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Lack of run game becoming big issue

November 27, 2007
By Buck Frank
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers face the 25th-ranked rushing defense in the NFL this Sunday night when they host the Cincinnati Bengals.

That must have the Steelers trembling.

For the third time this season, the Steelers matched up against the worst rushing defense in the NFL when they edged the winless Miami Dolphins, 3-0, on Monday night at Heinz Field. And for the third time, the Steelers failed to take advantage of the opportunity, rushing for just 84 yards as a team.

It may be easy to overlook any problems the Steelers have with their ground game because they have an 8-3 record and Willie Parker is the top rusher in the AFC with more than 1,000 yards, but it’s not boding too well for later in the year when they face stronger defenses.

Take a look at the bottom 10 rushing defenses in the NFL — Bills 23rd; 49ers 24th; Bengals 25th; Browns 28th; Broncos 29th; Jets 30th; Dolphins 32nd — and you’ll find six of the Steelers wins along with two of their losses.

Earlier this year, they were beaten by both the Broncos and Jets when those teams were dead last at stopping the run. Parker rushed for just 52 yards against the Jets, and take away a 27-yard run in Denver, he had 66 yards on 20 carries against the Broncos.

They were able to pull out a win over the hapless Dolphins on Monday — a team that earlier this year allowed Justin Fargas to ramble for 179 yards — but the problems were evident.

The Steelers again didn’t show a commitment in using a run-heavy offense even with a slippery field.

‘‘We can’t make any excuses,’’ said Parker, who had 81 yards on 24 carries. ‘‘It’s about getting the job done. When we have our chances, we need to take advantage of them.’’

On their second possession of the game, the Steelers utilized Parker on a drive that began at their own 25. He ran four times for 22 yards and helped them pick up three first downs.

But then, at the Miami 35, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and fumbled the ball. The loss of 12 yards ended up forcing the Steelers to punt.

In the second quarter, the Steelers started all three of their possessions in Miami territory and failed to score any points. Parker had just four carries for 13 yards and was not used on a third-and-1 pass play that set the Steelers back 10 yards due to an offensive interference penalty.

The offensive line, which was without starting left tackle Marvel Smith, had troubles again opening up holes to allow Parker to build up his speed. He didn’t have a run longer than 9 yards Monday.

Asked if he had any opportunities to use his speed Monday, Parker simply said, ‘‘No.’’

‘‘[The field conditions] created problems at the point of attack,’’ Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ‘‘It was tough for both teams, but that’s not an excuse for execution.’’

On a key third-and-1 play near the end of the third quarter, the Steelers’ Najeh Davenport was smothered for a 1-yard loss. Those are the runs late in games when Steelers teams of the past had worn down their opponents, made first downs and put away games.

The Steelers have faced only one top-10 rushing defense this year, and although they blew out the Baltimore Ravens, Parker managed just 42 yards on 23 carries.

Those are the types of defenses the Steelers will face in the coming weeks when they play the Patriots and the Jaguars. They’ll also be the same types of ones they’ll face in the playoffs.

Unless they work on becoming a more consistent running team, the Steelers’ playoff run could get upended rather quickly.

Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or

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