made sure we kept everything funneled to the middle of the field."
Defending Atlanta's version of the spread option will be the Steelers' task this week when they face the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
The option draw, which the Falcons copied from West Virginia after watching the Mountaineers destroy the University of Georgia with it in the Sugar Bowl last year, consists of the quarterback, who is in the shotgun, tucking the ball into the stomach of the running back after the snap. Then, the running back either keeps the ball or the quarterback takes it back. The two players then sprint in different directions.
"You don't see the option draw that they play, where (Vick) puts the ball in the hands of Warrick Dunn and then reads things," Cowher said. "It's the kind of thing you see in college. You kind of enjoy watching it on Saturday afternoon. And you say, ‘Boy, I'm glad I don't have to defend that.' Now, I'm going to have to defend that.
"It is very unique. When you play a player like this, it's different than what we've faced the last couple of weeks. There are scrambling quarterbacks, but then Michael takes that to another level."
But the Steelers do have some practice in defending the run. They enter this game allowing an average of only 78 yards per game, having shut down San Diego's LaDanian Tomlinson (13 carries for 36 yards) and Kansas City's Larry Johnson (15 for 26) in back-to-back weeks.
"We've faced two really good running backs in the past two games," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "But we haven't faced anything like what the Falcons do. They can hurt you really fast with either Michael Vick or Warrick Dunn running the ball."
Despite being just 5-10, 180 pounds, Dunn is fourth in the NFL with 511 yards on only 96 carries, a 5.3 average. Vick, meanwhile, is 16th with 401 yards on 46 rushes, an 8.7 per-carry average.
Vick is on pace to shatter the single-season NFL record for yards rushing by a quarterback, which is 968 by Chicago's Bobby Douglass in 1972. Douglass set the record in 14 games, but Vick is also on pace break the mark well before that.
"This is a unique offense from a standpoint of having a player like Michael Vick," said Cowher. "He presents many challenges to your defense. Some of the things they're doing with him now, it's going to be a big challenge."
F. Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.