LATROBE – The Pittsburgh Steelers have run the ball 44 percent of the time or less only four times in franchise history:
* After they did it in 1991, they fired Chuck Noll.
* After they did it in 2003, they changed offensive coordinators.
* After they did it in 2009, they publically demanded an improved running game.
* And after the same coordinator did it again last year, he was fired.
New coordinator Todd Haley seems to get it. The run-pass ratio the first two days of full-contact practices was, oh, 65-35.
Regardless of the specific number, a point is being made.
“It’s an attitude,” said running backs coach Kirby Wilson. “Running the football in the National Football League is hard and it takes a determined effort by everybody, all the people up front, the wideouts, tight ends, the backs. It’s a collective mindset that we all have got to be physical and get the job done.”
The Steelers this year seem to be using the camp blueprint from 2001, when rookie Kendrell Bell blew up Jerome Bettis to highlight Bill Cowher’s return to a physical offense. That year the defense became physical along with its offensive counterparts.
“It all starts with the mindset,” Wilson said. “I think our players are determined this year to be a lot more physical and a lot more in attack mode, and I think it shows.”
Yet, the toughest of the critics remains unconvinced.
“I don’t know. We’re just in training camp,” said safety Troy Polamalu. “We’ll see how things are going when preseason starts and when teams start game-planning.
“But I do think our offense is awesome right now.”
Polamalu is one of several defensive players who’ve questioned the Steelers’ offensive direction over the last few years.
“I wouldn’t say that I had problems with the offense,” Polamalu corrected. “I’ve had problems in the way that our team jelled together as a whole.”
Up until about 2008, Polamalu appreciated the way the Steelers’ offense gave the frenetically paced defense a chance to rest with its controlled pace. But that began to change under coordinator Bruce Arians, as the game as a whole seemed to change.
“Everything is such a trend,” Polamalu said. “This bold passing offense, spreading the field, the trend has caught on with a lot of teams. People don’t think you can have success with ground-and-pound and good defense. But the top two teams in college football last year were just that, and you can’t get any more trendy than the Oregon-style offense in college football. But everybody wants that New England-style offense, that Indianapolis-style offense.
“Everything just has to mesh together. I believe in the tradition that’s been passed down within our culture here as a Steeler and that’s always been play good defense, control the ball – passing or running. I just think that we’ve got to mesh together better than we have in the past.”
Polamalu said the best offense he ever defended was the 2004 New England Patriots.
“They were really balanced,” he said. “They played against the defense’s weakness every week.”
The 2004 Patriots ran the ball 51 percent of the time thanks to the arrival of Corey Dillon and his 1,635 yards. Otherwise, the Patriots haven’t run the ball more than 47 percent of the time in Bill Belichick’s 12 years. And they haven’t won a Super Bowl since that 2004 season.
In 6-foot, 230-pound Isaac Redman, the Steelers have a back who compares favorably to the 6-1, 225-pound Dillon. While Dillon averaged 4.3 yards per carry during his 10-year career, Redman has averaged 4.8 per carry in 37 regular-season and postseason games.
“He’s one of the smartest halfbacks I’ve ever worked with,” said Wilson. “He’s very instinctual and he’s got very good football intelligence and I trust him in all aspects, whether it be first down or third down.”
“Absolutely,” Wilson said. “There’s your third down back.”
The Steelers have powerful big backs behind Redman in Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay. And young Baron Batch has pleased both Wilson and coach Mike Tomlin with the way he’s run after missing his rookie season with a knee injury. Chris Rainey’s speed will be utilized in spots. Even Rashard Mendenhall believes he can return by the start of the season.
And the group will be running behind a line that’s bigger than its listed weights, with players such as Willie Colon, Ramon Foster, Max Starks and Trai Essex in their athletic primes.
Of course, there are also the young blue-chippers: Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Mike Adams.
“Massive. MASSIVE men,” Wilson said with emphasis. “And they’re experienced. They’re experienced tough guys who like to fight, football-wise. But what I think is impressive about that whole group: They don’t care. They just want to smash people. They’re big, tough guys and they’re loving this new scheme, so to speak. They get a chance to double-team, pull, trap. It’s a beautiful thing to them. So right now they’re leading the charge. They’re doing a good job.”
Will the plan continue through camp? Will the offense make a believer out of Polamalu and his like-minded defensive veterans?
“Yeah, no doubt about it,” Wilson said. “That’s our bread and butter. We’re going to continue to be physical. We’re going to continue to run downhill runs, off-tackle runs, and mix in our screens and draws. But we want to be physical and it all begins with our offensive line, which we in our room are really, really high on. We’re impressed with what we see. We’re impressed with those players and how they have really gravitated to the new attitude toward the run game, and so they’ve got the lead. And we’re following and trying to keep pace.”