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What makes a rushing attack successful?

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This week there was some conversation regarding the Steelers success running the ball the first two weeks of the season. Some feel like the positive comments are warranted and others feel like some are over-hyping the rushing attack. The Steelers played against two solid defensive fronts, had some injuries along the OL with arguably their best lineman (DD David DeCastro) missing both contests.  The first week the OL started slowly against the Giants and then through some coaching adjustments and replacing a hurt James Connor with Bennie Snell, helped fuel a successful rushing attack with Snell going over 100 yards for the game.

The Broncos game saw the offense and defense do some things to shoot themselves in the foot. Untimely penalties, lack of getting off the field on third down due to poor execution or self-infliction (the penalties and missed assignments), two key turnovers, and you have an offense that is now out of sync.  Connor ripped off a long run near the end of the game to raise the stat sheet,however, I think it was more than that. The rushing attack sealed the game when it counted the most. 

The Steelers rushing attack will face a stiff test with the Texans defense who has JJ Watt and some huge attacking LB'ers.  However, this may also be one of the best  weeks to uncork a balance attack and pound the ball to a victory along with some intelligent and accurate passing. I do believe that a great defense is greatly aided by a solid consistent offense. One of the best ways to rest your defense and get your offense on track is possessing the ball and extending drives. While doing this through passing can be sexy, I believe the best way to do it is with a balanced rushing attack.

What makes a rushing attack successful?  I will list some of the obvious points here:

1. Good to great RB for your system/style of rushing.

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 A bell cow back, a diverse platoon of RB's and or both.  The Steelers have had great RB's throughout their storied history. Two of the best are HOF'ers Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. The variety of combinations with Franco that included: Preston Pearson, Rocky Blier, Sydney Thorton, Frenchy Fuqua, and Reggie Harrison to name a few off of the top of my head. The Steelers once had Rashaad Mendenhall, Fast Willie Parker, Duece Staley, Eric Pegrem, Bam Morris, John L. Williams, Jon, Witman, Thunder Dan Krieder, Barry Foster, Merrill Hoge, Warren Williams and others who have been the feature guy or shared.

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The Steelrs have James Connor, Bennie Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Derek Watt, and Anthony McFarland Jr. My point is that the talent is here. Connor can rush for a 1000+ yards if healthy. He has also proven that he can be a successful receiving option out of the backfield. Connor is the teams best all around RB. The Steelers have their best chance to win running the ball with Connor. Snell can get tough yards and move the chains. Samuels is better out of the backfield, but has run for more than 100 yards like Snell has filling in for Connor. Watt can catch, block and even provide an occasional change of pace  carry. McFarland is an X-factor. The Steelers screen game has been atrocity. McFarland is the most fleet of foot and speedy of the teams other four RB's. He may also provide some lightning to the Steelers Thunder!

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2. Good to great OL for the system/style of attack.

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This is a duh. Move defenders and open holes and most rushing attacks would be easy. In the immortal words of HOF OL Hog and Pitt Alum Russ Grimm and former teammate all pro OT Joe Jacoby used to say, "There is nothing like imposing your will and moving another man where he does not want to go!"  Get a push and you can get some semblance of a rushing attack. There have been many great OL's with varying styles from the Steelers of old, the Ravens, old Raiders, Bronco's and Texans who also used a zone blocking scheme a few years back to counter the smash-mouth brute styles that the Steelers of the 90's and 2000's employed under Bill Cowher. 

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Teams would put eight or even nine in the box and the Steelers still ran the ball with some success. The Steelers have a fairly well balanced OL with some solid depth. Losing a road grader like Banner hurts, but Chuks has had success in his starts going against some good pass rushers and DL's. DeCastro and Pouncey are two of the est in the business and most balanced OL. While Pouncey isn't brutishly strong, he is effective with his speed and movement. DeCastro has had good success as OL and being one of the best in the business. Hopefully he can figure out Eagles DL Fletcher Cox this time around.  We have a young tough guy in Kevin Dotson to back-up both sides, Matt Feiler is steady and mean, and Big Al is always going to compete. If this group can stay healthy and get healthy with added depth like Wiz, the makings of being able to establish the run, and move bodies is here.

3. Coaching. Knowing when and how to deploy the rushing attack for optimal results.

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No Ben hurt the Steelers in more ways than just the obvious. Ben also helped out on OL calls with Pouncey. Teams could set up and tee off on the rushing attack with a back-up QB and a third-stringer at the helm. The did not worry about being beat or burned by the QB CONSISTENTLY.  Our rushing attack and offense suffered. First and ten became second and nine and those became third and seven oftentimes.

Ben is back and teams can't simply commit to stacking the box without the threat of getting severely burned and picked apart via the pass. Let the run and the pass compliment each other. Balanced offensive football is a beautiful thing. I remember  once during the Cowher era when QB (Mike Tomczak I think) threw for 300 yards, WR Charles Johnson had 100 yards receiving and the RB had over 100 yards rushing. They killed offensively and TOP. If you can have success like that with any semblance of a defense you will win 99.99%of the time. `

These first three are fairly obvious.  You put a solid RB, behind a good OL, along with the coaching that knows when and how to attack an opposing defense. That is a fairly obvious recipe for success.  

4. Intangibles Needed for a Successful Rushing Attack:

A. Commitment and dedication to the run - - Oftentimes teams don't stick to the run and get out of their game plan running the ball. I am not suggesting going back to the 60's or 70's style of football, but being able to effectively use the run to dominate and dictate other aspects of your offense. Our rivals the Baltimore Ravens have had success with this over the past few years. Some would argue that their rushing numbers are somewhat skewed because of QB Lamaar Jackson's running ability and the Ravens willingness to let him run. However, I see that simply as using what you are good with and the talent that you have.  

B. Patience - - As stated above, teams often get impatient and abandon the running attack unless you are picking up massive yardage per clip. Four yards and a cloud of dust isn't a bad thing. Eventually your back will break one and the OL typically wears down the opposing defense.

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C. Mix it up. Don't dot the same plays. Vary what plays and when you run them. This will open up other areas of the offense. Third down and two is typically converted a greater percentage than third and eight. Having a stout running game will open the passing lanes and other big plays.

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To help fix this offense the Steelers will need a successful rushing attack and playing disciplined football (limiting pre snap penalties, negative plays, and negative down in distance conversions. Run James (and stay healthy), Run Bennie (and hold onto the ball), Run Jaylin, Run Anthony and Run Derek!

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Great writeup. I do disagree with one of your points, though. I don't think Conner has looked good at all. He doesn't look nearly as violent, nor as fast, nor as shifty as he did two years ago. I think the injuries have taken away what made him good. I don't think we're as stocked with talent in the back field as you do. Snell can't keep the ball off the ground, Conner looks like he's lost a step, Samuels is well...bad, and McFarland hasn't played in a NFL game in his life. Not exactly the most awe inspiring group. Obviously it could turn around. Snell has impressed me when he doesn't fumble, Conner might just be rusty, Samuels is still bad, and maybe McFarland is a stud just waiting to explode. 

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21 hours ago, MOSteelers56 said:

Great writeup. I do disagree with one of your points, though. I don't think Conner has looked good at all. He doesn't look nearly as violent, nor as fast, nor as shifty as he did two years ago.

I agree that he does not look like he started against Cleveland two years ago after the departure of Lev Bell.  Part of that may very well be timing and comfort running without combined practice, preseason and recovery from injuries. This is in essence the equivalent of week three of the preseason or dress rehearsal as many call it.  I am hoping that the team continues to improve and plays more consistently. This includes James Connor.  

I think the injuries have taken away what made him good.

He's still a young guy and I just don't believe his "best football" is behind him. I think Connor will get better if he can get and stay healthy. I don't think he will be Franco, Jerome, or even Bell, but I do think he can be a solid RB and play at a high level as others have like Willie Parker for the window that he has as a pro with a punishing running style.

I don't think we're as stocked with talent in the back field as you do. Snell can't keep the ball off the ground, Conner looks like he's lost a step, Samuels is well...bad, and McFarland hasn't played in a NFL game in his life. Not exactly the most awe inspiring group.

I can't argue or debate your feeling on this as you may be 100% correct. I feel the glass is more half full than empty that's all. As my philosophy professor once told me, "Be a realist, as it is actually both half empty and half full depending on the perspective and circumstance."

We have a rookie who has not played a single play in a live NFL game. We don't know that he is or is not capable. I know he has a different style and speed than any other RB on the roster, and I am optimistic if he can get some touches like the team has done Claypool early on. Samuels is a hybrid TE, mini FB, change of pace RB. Some of last year's stuff was because the team didn't have a franchise QB.  Filling in for Connor two years before he ran like a franchise back against a very good defense in the Patriots. He is not a franchise RB, but I think he is much better than many of us give him credit for being. His pass protection seemed to improve last year and again, I see him as a useful tool to have in the RB toolbelt for when we need him. Snell is in year two and again only the second real game of hitting someone with a different jersey. Ball security has to do with his mindset, style and discipline. I believe that it can be corrected. Know when to put two arms around the ball and when to go down. Most of his fumbles come when he is trying to violently run or gain extra yards. He is typically getting the ball stripped. Connor may simply need some game reps and timing to get it together. What's encouraging is that he broke the longest run that he has had since 2018 rust, poor timing and all. 

Obviously it could turn around. Snell has impressed me when he doesn't fumble, Conner might just be rusty, Samuels is still bad, and maybe McFarland is a stud just waiting to explode. 

I agree that we don't know which version or versions of our RB's that we get for the duration of the season. However, I don't think it just them, but the play calling, having Ben back and definitely the OL play. With all of these things coming together, the Steelers can have a successful rushing attack which should help to translate to a winning team with a solid offense and hopefully great defense. That will be hard to beat. Eliminate or greatly reduce penalties and turnovers and this offense and team can be special. I do believe that. But is will take firing on all cylinders. Teams that win it all usually are and do.

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