In NFL, a shifting trend toward offensive imbalance
Rashard Mendenhall confidently executed a jump cut during practice this past week, signaling he may possess the strength and agility that defined his running style before he tore his ACL late last season in Cleveland.
After months of rehabilitation and bouts of impatience, the Steelers' feature back is eager to test his surgically repaired knee at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field.
The coaching staff is cautiously optimistic, yet a sense of desperation lingers, in part, because the Steelers' insipid running game ranks next to last in the NFL. It's an uneasy reality for the six-time Super Bowl champions. Typically, the Steelers' ground game reflects a dogged, hard-nose attitude.
Still, regardless of how Mendenhall performs, does it matter in the modern-day NFL?
A number of teams have shifted to pass-oriented offenses and aren't leaning heavily on the run to achieve success.
It's a trend that gathered momentum after Indianapolis (2007), New Orleans (2010), and Green Bay (2011) proved that teams can parlay minimally effective ground attacks into Super Bowl victories.
This season, only four of the top-10 run teams — San Francisco (3-1), Philadelphia (3-1), Houston (4-0) and Minnesota (3-1) — have winning records.
“It's turning into a passing league. The teams that pass to a high level are winning games,” said running back Isaac Redman, who added there was a greater emphasis on the run game this past week. “But you definitely need a running game to take some of the pressure off the passing game.”
Finding effective formula
Statistics through four weeks back Redman's assessment.
Teams that have attempted the fewest runs — a group that includes the Steelers — collectively have won half as often as they have lost.
The five teams with the worst run-pass ratio are a combined 4-16.
“The league is trying to change the game, but there are some people trying to hold on to what it used to be,” Mendenhall said. “Some teams are built to run, but it depends on what you do well. For us, we want to be a balanced team that can attack you in different ways, and that's what we're working toward.”
So far, offensive coordinator Todd Haley hasn't cooked up a remedy to inject life into a run game that in three games failed to reach the century mark: 75 vs. Denver, 66 vs. Jets and 54 vs. Oakland.
Haley, though, is confident now that his running back corps appears intact.
“I just think we'll be in a position to really get after people,” Haley said. “Like I said, the Oakland game (a 34-31 defeat), it wasn't going to change. I don't care if you had Walter Payton back there, we were going to play the game the way we played it.”
Even with Mendenhall's return, Haley doesn't seem likely to take the ball out of the hand of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has set a sizzling pace despite a 1-2 start.
The Steelers have one of the most imbalanced offenses in the league. Roethlisberger has attempted 120 passes compared to the team's 74 rushes. Redman leads the team with 32 carries for a meager 72 yards. In comparison, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has amassed 130 rushing yards.
“It's embarrassing that we haven't been able to run the ball the way we want to, or at least the way we did in training camp,” Redman said. “Everybody was confident we could run the ball, but now we're just trying to get everybody on the same page.”
A year ago, the Steelers' pass-run split was 108-79 after three games. So Haley's offense, while dissimilar in style to that of former coordinator Bruce Arians, is substantively similar.
“It's a goal of every team to be balanced,” offensive tackle Max Starks said. “There's a lot more passing going on because you have receivers who can cover more yards in a small amount of time, but you still must rush the ball 25 to 30 times a game. We don't want to get too far away from the run.
“You can't lean heavily on one versus the other and plan to be successful continuously.”
On the ground
So far, only Washington and San Francisco have fewer passes than rushes. The Redskins have a 138-124 run-pass split while the 49ers are 123-114.
Haley doesn't put much stock into a balanced offense. He insisted that time of possession is more relevant for the Steelers' offense to be effective.
“To me offensively, you've got to convert third downs, score in the red zone and possess the ball,” Haley said. “We've possessed the ball better than anybody in the league, but it didn't always translate into wins.
“If you're winning the time of possession and executing in other areas, you should have a good chance at winning because you're keeping your defense off the field. I don't care if we throw it 50 or run it 10, if we have the ball for 35 minutes, it's the same difference. If you're throwing it 50 times and have it 20 minutes — unless you're scoring 50 points — it's going to be a little tougher.”
Still, Haley would rather get more out of his run game. Only the Raiders (71 rushes) have run fewer times than the Steelers. Tennessee and Indianapolis have matched the Steelers with 74. Together, the four teams have a combined 4-11 record.
In contrast, unbeaten Houston has a league-leading 148 carries. Washington (2-2) is second with 138, followed by 2-2 New England (137).
Kansas City and Miami, both 1-3, have defied the seemingly obsolete axiom that an accomplished run game is the prerequisite for winning. The Chiefs are the top-ranked rushing team, and Miami is fourth in rushing attempts.
Too much passing?
Statistics reveal teams that pass far more than they run are more likely to lose. The four teams — New Orleans, Cleveland, Oakland and Detroit — with the highest pass-run ratio are a combined 2-14.
“You have to have an efficient enough running game to be successful in this league,” quarterback Charlie Batch said. “But that (run-pass ratio) curve has obviously changed a little.”
Starks acknowledged the Steelers have evolved over the past several seasons.
“In my first couple of years here, there was an effort to expose Ben to the playbook gradually,” Starks said. “It's been a maturation process. So we were a heavy-run team my first three years in the league.
“Now it's about what's the best available play because of Ben's versatility. We can have the run as a complement to the passing game.”
Still, the expectations are that the run game will improve with Mendenhall shouldering the load.
“As long as we're getting better and not worse, I feel pretty confident,” said Mendenhall, who in 2011 rushed for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. “I think it's natural to have higher expectations because we have been struggling.”
As much as Mendenhall would like to jump-start the run game, the Steelers' success still may hinge on Roethlisberger's arm — a familiar scenario for most teams in the NFL.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.