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Steelers' rushing woes drop to historic levels

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 11:16 p.m.
Steelers running back Johnathan Dywer runs against the Browns at Heinz Field Dec. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

Team president Art Rooney created a stir when a playoffs-free season prompted him to mandate the Steelers run the ball more consistently and efficiently.

That was nearly three years ago, and it still hasn't happened.

Since Rooney's mandate, the Steelers' rushing yardage bumped to 1,924 yards in 2010 (from 1,793 yards in '09) but has declined to 1,903 in '11 to 1,537 in '12, or only 49 yards fewer than they had while going 6-10 in 2003 — pass-heavy Tommy Maddox's one full season at quarterback.

Blame it on injuries, personnel turnover or the inability to identify and stay with a feature running back. Whatever the reason, the Steelers' running game reached historically low proportions during a 2012 season in which the productivity was confined mostly to a three-game midseason stretch.

Even as the Steelers tried Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall as their lead runner, and they handed carries to Chris Rainey and Baron Batch, those 1,537 yards were their second fewest in a full season since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.

It also was their fifth-worst rushing season in the past 50 years and their worst in any nonlosing season during that time. Dwyer's 623 yards also represented the second-lowest total by a team leader to Merril Hoge's 610 yards in 1991.

Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, for comparison's sake, had far more yards in December (861) than Dwyer did all season.

Was it the lack of an identifiable feature runner, especially when former 1,000-yard runner Mendenhall was sidelined for the first month after knee surgery?

“I'm sure that would be a fair assessment,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “But there are also several reasons why that didn't occur, just general ineffectiveness being one of them.”

The Steelers seemed to have sorted out their running game when, during a three-game stretch from Oct. 21-Nov. 4, Dwyer ran off games of 122 yards against the Bengals and 107 against the Redskins and Redman ran for 147 yards against the Giants. Coincidentally, a much-injured offensive line settled down as Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Mike Adams started and blocked effectively.

But Colon and Adams later got hurt, Foster was forced to switch sides, David DeCastro returned to start at right guard, Kelvin Beachum became the third right tackle and Doug Legursky filled in at multiple positions, and no running back had more than 56 yards in a game after that.

Dwyer carried 17 times in each of his 100-yard games, but he had that many carries only once more the rest of the season.

“I think I've proven myself this year to have the ability to compete for that job and compete for that role, and that's what I'm going to prepare myself for in the offseason,” Dwyer said.

Regardless, the running game bottomed out during the eight-turnover, five-fumble game Nov. 28 in Cleveland, where Tomlin seemed to lose confidence in all of his runners. From then on, no running back gained more than 52 yards.

Starks' recommendation is to identify a feature back and stay with him.

“You can't have as much uncertainty going into a week,” Starks said. “Be more definitive about who your starter is, who is that main guy, and then who are your auxiliary and situation guys. Early on we didn't have that — it was like by committee, trying to feel it out. I think going into next year (there should be) clear and defined roles after training camp.”

Longtime NFL general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst, said the Steelers must do one more thing going into next season.

“They've got to find a runner,” he said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com and @arobinson_Trib.

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