<strong>"We have the personnel, the running backs to do it. The offensive line, they're looking for a fight" – Issac Redman</strong>
Going into their 4th game of the season against Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers running game was a statistical mess.
Filling in for Rashard Mendenhall, backs Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman had combined for 142 yards rushing on 56 carries in three weeks of football, a 2.5 per carry average. The team had a record of 1-2.
Mendenhall returned after Pittsburgh's bye week, producing a much improved stat line of 14 totes for 81 yards, a 5.8 yards per carry mark against the Eagles. The Steelers appeared to have a real ground-game breakthrough in the second half of that contest, at one point calling run plays on 6 out of 7 plays on a scoring drive, followed by a game-winning FG drive which chewed up the final 6:33 of time.
All was not perfect, with left guard Willie Colon's four holding penalties keeping the offense to 16-points, but it was an improvement.
Then came a trip to Tennessee, another defeat, in which the run game regressed to 22 carries, 56 yards, a 2.5 per carry average. Mendenhall suffered another injury in the game. Redman did too, just when it appeared he was ready to have a breakout performance. Pass catches of 33 and 55 yards, mixed with five early 3rd quarter touches, had Redman's engine going.
The engine stalled for the night when Jason McCourty's helmet met Redman's ankle.
"It looked like it was on my knee, but it was actually my ankle," said Redman. "I got a high ankle sprain, and I was already battling an ankle sprain on my left ankle. Personally, I hadn't felt that good all season. I felt like I was getting back to my old self."
To make matters worse, the team's right tackle Marcus Gilbert suffered a knee injury, which would push rookie Mike Adams into the lineup.
But in the second quarter in Cincinnati, trailing by a score of 14-3 and when things appeared bleakest, everything changed.
Dwyer ripped off runs of 11, 5, 3, and 21-yards. Colon's finished one of the team's signature power runs with a ground tussle on top of Bengals' linebacker Vontaze Burfict. According to right guard Ramon Foster, it was a moment that could "potentially change the season."
"I felt like I was in debt to this team," Colon said after the game. "I had to do something. I was hungry and tired of losing on the road. If I've got to start a fight to get this team going, I've got no problem doing it"
The Steelers went on to win the game 24-17. Dwyer's 17 carries for 122 yards included another key late-game clock eating drive, as the team kept possession for the final 3:57 to preserve the victory. Rookie Chris Rainey got into the mix with a 12-yard TD burst.
And the following week against Washington, Dwyer backed up his 100-plus-yard performance with 107-yards on 17 carries. The offensive line was blowing open holes in the 27-12 win, including a 34-yard tote in the 1st quarter which was Pittsburgh's longest run of the year.
All of a sudden, the Steelers' ground game was back.
Redman said that in the two weeks that he's had to watch from the sideline, he's noticed a big change.
"You can just tell they've been playing with attitude," said Redman. "They're really taking pride in getting up and getting on their guys, and they're just putting up the extra work. You can just watch Willie Colon's demeanor on film, how he's just finishing every play. I don't know if he needed time to transition into the guard position or what, but he's been playing angry. And that kind of spread all the way down to the rest of the o-line. That's what we need, we need some angry offensive linemen out there willing to smash people. That's what everybody's been doing the last couple weeks. Guys have been playing angry."
It appears Redman will get that chance this week in New York against the Giants, as Issac returned for Wednesday practice. He admitted that he's not at 100% health, but with Dwyer now battling a thigh injury and Mendenhall still nursing a sore achilles, it might be Redman's turn at-bat.
"It's sore, but right now I'm at the point where I can play through it," Redman said of his ankle. "I've had high ankle sprains every year that I've played football, it's just something that you've got to deal with from the running back position. I'm ready. It's tough sitting on the sideline, watching those guys get at it the way they have. I just can't wait to get out there and run behind them."
Redman is eager to the point of even dreaming of turning the Pittsburgh Steelers back their ground game roots.
"I think we can," Redman answered when asked if Pittsburgh can be a dominant run team again. "We have the personnel, we have the running backs to do it. Dwyer's been playing at a high level since he's been given his chance. The offensive line, they're looking for a fight. They're coming in, they're straight smash-mouthing. I don't see why we can't be a straight smash-mouth team and play football at a high level. This o-line, they're huge. Starting with Max [Starks], then you've got the rookie [Adams] coming in. These guys are big guys, and we like to smash-mouth and go downhill because it's tough to deal with."
With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and a premiere group of pass-catchers, painting the Steelers as a new-found ground-and-pound team might be over-doing it a touch. However, that's not to say the run-game won't be a determining factor in the story of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's starting to be our identity," said Colon after the Washington win. "If we're able to run the ball efficiently the sky is the limit for this offense."
This week in particular, Starks stressed the importance of the run-game against the defending champions.
"They're a very athletic crew up front," said Starks, admitting he'll see edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul almost exclusively. "They do a lot of versatile things, but also teams have found ways at different points to run on them. Which I think kind of changes up that predictable passing situation. When teams can run and pass on them, it makes it tougher on them to figure out what to do, because you have to play truer. I don't think they're built to handle that run, play-action game as well as they have been in years past. Every week [the run game] is important but it's definitely paramount now."
And as for who the feature running back should be, if by chance Mendenhall, Dwyer, and Redman are all healthy and available?
"For us, really it's whoever wants to step up to the challenge," said Starks. "As long as we get consistency back there I think that's the biggest thing more-so than picking an individual runner. That makes it a lot easier on us. Guys have paved the way and done things to earn roles on this team, so it is a tough decision to have all guys healthy, but I think it's a good problem to have. Come game-day, whoever lines up there, as long as we have a primary and a secondary runner, third down guys and roles clearly defined, I think we'll be fine."