Miller, Bell not ready to rejoin banged-up Steelers
Mike Tomlin's message is clear: The Steelers aren't abandoning the run even if it appears the one consistent element in their offense for the last 43 years is abandoning them.
They have a new starting center — and might have another one soon — a backfield without a true starting running back and their two best run blockers, Maurkice Pouncey and Heath Miller, are injured.
They haven't had a running back gain more than 56 yards in their last nine games, and they've had only one 100-yard game as a team over that span. Their 32 yards rushing Sunday against the Titans were the fewest they've had in Tomlin's 97 games as a coach.
But give up on the run, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger acknowledged they did late in the Titans' game?
That's not an option to Tomlin, nor is going to more of a spread-type offense that would allow Roethlisberger to use the short pass as a run game replacement.
“I think a consistent running game is really important not only to be good offensively but to strike a balance,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “We haven't been able to do that to this point. Obviously, we are working hard to do so.”
What's certain is this: Once the Steelers stopped running the ball well at midseason a year ago, they stopped winning.
Jonathan Dwyer had a pair of 100-yard games, and Isaac Redman ran off 147 yards against the Giants on Nov. 4, the third game of a four-game winning streak. Since then, the run has virtually vanished and so have the wins — the Steelers averaged only 79 yards rushing while dropping six of eight.
The 32 yards against Tennessee were the fourth fewest they've had in 20 years.
This inability to run is uncommon for the Steelers, who have outrushed every other team by nearly three miles — or 5,270 yards — since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
They averaged 11-plus wins and had nine winning records during their top 10 rushing seasons since 1970.
But the running game's ineptitude Sunday forced offensive coordinator Todd Haley to toss out his game plan in the fourth quarter.
“You always hate to abandon what you practiced all week, but at some point, you've got to say, ‘Hey, let's make some changes and we did there late,' ” Roethlisberger said on his 93.7 FM show Tuesday.
For now, Isaac Redman (9 yards on eight carries) remains the starting running back; Le'Veon Bell (mid-foot sprain) appears likely to sit out again Monday in Cincinnati. Tomlin did not update Bell's status.
Felix Jones was the Steelers' best running back after joining them for the final two preseason games, but he didn't get a carry Sunday in part because of his lack of knowledge about the offense.
“He just needs to continue to learn,” Tomlin said.
What the Steelers must learn to do is run the ball effectively without Pouncey, their best offensive lineman. Kelvin Beachum is listed as the starting center, but that's mostly because the newly acquired Fernando Velasco doesn't yet know the offense.
At least until tight end Heath Miller returns — and that isn't likely to be Monday — the Steelers prefer to use Beachum as an oversized, blocking tight end.
It's much harder to get the passing game up and going when a defense doesn't consider the running game to be a threat, Roethlisberger said.
“I'm not a running guru. I can't sit here and say why we didn't run the ball well,” Roethlisberger said. “We just didn't get it done, whether it was blocking, whether it was running. When you can't run the ball, it's hard to run play-action passes ... it makes it tough on the linemen to protect because they're bringing extra guys.”
It makes it tough to win.