Steelers sticking with the hot hand
By F. Dale Lolley
PITTSBURGH – With the possibility of having more than one lead runner to hand the ball off to in Monday night’s game at Heinz Field against the Kansas City Chiefs, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he’s going to stick with the “hot hand.”
The question begs to be asked, is the hot hand Jonathan Dwyer, who had backto- back 100-yard games before sitting out last week’s win against the Giants; or Isaac Redman, who rushed for a career-high 147 yards in the win at New York?
The answer might be none of the above.
The hot hand for the Steelers (5-3) right now might just be the offensive line, which has paved the way for three consecutive individual 100yard rushing games.
“It’s awesome to watch those guys,” said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. “They’ve been wanting to run the ball for a long time. They’re doing a great job feeding off each other, getting down and dirty, moving piles. They get hyped up on that. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that. It opens everything up. It opens the passing game up, play-action, it helps everything.”It has certainly been a big change from the first portion of the season. After averaging just 65 yards rushing in their first three games, the Steelers have gained 155 yards per game on the ground in their last three.
First-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley has helped accomplish this by trimming the playbook.
“Instead of having – this is just a number – 50 runs, we said let’s just do 25 that we know well and do them well,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “We did the same thing in the pass game with formations and motions and everything else.”
Instead of having to focus so much on what their assignments are on each particular play, the Steelers’ offensive linemen have been able to concentrate on dominating the man in front of them.
The results have been easy to see.
With less to think about, the linemen – particularly guard Willie Colon – have been able to let their natural aggressiveness show.
In fact, the turning point might have come in the second quarter of a 24-17 win at Cincinnati. Colon not only blocked Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, he buried him about 10 yards downfield, starting a fight. Since then, the Steelers have not only won at the line of scrimmage, they have dominated it.
“It turned before that, but that made it even more of a (statement) – keep it going,” said Dwyer. “Everybody got fired up, not just the guys on the field, but on the sidelines and the defense. It just sent a message, ‘That’s how we play.’” Because of that improved offensive line play, it might not matter who the Steelers play at running back moving forward, Dwyer, Redman or Rashard Mendenhall, who is working his way back into the lineup after sitting out the past three games with a sore Achilles’ tendon.
“ Fortunately, we have three guys who are capable of carrying the load,” said Redman. “Dwyer stepped up for two weeks. Then, I stepped up last week. It’s just scary to see what we can do when all three of us are able to carry the ball at the same time.”
It all starts up front.
Haley’s use of a true fullback – something shunned by former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians – has helped.
First-year fullback Will Johnson has gotten better each week and has become a big part of the team’s success in the running game.
“He’s basically changed our running game,” said Dwyer. “ He’s made it a better running game. He’s made a difference. He’s physical, very athletic for a fullback. He’s one of the most athletic fullbacks I’ve ever seen. It shows in his play.”
Johnson’s physical ability is a perfect complement to an aggressive offensive line. “Each week they’re getting better,” Redman said. “(Maurkice) Pouncey and Willie Colon, they’re going right at guys, and you can see them tussling after plays. By the end of the game, we’re pounding people out, they’re tired of getting hit and tired of tackling our running backs.”
Odds and end zones:
Mendenhall was a limited participant in practice Thursday, but Dwyer (quad) practiced fully for the second consecutive day. Running back/return man Chris Rainey (ribs) also was a full participant Thursday. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) was limited, and wide receiver Antonio Brown (ankle), safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) did not practice.