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Steelers' zone-blocking scheme takes backseat

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' offensive line run blocks against the Bengals on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

The outside zone-blocking scheme was the answer to all of the Steelers' running problems … in April.

Fast forward a few months and the scheme that was all the rave during the spring and summer has yet to make an appearance, and nobody quite knows why.

“That's probably a better question for (offensive coordinator) Todd (Haley) because he is the one calling the plays,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Offensive linemen Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert also can't figure out why they have used the outside zone scheme only twice in 31 rushing attempts — one of which resulted in center Maurkice Pouncey being lost for the year with a knee injury — despite it being a point of emphasis through training camp.

“I really have no answer for that,” Foster said.

Neither did Gilbert.

“When we were running it, we were getting good yards (in the preseason), so I don't know,” Gilbert said.

Those rushing yards have been hard to come by in the regular season.

The installation of the scheme by new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was supposed to take care of the inept running game. Ridding themselves of immobile offensive linemen and drafting a capable outside zone runner, second-rounder Le'Veon Bell, was supposed to prevent teams from packing it in on the Steelers' A-gap power scheme and open up the running game.

Instead, it has been much of the same through two weeks: 31 yards against the Titans and 44 against the Bengals. The 75 yards is the fewest rushing yards to start the season in the 81-year history of the Steelers.

“Right now, any running would help us,” Roethlisberger said.

And the answer just might be with the zone-blocking scheme.

The Steelers continue to practice it, and it has been a part of the game plan every week, but circumstances have pushed them away from it so far.

Pouncey's injury eight plays into the opener caused the Steelers to be more conservative with new center Kelvin Beachum, and a specific game plan of using a three-wide receiver set coupled with not having many offensive opportunities curbed the scheme against the Bengals.

Running back Isaac Redman sees another reason why they haven't turned to it yet.

“It really hasn't been working,” Redman said. “When we ran it a couple times, it just really didn't produce like we thought it would and we went away from it. You have to keep on doing it and keep working at it. You can't just throw something in and expect to be good at it.”

Redman said he never got the feeling that outside zone was going to be a big part of the playbook.

“It was just going to be a play, it wasn't going to be a main run for us,” Redman said. “It was going to be thrown in here and there.”

The Steelers could throw it into the game plan Sunday against the Bears, especially since new center Fernando Velasco has been around for a couple of weeks.

Velasco played for the Titans for five years and was the centerpiece of the scheme with running back Chris Johnson before coming to the Steelers.

Velasco was coaching the offensive line about the scheme during part of Wednesday's practice.

“It is just about getting reps,” Velasco said. “I think the guys are getting more comfortable with it. It is just about getting more reps on the board.”

At this point, a rep or two during a game would be a welcome sight.

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib

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