Todd Haley has heard plenty about needing to run the ball more since being hired as Steelers offensive coordinator six months ago.
While agreeing with the premise, Haley would rather focus on something more precise than simply needing to call more runs.
Haley is adamant the Steelers run the ball better in the most critical situations — when the opposition knows they will.
“That’s the name of the game offensively,” Haley said. “You need to be able to get the yards that you need on the ground when the defense knows you are running, wherever that falls in the game — if it is a critical short-yardage or if it is a four-minute situation.”
That’s what Haley hopes to see starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, when the Steelers open the preseason against Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Steelers weren’t able to run when they wanted last season, which led to an offense ranking in the bottom third in scoring.
It was partly because former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians fancied passing over running in third-down, short-yardage and four-minute situations. But it also was that the Steelers weren’t very good in those scenarios.
The Steelers faced third-and-2 or less 35 times last season. They ran 19 times (converting 68 percent) and passed 16 times (converting 50 percent).
When the situation was third-and-3, the Steelers threw all 19 times (converting 58 percent).
Tackle Max Starks blamed the struggles on the offensive line not getting the job done and Arians’ offensive philosophy.
“At the points they called certain plays, we might not exactly have been prepared for it, or we were expecting something else to be called, or we weren’t physically ready,” Starks said.
“To be honest, we weren’t doing enough before then to make the defense respect the run. If we are passing the entire game, then when four minutes hit and we have to run it, it’s not going to happen.”
The Steelers ran 29 percent of the time on first down last season, down nearly 12 percent from the year before, and ran 42 percent of the time overall (down 15 percent from 2007, Tomlin’s first season).
Haley doesn’t necessarily want to run more than the Steelers did last season but would like to be more balanced to go with being effective in critical run situations.
“We want to be able to run the ball when we have to throw it and throw it when we have to throw it,” Haley said. “That’s really a key in being a successful offense.”
Haley put an emphasis on physicality within the offensive line so the unit would be more prepared for situations like short yardage and the final four minutes of the game.
“Anytime the defense knows you are going to pound the ball and you are successful, that kind of takes away their heartbeat,” guard Willie Colon.
“That’s what we want to do better this year, and we will do better this year.”