By BOB LABRIOLA
There are certain things Steelers fans have come to expect from their favorite football team, and it goes beyond mere results. Yes, they expect the Steelers to win, but they also have an expectation of the style of play that contributes to the victory.
On offense, the expectation is for a potent running attack, and since the Steelers managed only 36 yards on 23 attempts against the Titans – even though it was part of a 13-10 win in overtime – there has been some consternation among the team's fan base and some criticism from the national media, with the most pointed coming from Jerome Bettis on Si.com.
And so questions about the Steelers running attack naturally were posed to Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
"We have to get better in that area as a football team for one reason and one reason only – that increases our chances of winning," said Tomlin. "That's what we are about – putting ourselves in a position to win. We acknowledge that if we continue along those lines from a run-game standpoint, that doesn't help us in that regard. That is why we are focusing on it."
The intensified focus on the running attack likely started on Monday when the team returned from a weekend off as a result of their win over the Titans last Thursday in the NFL opener. It included a visit to the offensive linemen from Willie Parker, and something of a promise.
"It starts with me," said Parker. "Some people say it starts up front; I say it starts with me and making plays. I am a playmaker, that's what I'm here for and I just have to make some plays."
Bettis, who mentored Parker during a time when he developed from an undrafted rookie from North Carolina into a 1,000-yard rusher, called the Steelers "a mediocre running team on their best day," before adding, "I don't think they've reached a panic situation quite yet because the Titans don't allow anyone to run the football on them. But there are serious problems."
According to Bettis, the root of the problem lies with the offensive line.
"The bigger problem, though, is the offensive line," wrote Bettis. "They have no continuity. On top of not being able to protect Ben Roethlisberger, they're letting running backs get hit before they reach the line of scrimmage. There's not a lot any back can do in that situation."
Actually, the offensive front did a fine job of protecting Roethlisberger during a game against a Titans team that in 2008 finished third in the NFL in defense and complemented that with 31 takeaways.
Roethlisberger attempted 43 passes and was sacked four times, but he had a lot of time to find Santonio Holmes for a 34-yard touchdown and he also had five seconds to find Mike Wallace for the 22-yard completion that set up Jeff Reed's deciding field goal in overtime. From the time the Titans took a 10-7 lead until Reed's field goal, Roethlisberger attempted 18 passes and on most of those had sufficient time to do what needed to get done.
"I thought it was solid," said Tomlin about the pass protection. "We got hit a couple of times in some blitz-game things and some no-huddle things. All-in-all, from a matchup standpoint, I thought they did a nice job up front."
But the running attack was ineffective, and Tomlin said part of that can be traced to a league-wide trend at this time of the year.
"I believe particularly, in September football, people make a commitment to stopping the run," said Tomlin. "It's easier to make that commitment in September when everybody feels good and you have all the horses in the stable. I think over the course of the long haul, you see who's good at it week in and week out. It's usually tough sledding (running the ball) early in the football season, and that's been my experience. That was my intent when I was a defensive play-caller. In order to be a good defense, it starts there, making people somewhat one-dimensional, making people struggle if they're running the football."
Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team in pro football, and their edge remains substantial even one season after they finished 23rd in the league. For that reason, the expectations for that aspect of their game have grown.
But Tomlin has refused to be drawn into any controversy over a particular style of play. Rather, he constantly preaches that doing whatever is necessary to win a particular game should be the only focus.
"We have to play to our strengths within matchups," said Tomlin. "We're willing and able to do that, and that may mean throwing the football around some. Hopefully, that also means we're capable of running it. But at the end of the day, the 'W' is what we seek."