2003 NFL training camp

Len Pasquarelli

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Wednesday, August 20
Updated: August 25, 12:37 PM ET
Ground struggles could cause headaches for Steelers

By Len Pasquarelli

PITTSBURGH -- In the first 11 seasons of Bill Cowher's head coaching tenure, the Pittsburgh Steelers only once finished a campaign ranked outside of the league's top 10 in rushing offense.

Three times in that stretch, the Steelers' ground attack led the NFL, and they ranked among the top five rushing offenses on a half-dozen occasions overall. Only in '95, when Pittsburgh was No. 12, did the Steelers drop anywhere even near the middle of the league. Under the Cowher stewardship, the Steelers featured an individual 1,000-yard runner seven times, and the average league ranking in rushing offense during that smashmouth period was sixth.

Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis rushed for 666 yards on 187 carries last season.
"Let's face it, that's what we do here, right?" said standout left guard Alan Faneca, one of the league's premier in-line blockers. "I mean, that's Steelers football, and it pretty much has always been that way from what I understand. I can't really ever see us being a team that throws it first and then just runs the ball for the heck of it."

Well, then, Alan, you might have to play blindfolded in 2003. Because if early preseason results are a precursor, it appears the Steelers' ground game has, well, ground to a halt. And while two meaningless exhibition contests might not offer much insight or auguring, there are some ominous signs that the Steelers' running game is stalled beyond repair.

And that the days of being able to set tempo with a potent inside rushing game, to pound opponents into submission and close out close contests in the fourth quarter by controlling the line of scrimmage, could be coming to a close.

Last season, when the Steelers ranked No. 7 in passing offense and were ninth with the rush, it represented only the second time in 25 years that Pittsburgh was more productive in the throwing game. For just the fifth time in two decades, the Steelers had more pass plays (585) than runs (512). Eight times in '02, an exceedingly lopsided number for a franchise whose fans prefer deep bruises over deep passes, the Steelers threw for more than 250 yards.

Such a pass-skewed offense is about as anathema in these parts as ordering an imported lager as the "chaser" half of a Boilermaker, still the drink of choice in most neighborhood taverns of this shot-and-beer town. Purists here still embrace the Hall of Fame receiving tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth but will point out it was the legs of Franco Harris, not the arm of Terry Bradshaw, that finally lifted the franchise from a four-decade morass. This remains, even minus the steel mills, a hardscrabble town.

When it comes to football styles, the preference is for low-tech, for the trite and true. For most Steelers fans, "finesse" is about as despicable as, well, the other "F-bomb." They want rock-'em and sock-'em in more than just their '60s-era robot toys.

Ground history
In the first 11 seasons of Bill Cowher's tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the franchise has only once finished outside the top 10 teams in rushing offense. Here is a look at how the Pittsburgh running game has annually ranked leaguewide under Cowher:
Year Rank
2002 9
2001 1
2000 4
1999 10
1998 7
1997 1
1996 2
1995 12
1994 1
1993 6
1992 4

Fact is, for many fans here, the well-executed off-tackle lead play is both the height of sophistication and a thing of beauty. But unless Cowher and his staff can straighten out an offensive line currently beset by the three I's -- instability, injury and inconsistency -- the Pittsburgh offense might be every bit as incongruous as requesting that the counter help at Primanti's please not pile that heaping mountain of hot fries on top of your ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Not surprisingly, Steelers players are defensive about their offensive shortcomings in the running game, and insist it is far too early to reach for the panic button. But with slightly more than two weeks before the Sept. 7 opener against a Baltimore Ravens defense that prides itself on stuffing the rush, the Steelers have been running on empty.

"But when it's time to run it," said fifth-year veteran Amos Zereoue, who figures to win the starting tailback job, "we'll run it. Don't worry."

There are, however, reasons for concern.

The offensive line has been ravaged by injury and uncertainty in camp and, of the 2002 starters, only Faneca has lined up at the same spot he played a year ago. Right tackle Marvel Smith has been switched to the left side to compensate for the free agency exit of Wayne Gandy, and he has played well at his new position. But his progress is offset by the lingering knee problems of center Jeff Hartings, the absence of right guard Kendall Simmons who is being treated for a diabetes-like condition, and the inability of Oliver Ross to nail down the starting job at right tackle.

A stretch of rainy weather in the area has forced Pittsburgh into the gym at St. Vincent's College on several occasions, and Cowher has acknowledged his team is behind schedule because of it.

But more than anything else, it is the unsettled situation at tailback, where it appears Jerome Bettis is about used up, that is most disturbing.

The 10-year veteran, now 31 years old, has been hounded by injuries over the last two seasons and, for all the optimistic rhetoric surrounding his improved conditioning this year, Bettis is simply too tardy getting to the holes now. Save for a four-yard touchdown run in last Saturday night's preseason loss to Philadelphia, the score coming on a toss to the left side, Bettis could barely get out of his own backfield.

Zereoue has been outstanding at times but, at 5-feet-8, there are questions about the pinball-style runner's ability to hold up over the course of a 16-game schedule as the starter. The eternally promising Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala is perennially injured, it seems, and on Saturday he sustained a strained hamstring on the opening kickoff, will likely miss the final two preseason games, and could be in jeopardy of losing his job.

As much as I'd like to just throw it around, get the ball to a bunch of receivers I think are the best in the game, we still need balance. Running the ball is the Steelers way, you know, and it's kind of in the blood here. So, yeah, we've got to be able to run when we have to, and when we want to. That's how you dictate to defenses. Everything kind of spins off of that.
Tommy Maddox, Steelers QB

Said one veteran: "Yeah, it's a mess right now, but we'll get it figured out."

Maybe so. Maybe not. Against the Eagles, about the only way the Steelers moved the ball consistently well was when they spread the field, with four-wide receiver or "empty" sets. Those are formations that play to the strengths of quarterback Tommy Maddox, and in which he is very productive, but they are the polar opposite of what Steelers football has been about for many years.

Essentially, the run has been replaced by the run-and-shoot. The wide-open and unpredictable approach of coordinator Mike Mularkey, whose fertile and creative mind makes for some entertaining stuff, is fun to watch at times. His use of formations and of substitution packages, and the wrinkles he incorporates for versatile performers such as Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, has moved offensive football here way beyond anything it has ever been in the past.

But the mad scientist, whose bag of tricks seems endless, could find himself in a pretty maddening mess if he doesn't dig deep enough to unearth some solutions for the stalled running attack.

"As much as I'd like to just throw it around, get the ball to a bunch of receivers I think are the best in the game, we still need balance," acknowledged Maddox. "Running the ball is the Steelers way, you know, and it's kind of in the blood here. So, yeah, we've got to be able to run when we have to, and when we want to. That's how you dictate to defenses. Everything kind of spins off of that."

But for now, at least, the Steelers' running game is spinning out of control. And somehow between now and Sept. 7, the Pittsburgh ground attack has to find solutions, and at nearly every level of the rushing game. Running the football, slamming the opponent between the tackles, is woven into the fabric of this franchise and, further, of this city.

There are only two weeks left to figure a way to stop the unraveling of that tapestry.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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