The famous Ohio State coach Woody Hayes gained notoriety when he uttered the phrase “three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.” This was in relation to his throwback-style offense, which was basically a run-it-down-your-throat type that relied heavily on the fullback. In hindsight, it’s where the “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy of pounding the football was born, and looking forward to the 2022 season, it’s one in which the Steelers might be smart to use to their advantage.
When incorporating a new quarterback into any offensive system, any offensive coordinator who has any sense will try to back that QB as much as he can with a strong running game, thus not putting too much on a green signal-caller. This ideology worked masterfully in future Hall Of Famer Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, when the three-headed rushing attack of Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley and “Fast” Willie Parker ran for 941, 830 and 186 yards, respectively, as the team finished the regular season with a sterling 15-1 record. A lot wasn’t put on the shoulders of Roethlisberger that year, as when glancing over his game logs, his pass attempts remained steady in the high-teens to low-twenty range.
It also didn’t hurt that season that the team’s defense was the #1-ranked unit in the league, only surrendering a measly 15.7 PPG. The defense this season has the makings, on paper, of a tremendous unit, led by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, along with fellow All-Pro’s Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The run defense that haunted the team last year cannot get any worse than their dead-last ranking, and reinforcements were added via the draft with DeMarvin Leal and Larry Ogunjobi to help offset the retirement of Stephon Tuitt. Last year’s version was a far cry from the 2004 unit, whose calling card was shutting down the run game with guys like Kimo von Oelhoffen, Chris Hoke (after Casey Hampton was lost midseason from a torn ACL) and Aaron Smith leading the charge.
But back to the main point, this season’s ground attack will be led by the 244-pound Najee Harris, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after running for 1,200 yards, breaking Franco Harris’ franchise single-season rookie record. His play spoke for itself last year, but if you’ll notice, the ’04 team featured an array of runners, and the current depth chart behind Harris leaves a lot to be desired. Benny Snell seems to lack any explosion and Anthony McFarland can’t seem to stay healthy. Some free agent possibilities like David Johnson or Justin Jackson have been floated, but to me, another multi-faceted guy like Miami’s Myles Gaskin, who very well could be on the outs after the team signed Raheem Mostert, Chase Edmonds and Sony Michel in free agency.
Also food for thought from last season was a lack of consistent push up front by the offensive line to create running lanes for Harris, as he was often forced to create yards on his own, as evidenced by him leading the league in missed tackles. The team went out in free agency this past offseason and signed several starters, including center Mason Cole and the top guard on the market outside of Brandon Scherff, James Daniels who not only comes with a much cleaner injury history, he’s also six years younger. They also retained tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who has shown a slow-if-not-steady improvement in his career, while tackle Dan Moore Jr. showed promise in his baptism-by-fire rookie season as he ended up starting 13 games at left tackle. The current group is a far cry from the ’04 line which featured All-Pro’s Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca, who was recently enshrined in the HOF.
The “three-yards” mentality without a doubt hinges on the fact that you’re converting those three yards each time, which if done successfully and efficiently, will move the chains, and thus bleed the clock. Last year, the team ranked 24th in time of possession, which out of 32 teams is not all that impressive. In ’04, the team ranked #1 in TOP, a stark contrast. The team’s rebuilt offensive line hopefully can gel further at training camp in Latrobe and in the preseason in a few short weeks.
The whole philosophy here is batter the opposition into submission, and thus masking the potential question marks at QB, whether it’s Mitch Trubisky and his erratic play or rookie Kenny Pickett. When controlling the tempo of the game, it eventually wears down opposing defenses, much like in ’04 when teams were forced to try and tackle the 250+ pound Bettis. The team is hoping to utilize their own battering ram in Harris in much the same fashion this season as they look to surge forward in the post-Roethlisberger era, and only time will tell if the new-look line is built for such a gameplan. However, it worked before and can certainly work again, given the talent level this team possesses. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.