View Full Version : On The Steelers: Rushing rankings atypical this year

12-28-2011, 05:59 AM
On The Steelers: Rushing rankings atypical this year
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers long have talked about December football as if they owned it, which means running the ball well on offense and stopping it on defense, and as they prepare for January football their strengths have switched on both sides to the passing game.

Despite their 169 yards rushing Saturday against the St. Louis Rams -- the worst run defense in the league -- they rank 16th in the NFL on the run, ninth passing. They rank ninth stopping the run and No. 1 on pass defense. The rankings are based on yards.

The questions are twofold as they head to Cleveland to play the No. 30 run defense in the league before heading into the playoffs: Can they run the ball and stop it well enough to make a difference, or can their passing offense and defense carry them to another Super Bowl?

Rashard Mendenhall's 116 yards against the Rams was only his second 100-yard game of the season and their third overall, thanks to Jonathan Dwyer's 107 yards Oct. 9 against Tennessee. The fewest times they've had 100-yard rushers since they first made a playoff game under Chuck Noll in 1972 was two, most recently in the abominable 2003 season when they set a low-water mark with an average of only 93 yards rushing per game.

They average 116.1 today and coach Mike Tomlin likes how they've run it lately.

"I think that we've run the ball effectively over the second half of the season," Tomlin said. "I've been comfortable with what we've been able to do on the ground. Situationally, I think we could be better in some areas. I think the goal-line stand that the Cleveland Browns had against us a few weeks back is one that sticks out. But largely, in terms of raw numbers, I haven't been displeased with our run game."

In the past six games, the Steelers have averaged 124.8 yards per game. That string came after three in a row below 100.

Mendenhall, who once seemed destined not to sniff 1,000 yards, needs 110 in Cleveland to get there for the third consecutive season.

Also, their average per rush has climbed to 4.4, which ranks 11th in the NFL, and Mendenhall's average has increased to 4.0.

After their big game against the Rams, backup Isaac Redman said: "We kind of expect this type of game every week. We really try to come out and play our hearts out."

The Steelers always expect to stop the run on defense; indeed, it is always their stated No. 1 priority no matter who lines up at quarterback against them. But they've slipped in that regard this season.

Game: Steelers vs. Browns.
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland.
TV, Radio: KDKA, WDVE-FM (102.5).

They led the league last season, allowing only 62.8 yards per game. This year, opponents have averaged 101.7 yards per game.

Steven Jackson of St. Louis became the third back to top 100 against them this season. Entering 2011, they had allowed just one in the previous 50 games. The next threat for 100 is Cleveland's Peyton Hillis, who gouged Baltimore's defense Sunday for 112 yards on 24 carries.

"He ran Larry Foote over a couple times, ran me over a couple times," linebacker James Farrior said of Jackson. "He's one of the best running backs in the league, so give him credit."

That the Steelers were able to shut out the Rams despite a 100-yard rusher against them was a feat in itself. They can thank another good performance by the NFL's top pass defense, which has changed the way the Steelers look at December and January football on both sides of the ball.
Big Ben's status

Tomlin is "hopeful" that Ben Roethlisberger will return to play Sunday in Cleveland but he's not quite certain whether his quarterback will return to practice today.

That's not the case for Maurkice Pouncey, who is expected to practice today and play in Cleveland after missing two games with a high ankle sprain.

"LaMarr Woodley, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Emmanuel Sanders all have shots at playing," Tomlin said. "Hopefully, we will get those guys back. It is our intention right now that if those guys are healthy enough to practice and prepare, then we will play them.

It's possible Roethlisberger could play and not finish the game, depending on how his left high-ankle sprain responds and how the game against the Browns is turning out. Woodley has missed five of the past seven games with a severe hamstring injury, and in the two others, he left in the first quarter Dec. 4 against Cincinnati and left in the third quarter Dec. 19 at San Francisco.

Sanders, who began the season as the No. 3 receiver behind Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, missed the past three games with a foot injury after missing two others following knee surgery early in November.

Tomlin said Mewelde Moore (knee) and Doug Legursky (shoulder) likely are not going to play against the Browns.
More shuffling

With Legursky out, Chris Kemoeatu could return to his starting job at left guard that he lost Nov. 27. Trai Essex started the past two games at guard, but had to move to center when Legursky left after the second offensive play of the game against the Rams.

The staff might prefer he practice at guard and center this week just in case, and plug Kemoeatu back in to start.

"He has to make himself available at both the center and guard positions, like he has for us in recent weeks," Tomlin said of Essex. "It's going to be required that he prepare as a guard but he will get some center work along with Maurkice Pouncey."

Pro Bowlers

Troy Polamalu, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Wallace are chosen as starters for the 2012 Pro Bowl Jan. 29 in Honolulu. Two other Steelers make the AFC team as backups. Story, Page D-3.

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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