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Steelers work to regain long-held identity as running team

| Saturday, May 31, 2014, 10:10 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount makes a catch during organized team activities practice Thursday, May 29, 2014, on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount takes a handoff during practice Thursday, May 29, 2014, on the South Side.

Year after year, the Steelers talked the talk with the best of them.

But for the fourth consecutive year, the promise of regaining their identity as a knock-you-in-the-mouth running team failed miserably.

Only five teams were worse running the ball than the Steelers during a second consecutive 8-8 season. Their 86.4 yards per game were the fewest in team history. The streak of not having a 100-yard rusher was pushed to 22 games.

“Embarrassing,” guard Ramon Foster said. “The guys understand that they have to be bullies now. We have to show it. It just can't be talk.”

The offseason showed that Mike Tomlin is sick of it, as well.

Tomlin hired Hall of Fame lineman and former Titans coach Mike Munchak and brought in 250-pound bruising running back LeGarrette Blount to complement Le'Veon Bell for the purpose of bringing back the power running game. For real this time.

“Being the Pittsburgh Steelers, we are known for running the ball,” Bell said. “Last year we weren't as good as we wanted to be. We want to get back to where we want to be.”

Might it all start with some Blount force trauma?

The Steelers have become more of a passive run team in recent years, whether it's because of personnel or game situations.

That was most notable in short-yardage situations last year where they ranked 21st in power ranking (percentage of runs on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), according to Football Outsiders. They were only successful on 60 percent of such plays.

Blount could take care of that.

“That was a guy I used to watch at Oregon, and I knew he was going to be a good player to come in and run downhill,” Bell said. “His running style is a little different than mine, but I can take a part of his game and put it into mine.”

Blount, who was signed to a two-year, $3.85 million free agent deal in March, uses his big frame to his advantage as 65 percent of his career yards have come after contact.

“That's my running style,” Blount said. “That's how I run the football, and I feel that Le'Veon is a big, tough running back, too. This is how this team is run with a physical run game, and that's what we are trying to get back to. Just me adding another dimension to it is a good thing. For me to come out here and add to the toughness is what I am looking forward to.”

Bell isn't afraid to mix things up as well, and even if there will be some nonviolent blocking schemes in the Steelers repertoire like the outside zone, they plan on having the power-run game as their identity.

“So we need to run the ball, we need to be great at running the ball, and we've got guys that want to be great at running the ball,” quaterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “So hopefully we can do it and do it successfully.”

It starts with limiting the negative plays — something the Steelers struggled with in the run game last year. More than 80 of their 394 rushing attempts resulted on tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, which was up more than 8 percent from Tomlin's rookie year when the Steelers finished third in rushing.

Some of that was because of the running backs. A lot was on the offensive line.

“The biggest thing for us is executing plays and not having negative plays,” center Maurkice Pouncey said.

The biggest thing may be the addition of Blount.

“I know they brought me in here to run the football,” Blount said. “I think we will be all right.”

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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