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Starkey: Steelers on the run (again)

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Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

Steelers training camp, which opens Friday, never fails to produce surprises. But there are two things you can count on year after year:

1. It will be held in Latrobe.

2. There will be talk of exhuming a long-deceased running game.

Allow me to pull this excerpt from colleague Mark Kaboly's blog early in camp last year, when Mike Tomlin surprised onlookers by incorporating live tackling into drills (a move that had Dan Kreider fans everywhere frothing at the mouth):

“There's no secret the Steelers want to run the ball this year. No, like seriously run the ball like they used to. They ran for just more than 1,500 yards a year ago — their second fewest in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978.”

Kaboly smartly tossed in this caveat: “Fans might be wise to temper their enthusiasm on the renewed vigor of the run game. I do believe that's been a theme for the past couple years, and we all know how that worked out.”

Do we ever. The Steelers haven't been a top-10 rushing team since 2007.

How'd it work out last year?

It got worse!

The rookie running back got hurt, the right guard accidentally blew up the Pro Bowl center's knee, and poof, there went the hopes and dreams of a revived rushing attack in 2013.

I'll save Kaboly the time for his camp blog this year: The Steelers finished with their fewest rushing yards (1,383) in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978.

The terrible truth is that this running game has devolved into the franchise monstrosity — the crazy uncle you don't want anyone to meet or even mention. By the end of last season, the numbers were so Elephant Man ugly that you couldn't find comparables in the team's own media guide.

Those 1,383 yards? The media guide goes back to 1969, but 1966 was the last time the Steelers ran for fewer in a full season. Just one Steelers team since '69 averaged fewer than last year's 3.5 yards per carry, and that was the disastrous, pass-crazed outfit of '03.

Maybe this tragicomic number says it best: Over the past two seasons, the Steelers' ground game has produced nearly as many fumbles (14) as touchdowns (17).

If you can't run, you have to pass, and for the second year in a row, the Steelers settled for a 60-40 split — ratio of passes to runs — and not coincidentally another 8-8 record. That just isn't going to work. Not here. Not for a franchise that from the very top demands an effective rushing attack. The ratio must be closer to 50-50.

We can talk all we like about whether that is the correct philosophy in the pass-happy NFL, where teams don't necessarily have to run to win championships (the Steelers' most recent title team ranked 23rd in rushing). Point is, the Steelers want to run. Therefore, they need to run. Because if their running game consistently stalls, they are forced into doing something they don't want to do. And the defense wins.

What's more, the Steelers, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, have tailored their personnel to the running game. They added battering ram LeGarrette Blount to complement Le'Veon Bell. Maurkice Pouncey's back. Mike Munchak is the new line coach. They still employ blocking tight ends rather than the sleek, new-age type.

None of which means they should go back to 1974. They haven't forgotten about their elite, $100 million quarterback who loves to throw.

In fact, they've given him more freedom.

That's also part of the point here: Ben Roethlisberger wants and needs a more effective running game, and he wasn't averse to calling running plays out of the no-huddle late last season. Thurman Thomas ran pretty well out of the old Buffalo Bills' K-Gun. Bell can do the same.

“We have to make sure we utilize (the running game),” Roethlisberger said, “because that opens up the play-action and passing game.”

The way last season ended provided hope and perhaps something of a blueprint. The Steelers' three-game winning streak saw them rush for 377 yards and attempt 94 runs to 86 passes.

It's not like running is dead in the NFL, by the way. Two very good teams out west — the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers — ran the ball 55 percent of the time last season.

Here's one more number you might want to keep in mind when camp talk inevitably turns to reviving the run game: The best running team in the AFC North has won the division the past four years and eight of 12 since it formed in 2002.

Pass it on.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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