Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rebuild or Reload: Steelers' Run Game Is Key Factor, part 1

As the Pittsburgh Steelers wind their way through the offseason in preparation for 2013, the problems that face them beg the question as to whether they will be able to reload or whether they'll have to rebuild.

While at present it seems that the scales are unbalanced toward the latter, there is still a long offseason to go. As new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, jr. said last week, the "foundation" of a successful team and season definitely begins with the offensive line, and, more pointedly, players "athletic enough and be able to move."

Though it won't be a one-year transformation, with Bicknell saying that more athletic offensive linemen are needed, naturally such a running back who can exploit the various blocking schemes that will be seen going forward must be found. More pointedly, a true No. 1 running back.

Now bear in mind, we're not advocating selecting a running back in the first round. History dictates that a number one or first-round running back isn't a guarantee for success. Finding someone in the middle rounds is completely possible and feasible.

Case in point: of the top 10 rushers in the NFL in 2012, five - Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Chris Johnson - were 1st-round picks. Of the remaining five - Alfred Morris (173rd pick), Jamaal Charles (73rd), Steven Ridley (73rd) and Frank Gore (65th) - were not first rounders, with Arian Foster not being drafted at all.

So, although Steelers fans know full well that the team could also find someone after the draft (see: Willie Parker), they still won't likely take such a chance. The likeliness is that they will look to find a good running back in the middle-to-later rounds.

Who, then, fit the bill and would be available in the middle rounds?

Montee Ball (5'11", 215 ibs.) is a workhorse of a running back. He knows where the hole is and he attacks them (4.57/40). But he can also change direction quickly enough to be used in a zone-blocking offense. Further, he's as productive as he is aggressive. He lead the NCAA in rushing yards (1,923) and yards from scrimmage (2,229). - http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/players/1665003

At the risk of going to the well once too often, the University of Florida's Mike Gillislee (5'11", 207 lbs.) has very good speed (4.56/40) and wants to make a big play every time he touches the ball. Though he has the tendency to stutter step a bit, somewhat like the soon-to-be-departed Rashard Mendenhall, GIllislee's vision had the Steelers scouting him at the Senior Bowl. - http://tinyurl.com/6ue2afd

Others worth taking note of are Ray Graham (5'9", 192 lbs.) of the University of Pittsburgh and Joseph Randle (6'0", 200 lbs.) of Oklahoma State University. Both are burners (4.54/40 and 4.50/40 respectively) who can pass protect and who are good pass catchers out of the backfield.

One source, though, believes the Steelers already have a running back on their roster who is suited for the role, and can stand pat. The website SteelBlitz.com gives an argument for the retention of Jonathan Dwyer. - http://tinyurl.com/b7djykk

That would leave the Steelers with Dwyer, fullback Will Johnson and exclusive rights free agent Baron Batch, since it's doubtful they would tender both Dwyer and Isaac Redman. At that point they could sign an undrafted free agent or retain a Futures contract player who shows enough promise.

However the Steelers approach the issue, it will affect the entire offense and the success of the team. History dictates that it will affect them greatly. And in the conclusion of this two-part series, we'll show how the running game has affected the success of the team, positively and adversely, in recent years and why parts of that history the Steelers shouldn't doom themselves to repeat.