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Six Points... on the win over the Colts

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The running game is a major issue, with multiple people to blame. There are some that will blame Mendenhall for the struggles of Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, saying he doesn’t hit the hole with enough authority and that he’s unable to gain tough yards on his own. Others blame the sub-standard offensive line and say that Mendenhall has no room to run.

Oddly enough, both parties are right.

I went back and watched every carry by Mendenhall against the Colts. What I saw was an offensive line failing to block for a running back that was indecisive when he did have a gap.

We’ll start with the blockers. Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, and Heath Miller looked the best during my re-watch, though each of the three had at least one play where a defender got the best of them to blow up the play. Rookie Marcus Gilbert, making his second start, and the two line replacements, Ramon Foster and Trai Essex, were solid, but not spectacular.

I came away unimpressed with left tackle Jonathan Scott. He wasn’t as bad as critics made him out to be in pass protection, sure, but he was lackluster when the team ran the ball. The play that comes to mind was a run to the left in the second half that ended up as a one yard loss. Scott was blown backwards right off the snap by Dwight Freeney, but did dump the defender to the inside while Mendenhall broke outside. Unfortunately, Freeney pushed Scott so far back that he ended up right in Mendenhall’s path. The runner couldn’t get around Scott, who was lumbering ahead in an attempt to make a block (Mendenhall was downed before he could).

I was even less impressed with Doug Legursky and TE/FB David Johnson. Legursky was man-handled on more than one occasion, leading to quick stops by the defensive line. Johnson flat out couldn’t find his assignment on a handful of plays (hint: he was the guy tackling the running back).

Speaking of the running back, when he did have a hole, he rarely hit it hard. Two mannerisms are particularly troubling. On a few carries, Rashard Mendenhall had a case of the twinkle-toes. If you’ve ever seen Fred Flintstone bowl, you know what it looks like. That series of stutter-steps slowed down the runner too much, leading to shorter gains than if he had just exploded forward. Rashard also has a bad habit of “backing in” to a defender instead of lowering his shoulder for extra yards.

Ever since he was drafted, I’ve occasionally caught a whiff of Shaun Alexander from Mendenhall: a back that is almost entirely dependent on his offensive line. Simply put, he won’t generate yards on his own like a true elite back.

About that offensive line. Pittsburgh has been attempting to make something out of the nothing in its approach to building the line for the last half-decade. The Marvel Smiths turned into Max Starks, the Max Starks turned into Jonathan Scotts. Against Houston, we could see Trai Essex at left tackle.

While I certainly understand spending thriftily on the offensive line in order to toss money elsewhere (secondary and linebackers), there is a breaking point where the negatives outweigh the positives. The offensive line, outside of Maurkice Pouncey, is starting a slew of castoffs that, if history is any indication, wouldn’t get much of a look on anything other than a rebuilding team.

Through injuries, a few whiffs in the middle rounds of the draft, and some plain-old stubbornness, the Steelers are now below that breaking point. The running game has collapsed and the passing game will be under fire against anything more than an average defense.

Unfortunately, it’s not a problem that can be fixed right away.

That offensive line may not be the team’s biggest problem. The defense has been remarkably solid for the most part. Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and William Gay have been spectacular at times this season. The rest of the supporting cast has had its moments, and players like Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are starting to pick up steam.

However, the unit only has one takeaway in three games. With the offense struggling to hold on to the ball more often than not, the defense needs to start getting its hands on the ball. While Pittsburgh escaped with a win in week three, losing the turnover battle will kill this team in the long haul.

Aaron Smith may yield his starting job before the end of the season. Simply put, Smith hasn’t looked like the same player he was in years past. He can still be a valuable contributor in small doses, but a younger, stronger Ziggy Hood needs to start carrying the load.

There’s no shame in it, either. Look at what’s happening with Hines Ward on the offensive side of the ball. The emergence of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown has relegated Ward to being a third option, despite the fact that he’s the most productive receiver in franchise history.

LaMarr Woodley needs to start showing up. Remember, he is the one lining up on Aaron Smith’s side, so Smith’s struggles could be hampering Woodley’s pass rush. Either way, the Steelers coughed up quite a bit of money in the offseason for a guy who hasn’t broken through in the first three games. If he doesn’t start producing, the defense as a whole is going to suffer.

Gay needs to remain as the starter opposite Ike Taylor. Even if Bryant McFadden were to magically return to 100% health, Gay has done enough to earn the starting job. McFadden hasn’t looked the same since his one-year stint in Arizona anyways, so Gay’s ascension makes sense in more ways than one.

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