Steelers' ground game running on empty
CLEVELAND — For much of this season, the Steelers' running backs have pleaded for patience. They insisted their uninspiring numbers weren't reflective of their talents.
But six fumbles — including five lost — were indicative of how poorly the running back corps performed in a potentially playoff-crippling 20-14 defeat at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday.
The Steelers started with Rashard Mendenhall, who was stripped of the ball on his second carry. It opened a floodgate of miscues that forced a visibly heated Mike Tomlin to reach to the end of his bench for fourth-stringer Chris Rainey.
By the time the Browns' Dawg Pound howled for the last time, the Steelers' bewildered ground game was searching for answers with AFC North frontrunner Baltimore on deck. The Steelers' quartet — Mendenhall, Rainey, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer — averaged a meager 2.5 yards on 20 attempts against the league's 24th-ranked rush defense. Rainey's 1-yard TD run at the end of the first half provided one of few offensive highlights.
“It was ugly,” said Mendenhall, who lost the ball on half of his four carries.
That, of course, is an understatement considering all four running backs fumbled against a division foe the Steelers had lost to only once in 17 previous meetings.
“I've never been involved in a game in which every runner who touched the ball fumbled it,” said Redman, who in the past two games has totaled three carries for 12 yards. “We just have to be honest and fix this.”
Before being haunted by eight turnovers, including three second-half interceptions by Charlie Batch, the Steelers appeared to have remedied many of their ills in the backfield after churning out three 100-yard games during a four-game win streak. All of their running backs were relatively healthy and off the inactive list for only the second time this season.
“You would never think we would have that many turnovers,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “From the defensive side, we had to hold them to three instead of seven points. It would have been a big difference if we had done that.
“We can't control what the offense does. If we had given up 800 yards, I would have taken it if we had won.”
However, for all of the runners' problems, center Maurkice Pouncey credited Cleveland's defense for winning the trench war. The Browns manhandled a shorthanded offensive line that lost guard Willie Colon in the pregame with a knee injury and right tackle Mike Adams to an ankle injury.
Dwyer led the Steelers with 19 yards rushing on nine carries.
“They did a good job of defeating blocks,” Pouncey said. “As an offense, when one man messes up, we all mess up. We can't go around pointing fingers at anybody.”
The Steelers' backs, though, shouldered the blame.
“Everything went bad,” said Rainey, who injured his hip when he fumbled late in the fourth quarter. “We just couldn't get it done. This is the kind of game that you have only once or twice in your life.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.