By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — Since a mandate to run the football more efficiently came from the Pittsburgh Steelers hierarch, no one should be surprised to learn that the offensive line has worked on run-blocking, while short-yardage and goal-line drills also have been stressed during this training camp at Saint Vincent College.
Wideout Hines Ward has had record-setting catches and yardage for the Steelers during his 13-year career, but he might take more pride in his blocking ability, which has devastated opposing linebackers and defensive backs. Ward isn’t sure how this year will play out, but something has to change.
“We had astronomical stats last year, but it didn’t get us anywhere,” Ward said. “I really don’t know what we’ll do, but B.A.’s going to call the plays, and I’m going to go out and execute them. I think we’ve put more emphasis on the run game in this camp, but we knew that would happen.
“We’re working more on technique, making sure we get a hat on a hat, and that’s been our thing. We’re concentrating on situational football. We weren’t really a good third-down team or red-zone team. And, definitely, on third-and-short we were just not very good at all.”
Despite offensive success with a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher, the Steelers averaged just 23 points a game. And since the defense allowed 20.25, every game was close and the club finished in third place in the AFC North Division and out of the playoffs at 9-7.
“So, we’re stressing and emphasizing our short-yardage and goal-line offense in this camp,” Ward added. “That will give us more opportunities to do stuff. On third-and-one or 2-3 and our four-minute offense at the end of the game with a two-point lead, we can’t give the ball back.
“But it’s not about being more of a running team or more of a passing team for us. We want to be a great situational team, and I think if we do that everything else will follow. … On the goal line, we tried to run the ball and got stopped or lost yardage. And even if we passed, we couldn’t get into the end zone.”
Steelers third-year running back Rashard Mendenhall had a solid sophomore campaign, but he believes he can accomplish more and help the team more as well. And from his vantage point, the club can’t run the ball enough.
“As a running back, you always want the ball in your hands, and I’m no different,” Mendenhall said. “So, whether it’s as a runner or receiver, I hope to get a lot more touches this season. I’ll run it 25 times or more if they want me to, and I know I can catch passes out of the backfield.
“Sure, there’s been a little more emphasis on the run game so far, and with Coach Kugler the O-line is starting to jell together. With all the focus and emphasis we’ve put on it since the spring, on the field and in meetings, it’s really starting to pay off for us right now during camp.”
In an attempt to get the offensive line to run-block more aggressively and successfully, the Steelers replaced Larry Zierlein with Sean Kugler, some 20 years his predecessor’s junior. And the effect immediately became clear.
And even though Kugler is the club’s third O-line coach in five years, the players have responded positively on and off the field.
“I just want to be an efficient line coach who helps the offense win in any way that I can,” Kugler said. “But I really can’t describe myself in any one way. (But) we’re trying to develop our techniques in the run game, as well as in pass protection, and a lot of run blocking is just an attitude.
“So far, these guys have had a great attitude and been very receptive to what I’ve been trying to tell them. I think we have good chemistry, and these guys are working hard for myself and Coach Goodwin. I don’t have to yell at them, but when I need to make a point I can make it.”
One area that has rarely, if ever, been seen on the field for the Steelers is cut-blocking. The club didn’t really teach it before now, but Kugler believed it was just another type of technique that the players could use to open a hole.
Center Justin Hartwig believed Kugler already has made an impact.
“Sure, we want to run the ball, and we know we can pass,” Hartwig said. “So, the big thing for us is to try to be balanced and keep our opponents off-balance. (But) I don’t know if we’re going to be a power team.
“I just know that Coach Kugler told us his first day that we want to be the best running team in the NFL. So, that’s our thought process, and that’s what we’re working toward. (And) he definitely does a good job relating to us.”
Does this mean the Steelers will be a running team again?
“Who knows if we’ll be a running team or a passing team,” Ward said, “but we’re going to strive to be a better short-yardage, red-zone and third-down team, and when you convert those you can get more plays.
“And the more plays you get, the more chances you have to succeed and keep them from getting the ball. But if we can’t convert on third-and-one, that won’t happen. So, we want to improve in situational football this year.”
And whether they run or pass the football, if the Steelers are successful in that venture, their record should improve markedly as well.