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12-01-2006, 08:01 AM
Steelers perplexed by inconsistent running

By The Associated Press
Friday, December 1, 2006


Back in 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers promised that they would never go through another season like that one.

Three years later, these out-of-character Steelers are experiencing a very similar season, one in which they are frequently abandoning what has worked successfully for them for years and years.

In 2003, it was Tommy Maddox throwing the ball nearly 2 1/2 times every four downs in a passing-driven offense that resembled no other Steelers system of recent vintage, and the result was a 6-10 record.

This time, it's Ben Roethlisberger passing, passing, then passing some more with limited success, influenced not only by what defenses are doing but what his own offensive line isn't doing. Namely, giving the time-proven Steelers running game a chance to generate lengthy drives that establish early leads and keep the ball away from opposing offenses.

"We run the ball around here," tackle Marvel Smith said. "But when we get behind early, we get away from it."

The Steelers (4-7) are getting away from it quite often during what might be the most disappointing season in club history, one that seems to be long past salvaging as they prepare for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay (3-8).

At home, the Steelers have looked like, well, the Steelers, with Willie Parker, the NFL's No. 8 rusher, averaging 124 yards per game. The Steelers are 3-2 at home, but the running game hasn't been at fault.

On the road, where the Steelers are 1-5, it's been a much different story with Parker yet to gain even 90 yards in a game. He was limited to 22 yards on 10 carries in last weekend's 27-0 loss at Baltimore that all but ended any Steelers' playoff hopes, and the team total of 21 yards was the franchise's lowest since 1970.

There have been suggestions that the Steelers badly miss NFL No. 5 career rusher Jerome Bettis more than they would like to acknowledge, even if he was mostly a situational back in his final season a year ago.

Smith blames another reason: the Steelers' repeated inability to establish an offensive tempo early in a game, be it running or throwing. They did so in a 45-7 victory over Kansas City on Oct. 15, but otherwise have found themselves down by at least a touchdown in nine of their 11 games.

"We've been starting off slow, regardless of what play is called early in the game," Smith said. "We haven't been getting anything established, getting first downs to get drives going and getting a rhythm going. That plays a lot into it."

The Steelers have become a one-dimensional club so often, Roethlisberger has already been sacked 36 times. If the Steelers keep up this pace, they may match or surpass the club record of 51 sacks allowed in 1983, when the slow-moving Cliff Stoudt was their quarterback.

"At times, we're putting ourselves in bad situations where teams are able to tee off on us, do what they want, instead of us dictating," guard Alan Faneca said. "If we get behind or go into a passing situation, it becomes like one-on-one passing protection in practice ? and that's not an offensive-oriented drill."

The problem last week was that the Ravens sent more pass rushers than the Steelers could pick up, resulting in Roethlisberger being sacked a club record-tying nine times. In his 10 starts this season, Roethlisberger has thrown 79 more times than he did in his 12 starts last season.

"If you're down 17 points, 21 points, it's hard to stick to the run in this league," Faneca said.

To avoid that Sunday, the Steelers know they need to get Parker going early and often against a Bucs defense that allows an average of 122 yards rushing per game. In his last home game, Parker ran for 213 yards against New Orleans, five yards off Frenchy Fuqua's 1970 club record.

If nothing else, the contrasting numbers illustrate the inconsistency of these Steelers. One week they're threatening club records for their best rushing game ever; two weeks later, they're nearly establishing franchise lows.

"When you play from behind, you're in must-throw situations," Cowher said. "You look at the last couple of years, we've played a lot while ahead. When you're ahead, you have the ability to dictate a lot of things."

http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_482158.html