By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Among the gripes about this past season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was the club’s diminished running game.
When the Steelers needed to run the ball, be it in short-yardage, goal-line or game-closing situations, they were not able to get the job done. This led to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger setting a team passing record, and the Steelers not making the playoffs.
If Steelers president Art Rooney II has his way, and that’s usually the case, the running game will be a point of emphasis this season. Rooney talked with Mike Tomlin about it, and the Steelers head coach has discussed the situation with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
“We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football and being able to run more consistently than we have in this past season,” Rooney said after the season.
Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns (4.58 yards per carry), and he caught 25 passes for nearly 11 yards per reception with one score. But the Steelers lost almost 400 yards and a lot of experience when Willie Parker signed with Washington, and more is expected from Mendenhall.
“It was a pretty good year for me, but there’s always room for improvement,” Mendenhall said after Saturday’s mini-camp practice. “So, that’s the way I’ve approached this season. All the things I did positively, I want to build on that. And the negatives, I want to eliminate them and move forward.
“It was nice to hear that we could run the ball more this season, because as a player you always want the ball in your hands. But we’re not that far yet. We’re working on our fundamentals right now, and we’ll keep working on them through OTAs. When we get to camp, we’ll know more about our offense.”
Mendenhall enters this season a little differently, as the starter instead of a young guy trying to make his mark. But that doesn’t mean he approached this year any differently.
“I wanted to come in here and improve on what I accomplished last year,” Mendenhall said. “The only way to do that is to work hard every day on the areas where I’m the weakest. And if you can improve every day, then you have a chance to accomplish something special, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
While Mendenhall is solid in the starting running back spot, the backups are another story. Mewelde Moore ran for 118 yards last season and caught 21 passes for 153 more and two touchdowns. He also was used as a punt- and kickoff-returner, so he likely will maintain his third-down role.
But there are more yards to be had in the running game. Frank “The Tank” Summers, in his second year with the club, could earn that spot.
“It’s much better for me this year than it was for me as a rookie last year,” Summers said. “I’ve been here a year and have been able to do some good studying in my playbook, and that really helped. So, it’s a lot less on my heart, because I feel a lot better about things now.
“It was tough last year. I’m sure every rookie will tell you that it’s a dramatic change from college ball. You’re tired mentally and physically, and you have an entire playbook to learn. And I had to learn two positions, fullback and running back, so that was even more difficult for me.”
Summers has the same assignment this season, but after a year in the program he’s much more ready to get some playing time than last year.
“It’s going along a lot easier, and I’m learning it a lot better,” Summers said. “I don’t have any guesswork. I know what to do and when to do it. I don’t have to think too much about it. I can go full speed now, even at fullback. And that’s a real good thing for me, as far as the Steelers are concerned.
“It’s good to hear that we need to run the ball more and run it more efficiently. I grew up loving the run game. My two favorite college teams probably were Army and Navy because of how they run the ball so much. There’s been more passing in the NFL in recent years, but I think it’s important to run the ball.”
Summers is stronger physically this season after recovering from back surgery last year. He had a herniated disc in his lower back, and after the pressure was relieved he was able to begin working out again to get ready for this season. he appears to be a solid 240 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame.
Rookie Jonathan Dwyer from Georgia Tech, the Steelers’ sixth-round draft pick, is another powerhouse. But the 5-11, 229-pounder has different issues. The Yellow Jackets ran the triple-option offense, so there’s some question as to how he can adapt to the Steelers’ offensive scheme.
“It’s like college all over again for me,” Dwyer said. “But it’s like when I was a freshman. I have a lot to learn here, and I’m overwhelmed right now. Probably every rookie says that. But it’ll get better with every rep and every time I get into my playbook, and that’s as much as possible.
“I believe I can help this team in any area they need me. That’s short-yardage, pass-catching, running and special teams. Whatever they want me to do. This team likes to run the ball, and I’m glad to be part of a team like the Steelers. It’s very exciting for me to be in this locker room.”
And if the Steelers are going to upgrade their running game, Dwyer could provide some excitement of his own as well.