By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were intent on putting the run back into the forefront of their overall offensive playbook in 2014, hiring Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach in order to get the most out of their front line and bringing in LeGarrette Blount to compliment second-year back Le’Veon Bell. While there have been several successful outings with flashes of a successful ground attack, the Steelers have seen games where production wasn’t stopped because the run defense they faced was particularly spectacular, but due to the lack of effectiveness by the offensive line in run-blocking. As long as the offensive line struggles to find its identity, the Steelers rushing game will continue to stall.
Week to week the Steelers’ offensive line has struggled throughout the 2014 season to get the same level of play from their entire squad. While Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro have been solid side-by-side, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum have been unpredictable. The lack of solidarity has brought up questions ranging from Munchak’s coaching to which lineman needs to play in any given game. Gilbert and Foster seem to trade off from hot and cold while Kelvin Beachum has shown periods where his overall strength has waned as the game went further. Mike Adams used his opportunity to get back into the lineup when Foster was injured, giving a solid performance, but was placed back on the bench once Foster returned. Due to the lack of predictability, it has been difficult to establish a game plan week to week that counts on a consistent unit to force opposing defenders out of holes that are meant for the Steelers’ running backs.
The Steelers have had zero rushing touchdowns since week three and their yards per-carry numbers hit a plateau around 3.10 (average-per-game) in their last seven games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Their top rushing performance happened in week three against the Carolina Panthers; 264 yards an a touchdown (7.76 YPC). The rushing game in the opening game against the Cleveland Browns produced 127 yards and two touchdowns (4.53 YPC). Pittsburgh stands tied three ways for the second-least rushing touchdowns in the league with only the Oakland Raiders sitting at the bottom. Although statistics are helpful at gauging performance, they don’t necessarily point out where the problem is. Pittsburgh has put together 267 rushing attempts throughout the season, ranking seventh in the league, making it clearer that it isn’t the backs who have under-performed, but the offensive line.
The Steelers haven’t faced high-level run defenses on their schedule every week. In fact, the Browns are sitting at 28th in the league in rush defense. The only teams the Steelers have faced that have top-10 run defenses are the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. Where the Steelers are failing is in consistent yards on the carries the running backs are given because the offensive line is not keeping opposing defenses honest and sealed out. This has allowed teams to turn the Steelers’ offense into a one-dimensional attack, forcing Ben Roethlisberger to look to pass to move the chains. Third-and-short is usually a great opportunity to bring in a rusher to get the first-down. Instead, Pittsburgh hasn’t been confident that their offensive line can get enough push up front to convert. This is evident in the red-zone as well, an area on the field where the Steelers continue to flounder.
It isn’t that the Steelers have a ‘terrible’ offensive line. Every player lined up week-to-week has skills that the team appreciated or they wouldn’t have been made starters. However, until the unit can develop a rapport with each other that translates into consistency, the Steelers will continue to see Bell and Blount either being too patient while looking for openings or shooting into holes only to have them seal up at the point of impact. The Steelers can’t afford to wait until the ‘bye’ week to fix this part of their offense unless they think Roethlisberger is going to be able to manage games with Antonio Brown at receiver, Heath Miller at tight end and whoever steps up to be an effective target. Sunday’s game against the Jets was proof-positive that Pittsburgh can’t win games with that formula. In fact, Brown had two fumbles and Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. At this point in the season, that isn’t a coincidence.
The Steelers have an opportunity on Monday night to up their ground game against a Tennessee Titans team that isn’t particularly challenging to run against this season. It will require that Pittsburgh gets onto the practice field and fires up an offensive line that is all on the same page and revel in their solidarity.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on