By Cian Fahey,
The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2012 NFL regular season with a new offensive coordinator, starting running back and probably three new starters on the offensive line. While Willie Colon and Isaac Redman are not exactly new faces, they both started just one game for the Steelers last year. David DeCastro and Mike Adams will likely be the team\’s starters at right guard and left tackle respectively, while Todd Haley has replaced Bruce Arians as the team\’s coordinator.
A new look offense is a certainty this year for the Steelers. What exactly that new look will entail won\’t be completely clear until late into the regular season.
Haley has been left with most of the key pieces from last year\’s offense. Ben Roethlisberger is still the unquestioned star of the offense, Heath Miller will remain a key component of any gameplan while Mike Wallace should be on the field regardless of his current contractual issues. Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey will be expecting big things carrying over from last season.
What you will notice about those players, is that most of them are pass oriented play-makers. In fact, it is pretty clear that the strength of the Steelers\’ attack lies in their receiving corps. Antonio Brown was the team MVP last year. Wallace hit as many home runs as anyone. Emmanuel Sanders proved in the playoffs that his only limitations were his health, while Jerricho Cotchery suffered similarly.
Unlike ever before, Roethlisberger has weapons to show off his passing ability, and some will argue the protection to keep him healthy, however even in today\’s NFL you still have to run the football to some degree. Last year the Detroit Lions reached the playoffs in spite of their running game, but as good as the Steelers\’ receiving corps is, they do not have a Calvin Johnson who allowed the Lions to succeed without any real running threat.
That poses the question, how much production do the Steelers need to get from their running game this year?
Rashard Mendenhall may not have been everyone\’s favorite back, but there is no doubt that he was the most talented player playing the position for the Steelers. Mendenhall was a true feature back who was hampered by playing behind a struggling line for so long. He was still productive however and, while he didn\’t carry the offense like a Jerome Bettis, he did force teams to play the Steelers straight up.
The likelihood is that that is all the Steelers need of their running game this year.
Haley is in a similar position this year that he was in with the Arizona Cardinals when he was their offensive coordinator. When the Cardinals eventually lost out to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, they had reached the big game because of a great passing attack complemented by a bruising runner. The Steelers have the potential to be a great passing attack and Redman is definitely a tough runner.
In four 2008 playoff games, the Cardinals\’ Edgerrin James ran for 236 yards on 61 carries as the Cardinals offense averaged 29.5 points per game. If the Steelers averaged 29.5 points per game, or even close to it, they would likely slide into the playoffs as a number one seed. Last year the Steelers earned a wildcard berth averaging only 20.3 points per game.
Considering the talent the Steelers possess, ranking 21st in the league is not acceptable for their offense. Even though they finished 21st in scoring, the Steelers ranked 10th in passing yards per game and 14th in rushing yards per game. It would be asking a lot of the Steelers to run for 118.9 yards per game this year as they did last. If they can achieve something close to that however, the offense should be one of the better groups in the NFL.
The contemporary Steelers\’ philosophy is a far cry from the days of Franco Harris or even Bettis, but so long as the Steelers can put points on the board, does it really matter what style they play?
Of course any defensively oriented team will want to run the ball in order to preserve their defense, but if the running game reaches a certain level, is this still really a defensively oriented team? Think about that for a minute. How far behind the defense does the Steelers offense project for the coming season?
Projections are always difficult, but how successful the Steelers\’ running game can be this year will likely determine how good this group is next year. Not for the historically accepted reasons either.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf