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Old 11-01-2010, 11:02 PM   #1
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Default Harris: Steelers still lack offensive identity

Harris: Steelers still lack offensive identity
By John Harris
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Are the Steelers a passing team or a running team? We don't know yet, since the final numbers haven't been tabulated. What we do know is the Steelers are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's team.

Since Roethlisberger's return three weeks ago, the Steelers are passing more and running less. Their passing yards and average yards per completion are up. Their rushing yards and yards per carry are down. They're averaging fewer points per game.

The passer rating is up with Roethlisberger on the field, but running back Rashard Mendenhall's production is down.

It's a trade-off, to be sure. The transition from Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to Roethlisberger hasn't been seamless.

That's why there was so much confusion when the Steelers ran the ball three consecutive times facing first and goal from the 1 in the second quarter of Sunday night's 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Pass or run? With Roethlisberger in the lineup, the answer isn't always clear.

Why run, when Roethlisberger gives the Steelers the option to pass from anywhere on the field?

By the way, the three runs failed miserably and the Steelers were forced to settle for Jeff Reed's 19-yard field goal.

Why run, indeed?

"I'm not going to question play-calling," said veteran wide receiver Hines Ward, who has been targeted 3 1/2 times more a game since Roethlisberger's return. "Whatever play's called, we've got to execute. I don't even know how many times we ran the ball compared to passing.

"We ran the ball (on the goal line in the second quarter). When they call a running play, we're expected to execute the running play. We didn't do that."

Through the first four games of the season, Mendenhall ranked among the NFL's top rushers, averaging 102.8 yards, 22.3 carries and 4.6 yards a carry. In the past three games, Mendenhall averaged 64.0 yards, 19.0 carries and 3.4 yards a carry.

Are the Steelers becoming more of a passing team like last season, when they featured a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in franchise history?

"I don't know," Ward said. "We're players. We just play."

Mendenhall carried 15 times for 71 yards against New Orleans including a beautiful 38-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter but was stuffed twice at the goal line in the second quarter. He was asked the same question.

"Maybe a little bit, but it's hard to tell," Mendenhall said. "It's still early in the year and we're still trying to find our identity."

So now it's out in the open. The Steelers don't have an offensive identity.

A running team or a passing team? Who are the Steelers, really?

They want to run, but only enough to complement Roethlisberger.

Don't take my word for it. The numbers tell the story.

Roethlisberger averages 251.3 passing yards a game on 27.3 attempts for a 103.8 pass rating. He averages 8.2 yards a completion. In the four games that Roethlisberger didn't play, the Steelers averaged 151.1 passing yards on 20.3 attempts for a 76.2 passer rating. They averaged 6.2 yards a completion.

The Steelers are averaging 20.3 points with Roethlisberger. They averaged 21.5 points without him.

Mendenhall's production has been affected the most since Roethlisberger's return. He hasn't produced a 100-yard rushing effort after posting two in the first four weeks. He's rushed for nearly 40 fewer yards a game.

"I don't think we shied away from the run," said Ward, whose 27 receptions lead the team. "We still need Mendenhall to run the way he needs to run to get where we need to get."

The Steelers are faced with a strange Catch-22. They need to run the ball better to regain the trust of the coaching staff. The problem is, Mendenhall is getting fewer carries to show what he can do.

Left guard Chris Kemoeatu said the offense must earn the right to run the ball.

"I still think it's situation football. We have to block whatever play they give us. I thought we did pretty good running the ball, but we have to convert third downs to keep running the ball and didn't do a good job of that."

The Steelers converted 3 of 10 third downs against New Orleans.

"We just couldn't get into any rhythm," said Roethlisberger, who was 17 of 28 for 195 yards and an interception against New Orleans.

Is it any wonder the Steelers still don't have an offensive identity?

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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