What ails the Steelers, dime-a-dozen running backs and other tidbits around the league

 Trouble in Steel City

One of the surprises from the beginning of this season has been the lackadaisical play of the Steelers.

The Steelers are going through a major identity crisis. I see a team that is trying to go away from the ad-lib plays of Ben Roethlisberger and transition towards the running game. Unfortunately, the offensive line play has continued to be poor. Roethlisberger is often guilty of holding the ball too long, but his strength in avoiding the rush is a main reason the Steelers are not worse than their 24th ranking in sacks allowed. The lack of talent at the running back position has caused the Steelers to be a one-dimensional team, despite their efforts to improve on their 17 rushing attempts per game (30th in the league). Consequently, it is no surprise that the Steelers are second to last in the league in rushing yards per game at 51.1, ahead of the lowly Giants rushing attacked. Pittsburgh is plagued with having a bevy of untalented backs, such as Felix Jones and the recently cut and re-signed, Jonathan Dywer.

On defense, the ‘Blitzburgh’ mantra has not been as prevalent as in the past, with the likes of Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel entering their mid-30’s. Additionally the pass rush, which has been the backbone of the defense and has allowed the corners who play press coverage, is not a strong suit of the defense anymore. Additionally, Pittsburgh has not been able to replace the production of James Harrison. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will be solid players, but are not ready to take on that sort of role.  The Steelers will desperately need to rely on the offense to overcome a 0-3 start. This week, they get a boost with the return of Le’veon Bell. The talented running back out of Michigan State is slated to play in week four against the Vikings. Look for Todd Haley to finally feature a heavy dose of the running game, something he has shown inconsistency in sticking with.

The evolution of the unheralded running back

Looking across the league, running backs are coming from all different places. It is no longer required for your running back to be a blue-chip prospect, who went to a school in a major conference with tremendous acumen. Last season, little-known Alfred Morris out of Florida Atlantic set the league by storm by finishing second in rushing yards, with over 1,600 yards. The 6th round pick was never highly recruited, nor heavily scouted following his senior season.

Other running backs have gone to have successful seasons and are currently producing at a high level, despite being drafted south of the 5th round. Whether it was Ahmad Bradshaw, Arian Foster or Benjarvis Green-Ellis, running backs are becoming a dime-a-dozen position. This season, Jets running back Bilal Powell (currently top 10 in rushing yards) is showing the talent and skills needed to be an every-down player. As a forth-round pick out of Louisville, Powell has established himself as the starter for the Jets after a couple of years playing in a mediocre running game. We have also seen sixth rounder James Starks have a terrific game against Washington this season.

Running backs such as LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Stevan Ridley, Ray Rice and Doug Martin, who were drafted in the second or third rounds, are affirming the thought that a running back does not need to be taken in the first round.

It is becoming more apparent that you can plug-and-play play a running back into almost any situation so he can thrive. You can afford to draft a player in the later rounds that can be stashed on a team while they learn the system and scheme. Conversely, high draft-picks may have a higher tendency to flame as they are forced into the action virtually immediately and have much more pressure on them.

Of course, there have been some 2nd and 3rd round picks that have come in and played like world-beaters right away, such as the aforementioned Doug Martin, Ray Rice and Chris Johnson. Then you have the likes of Trent Richardson who are taken 3rd overall in the 2012 draft and have a hard time initially adjusting to the pro-game and staying healthy. Richardson was only a featured runner during his senior year at Alabama. Between his freshman, sophomore and senior seasons, his carry totals were 145, 112 and 283. I’ve heard Marshall Faulk repeatedly mention that running backs in college, who do not get a heavy load of carries, may have an adjustment period to deal with when they reach the NFL.

It should also be noted that the runners who stay 3-4 years, are typically the one’s who are drafted in the later rounds of the draft. Often feeling like they need to further prove themselves, these runners stay an extra season to improve their production. Scouts often frown upon a player who will stay for his senior season, touting him as a “low-potential” player. As an example, look at Montee Ball. Most draft publications considered him as a player who already peaked and may have too much mileage on him.

So when you look at the Browns and claim that their trade of a “blue-chip” running back for a first rounder was preposterous, just remember to take a look at some running backs that are currently out-producing the aforementioned blue-chipper and see where they were drafted.

The Chiefs are for real

It is hard not to be impressed with this Kansas City Chiefs team. Their defense has been impressive, although I was not surprised. There is talent at every level of that unit and the back-end works perfectly with the front by applying pressure and playing press-man coverage. What actually surprises me is that Andy Reid has not held back his thoroughbred running back in Jamaal Charles. Reid has had a propensity to favour the development of his quarterbacks to the detriment of his ball carrier. Whether it was Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook or LeSean McCoy, it always felt like they never got the amount of touches that they should have received. So far in his early tenure in Kansas City, Reid has coddled Alex Smith and used his strengths as a game manager to favour a conservative passing game, while being a run-heavy squad. So far, they are 9th in rushing attempts per game and 20th and passing attempts. As long as Reid keeps favouring the run and control the clock, the Chiefs with that dominant defense, will vie for a playoff spot.

“Hunnid million” dollar quarterbacks

So far, after three games, the four quarterbacks who received $100 million deals have ranged from great to unspectacular. Aaron Rodgers has been his typical self and is second in yardage and forth in quarterback rating. Tony Romo was also dubbed a million dollar man and has, so far done a better job of protecting the football and avoiding bad plays.

The two other quarterbacks who received big paydays would be Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Although I was skeptical on both players receiving these deals, I understood the new landscape of the league and why they merited these deals. Flacco, purely from a talent and production standpoint, is not $100 million dollar quarterback, but was the beneficiary of winning at the right time. While Flacco has lacked some talent with the defection of Anquan Boldin, his 80 quarterback rating ranks him currently 23 in league. Conversely, Matt Ryan is top 10 in rating but the Falcons, who many predicted to be a Super Bowl favourite, have floundered out of the gate and are 1-2 after three games. Although the two losses should not be contributed to him, I have not seen Ryan take over a game and will his team to victory. That, in my book, is a major trademark of a $100 million dollar quarterback. You see Brees do it, as does Tom Brady and of course Aaron Rodgers and it is always regardless of the roster they are dealt with. Flacco and Ryan will be fine ultimately and have talent in them and around them but I remain skeptical of them getting paid like the elite quarterbacks in the league, which in my opinion, they do not belong yet.

Jay Cutler looks…terrific?

I never would have imagined a day when Cutler looked like a mechanically sound NFL quarterback. That day has finally come. Not only has Cutler improved his footwork but his pocket presence and internal clock have greatly improved. No longer is he patting the ball, locking down on a singular target (Brandon Marshall) and taking sacks. Cutler has completed over 67% of his passes and has involved his other weapons such as Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and newly acquired Martellus Bennett. Cutler is finally going through his progressions and scanning the entire field.

Although we’re only entering week 4, the hiring of Marc Trestman has paid immediate dividends. Ultimately, this will mean more team wins for the Bears and Jay Cutler to join that $100 million dollar quarterback club as he is in a contract season.




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