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Arians: Quality, not quantity

| Thursday, July 22, 2010

For the critics who believe offensive coordinator Bruce Arians needs to call more running plays, that he needs to get back to the type of blue-collar Steelers football that provided the organization so much success over the years, he has a revelation.

"We need to run the ball better," Arians said, "not necessarily more."

That's what Arians took away from meetings with the organization's higher-ups, including team president Art Rooney II and coach Mike Tomlin, after last year's 9-7 team missed the playoffs. The veteran offensive coordinator couldn't agree more with the theory.

So as the Steelers await next week's training camp at St. Vincent College, Arians is dedicated to running the ball better situationally and not necessarily more frequently, even if he will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least a quarter of the season.

"It is the quality of the runs more than the quantity that I am worried about," Arians said.

The Steelers ran only 42 percent of the time in 2009, but still had their most successful offensive season in team history with a 4,000-yard passer (Roethlisberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall).

Despite the lack of rushing attempts, the Steelers' 112 yards per game were nearly seven more than they accumulated during their 2008 Super Bowl season.

The Steelers were one of the worst short-yardage running teams in the NFL last year. Here is how the 2009 runners fared on attempts third-and-3 yards or less:
Player Attempts-Conversion %
Rashard Mendenhall 6 of 12 50
Mewelde Moore 3 of 5 60
Willie Parker 1 of 3 33
Ben Roethlisberger 3 of 3 100
Dennis Dixon 2 of 2 100
Total 15 of 25 60

Where the Steelers noticeably lacked with their running game was in short-yardage situations; they ranked 25th in the league in converting third-and-shorts, categorized as 3 yards or fewer.

The Steelers converted only 60 percent of their third-and-short rushing attempts (15 of 25). Miami led the NFL at 82 percent.

"We need to do it better especially in those situations," Arians said. "We can't put our defense back on the field after leaving a third-and-two out there. You have to make that first down. The ability to take it at the end of games and continue to make first downs hasn't been there for a while. That forces us to do other things."

That only other thing is to throw the ball, and Arians isn't shy about having his quarterback do that.

In six seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator -- three with Cleveland and three with the Steelers -- Arians has called more running plays than passing plays once.

In short-yardage situations last season, Arians called three more passing plays (28) than runs, and he did not call a single run play on a third-and-3 situation the entire season.

"We are going to play football," Arians said. "It is all about scoring points. If you have a lead in the fourth quarter, you are going to run the ball a whole lot more than you are going to throw it. We would love at the end of the season be straight up 50-50."

Roethlisberger, who converted 16 of 28 third-down passes into first downs in short-yardage situations last year, agrees that the Steelers need to run the ball better, even if it means a dip in his statistics.

"We have capable guys," he said in a TV interview in June. "You have to be able to run the ball effectively, and I think that was the key that Bruce and Mr. Rooney and Coach Tomlin tried to get across this offseason and at the end of the year."

The Steelers believe balance will be the key to their success without Roethlisberger in the lineup early in the 2010 season.

"If we need to run to win or pass to win, we will be able to do that," said Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns in only 12 starts last year. "We are confident in our offense that we will be able to do whatever we need to do to win."

The organization and coaches believe the fix to their flawed running game is to tackle the team's short-yardage woes.

The numbers show the Steelers were almost average in that category. One more conversion would've moved them to 15th in the NFL. However, those numbers are skewed because the Steelers were 5 for 5 on quarterback sneaks. Remove those attempts, and the running game's success rate dips to 50 percent.

Mendenhall's success rate on third-and-short was 50 percent. By comparison, Indianapolis' Joseph Addai converted nearly 80 percent of his attempts.

"You have to look at the guys you have back there," Arians said. "Some guys have to learn that they aren't running for a touchdown. We need a yard. Rashard did a good job on goal line, but not as good a job on short yardage. That will again be an emphasis in training camp."

Tomlin welcomes competition for the short-yardage job, and candidates include Mendenhall, last year's training camp star, Isaac Redman, and Georgia Tech rookie sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer.

"We are looking for people to distinguish themselves in situational football," Tomlin said. "It is interesting; we've got some young guys in the backfield who might have a degree of pedigree that is geared toward those things."

Mendenhall, 23, figures to be the workhorse in the backfield with the departure of Willie Parker to the Washington Redskins. He wants to be the featured back, playing on third downs and, of course, short-yardage situations.

"Every day I work to try to put myself in a position to be able to carry out whatever they ask me to do," Mendenhall said. "That is what I am preparing myself for. I feel a lot more comfortable out there. I have gone through it all before, so I know what to expect."

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