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Steelers hope new blocking scheme kick-starts running game

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 10:42 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (53) fends off Nik Embernate during organized team activities Thursday, May 23, 2013, at the UPMC complex.

Three spring practices were more than enough to make a believer out of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey.

Pouncey is such a believer that he wouldn't mind if the Steelers threw out their old blocking schemes — power and inside zone — for what new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. has been installing over the first week of organized team activities: the outside zone, one-cut blocking style. Denver was successful with the system under Alex Gibbs two decades ago, and it has helped Houston's Arian Foster become one of the NFL's best running backs.

“I don't know if Maurkice was joking or not when he said that,” guard Ramon Foster said. “I think he was, but, still, that's how much we are liking this. It's a great new dynamic for us.”

The Steelers plan to use the outside zone scheme to supplement their power style in order to take advantage of their all-of-a-sudden big, nimble and young offensive line. The hope is to kick start a running game that had its worst output in a decade last year.

Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers last year with 623 yards, the lowest total for their leading rusher since Merrill Hoge rushed for 810 in 1991. Their 3.7 yards per carry as a team were fourth-worst in the NFL and their lowest in five years.

“I like it. I like it a lot,” tackle Marcus Gilbert said of the new wrinkle. “It is going to take time for the whole line to get it but ... coach said it has been looking good so far.”

The Steelers shuffled personnel during the offseason in order to better fit the scheme. They moved on from their big, lumbering linemen like Max Starks and Willie Colon. They added a solid blocking tight end in Matt Spaeth, and they hired Bicknell, who had success with the scheme last year in Kansas City with Jamaal Charles (1,500 yards).

“We are going to be dedicated to the zone,” running back Isaac Redman said. “We are still going to be a power team, but we are going to have this zone scheme in so we can keep the defense on its heels and keep them running.”

One place it will help immediately is keeping the opposition honest. Teams would crowd the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the power run game and bogged down the Steelers' backs. It also will prevent the offensive line from getting worn down late in games.

“It is going to help our offensive line a lot because guys are going to be on the move where they can take their guy and keep him moving, and we can cut back off of it,” Redman said. “In the past we were just pounding and pounding, and they were getting tired. That's not going to happen this year because we are going to mix it up.”

But the big question is: Do the Steelers have the running backs to make the scheme work? Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Le'Veon Bell are more power runners than one-cut, take-it-to-the-house guys who are associated with the scheme.

“It is not like we are trying to run the sweep to the outside every play,” Redman said. “Outside zone, you are taking a certain landmark and picking a lane that you see fit.”

Dwyer put it differently.

“It is using the God-given talent you have by just reacting,” he said. “Honestly, I think it fits all of us. People just see us running backs do one thing, but all of us are capable of doing everything, including running the outside zone.”

Dwyer paused then added: “And there are a lot of cutback lanes and big-play capabilities.”

That's something the Steelers' running game hasn't had in some time.

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