Running to stand still

There's been more to the story of Pittsburgh's 2006 passing game turnovers than Ben Roethlisberger's individual play. While the term "game manager" as it applies to Roethlisberger makes most fans cringe ...

... there is an element of truth in it in that all NFL quarterbacks are "game managers," to an extent. And to be fair, while he had struggled with his accuracy and poor decision-making prior to last Sunday's game, how was Ben Roethlisberger to manage the game as effectively this year when the strategy that Pittsburgh abided by for two years was inexplicably and suddenly changed?

All That You Can't Leave Behind

The Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball 60% of the time last year – first in the NFL. They ran to run down the clock when ahead and to keep teams honest when they were behind. To ensure that, even when behind, the team never prevented itself from falling into long-distance passing situations and to calm the offense and keep it from playing in "panic mode".

And of course the run was used to set-up the passing game – the more teams committed to stopping the run, the more that over-commitment was used to help the passing game.

Often times, the running game wasn't successful last year. But it was a weapon they never holstered, no matter what the score differential. Even when unsuccessful, it served many functions as it related to Roethlisberger's play.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

In 2006, Pittsburgh's rushing percentage plummeted to 45% of all offensive plays before Sunday's game – down 15% from 2005. Pittsburgh passed 301 times this year while rushing only 249 times.

Only twice this year has Pittsburgh rushed more often that it passed (both victories – Miami and Kansas City). And the argument that they kept running because it was successful early on did not hold true in either victory – Pittsburgh rushed for a 3.9 yards per carry average against Miami – no better than its current season average. Remove one long second-half run by Davenport against the Chiefs and the same holds true there.

NFL-wide, Pittsburgh in 2006 has fallen to 16th in carries per game– to 27.9, down seven carries per game from their 2005 average.

Yet, their yards per carry average is 4.4 – .4 better after Sunday's game than their 4.0 average in 2005.

Pittsburgh, for a number of possible reasons to be explored below, has frequently and inexplicably abandoned the run, both early and late in games, this year. Even this past Sunday, with the running game averaging 8.4 yards per carry, Pittsburgh still passed more than it ran.

The question is:

Why?

And what can and should be done to resolve the issue in 2007?

Love is Blindness Pittsburgh threw the ball 32, 39 and 31 times in Roethlisberger's first three games back from his various injuries, all the while having Parker carry 11, 31 then 14 times respectively in those same games. Roethlisberger threw 54 times versus Denver while Parker ran only 14 times (while rushing for five yards a carry). Was Roethlisberger asked to do too much too soon? Did the coaching staff believe too much in the "magic" of Ben Roethlisberger, especially when he is in only his third year and just suffered a number of major injuries?

Out of Control In 2005, Pittsburgh was adamant about maintaining their running attack, even when down by double-digits. In 2006, the running game has all but been abandoned in the second half, even when games were close. Being the Super Bowl champions creates added pressure – has the play-calling suffered due to the pressure?

Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own There's no question the offensive line isn't opening up holes like it did last year. Or … is there?

Pittsburgh's yards per carry is better than it was last year. What's changed is Pittsburgh's dedication to the run. Pittsburgh's running game relies on wearing teams down – and it simply can't succeed with only 14-20 carries a game and few in the second half. Pittsburgh averaged five yards per carry against Denver, yet rushed only 14 times.

Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car: Going into the season, Pittsburgh expressed concern over whether the 5'10" 209 pound Parker could take the pounding of a starting NFL running back over an entire season. Smaller than the standard Steeler running back, the concern has always been that he'd get run down over the course of a season – especially in Pittsburgh's physical, run between-the-tackles offense. In 2005, Parker carried the ball 265 times – only 48% of Pittsburgh's total rushing attempts. This year, Parker has already rushed 162 times – 73% of all carries – and is on track for a 324 carry season – over 20% more than his prior season's carries.

Is Pittsburgh running less now to preserve Willie Parker? If so, that shows a lack of confidence in his backups to take on carries, as they did in 2005, leading to the next issue.

One Last year, Pittsburgh counted on Bettis, Staley and Haynes to carry the ball in order to alleviate Parker's workload. Is there anyone Cowher trusts this year to do so? With Bettis retired and Staley in such bad shape he'll be cut next year, that left only Haynes, who was lost to injury as their dedicated third-down back, and the newly acquired Davenport to fill-in. Davenport looks like he's learned the offense and is ready to be a solid solution as a big backup-up to Parker and as the third-down back, but he's a free agent next year. Pittsburgh would do well to re-sign him, but there's still a need to look for another back next year as Haynes' injury leaves no guarantee he'll be 100% next year, and Pittsburgh needs to be better than two backs deep.

Desire

As Pittsburgh has just invested in its starting back in Parker, there's simply little chance a running back is drafted in the first round (hence the exclusion of players like Lynch and Peterson here), but there are some desirable options for later rounds:

Michael Bush, RB – Louisville. Bush is the best power back in the draft. At 6'3", 240 pounds, Bush is strong, fast and deceptively agile. Normally he'd be a mid-first round talent, but he suffered a season-ending, though not career-threatening, broken leg that could cause him to slide to the second round.

Alley Broussard, RB - LSU: At 6'0, 233 pounds, Broussard is a load to bring down and has good burst and cutting ability. While he has moderate speed, he fits the mold of a Steeler power back perfectly. May not slide past the bottom half of round two.

Tony Hunt, RB – PSU: Hunt is yet another big running back available in this draft. Good speed and power, at 6'2", 230 pounds, he's yet another prototype Steeler power back who has shown good receiving skills as well. He's somewhat untested – the combine will be key for him as he got few carries at PSU. Most likely a round two pick.

Garrett Wolfe, RB/KR – Northern Illinois: Defintely not a power back, this 5'7", 174 pound back is a threat to go the distance every time he handles the ball. A Maurice Drew-Jones type back, Wolfe would be a very interesting third-down back and return threat.

Kenny Irons, RB – Auburn: Not quite the big back as some of the others mentioned, but he runs with strength. He has average speed though.

Brian Leonard, RB/FB – Rutgers: A smaller Mike Alstott, this 6'2", 235 pound back possesses decent speed but brute strength. May be too stiff for anything but a short-yardage specialist in the NFL – the combine will be key for him.

DeShawn Wynn, RB – Florida: This 5'11", 228 pound running back is a tough runner with decent speed and acceleration. Not a burner but a solid back who should be available in round 3.

Kenneth Darby, RB – Alabama: The 5'11", 205 pound Darby is strictly an in-between the tackles running back that has good receiving skills and should be available day two.

Stevie Hicks, RB – Iowa St.: At 6'2:, 215 pounds, Hicks is one of those players that seems to do everything well, but nothing spectacularly. His has good quickness and receiving skills but his lack of bulk may make him a poor fit in Pittsburgh.

Kenny James, RB – Washington: James, at 5'10", 215 pounds, has good acceleration and vision and blocks well. This is the kind of back you can see Pittsburgh taking on the second day.

Best Pick: Broussard or Hunt in round two if Davenport is not re-signed – with Wolfe maybe a surprise pick here if Davenport is re-signed.


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