For the first time since 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three straight 100-yard rushers. In Weeks 7 and 8, that running back was Jonathan Dwyer, while in Week 9, it was Isaac Redman, who returned from an ankle injury to replace the hurt Dwyer to put up 147 yards on 26 carries in the team's win over the New York Giants.
Before this three-week span, the Steelers run game was nearly non-existent. They were in the bottom of the league in average rushing yards per game—in Week 2 against the New York Jets, they had just 66 yards on 28 carries, and in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders, 54 yards on 20. Against the Jets, Dwyer averaged 2.3 yards per carry, and against the Denver Broncos, Jets, Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans, Redman came up with just 2.6 yards on average.
Not much has changed, really, when it comes to Pittsburgh's run game, aside from the increased yardage. They've been shuffling personnel at the running back position, yes, because of injuries at disparate times to Redman, Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall, and presently, rookie Mike Adams is at right tackle instead of Marcus Gilbert, but can that simply explain why the Steelers run game is back on track?
Earlier in the season, it seemed that the only reason why Dwyer and Redman were struggling was because of the offensive line. Linemen were being constantly turned around, knocked down and overpowered by opposing defensive linemen and linebackers, forcing closed holes that opened for mere seconds and keeping either back from putting up big gains.
Now, it appears that it's the offensive line that is the biggest reason for why the Steelers are able to run the ball effectively. But it's not the only reason.
At the beginning of the season, opposing defenses were still preparing for the Steelers offense of last season—a bit of marginally effective running (with the occasional long run broken off) and deep passing to Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace combined with a screen game. Rather than defenses reacting to the new-look offensive philosophy of shorter passes and a more efficient run game, the Steelers offense had to adjust to defenses seeing or expecting certain things. It exposed their intentions.
But as defenses realized the 2012 Steelers under offensive coordinator Todd Haley is an entirely different animal than their 2011 iteration, it allowed Pittsburgh's run game to flourish.
An effective short-yardage passing game has a lot in common with running the ball in terms of blocking philosophies and formations, and those similarities serve to throw off defenses. They may always be playing close, but they don't know entirely what they're looking at. The element of surprise is absolutely a factor when it comes to the Steelers running more effectively.
Back to the offensive line, the addition of Adams certainly helped matters when it came to the run game. During the preseason, it was clear Adams' strength lied in his run blocking, and he does do a (slightly) better job than Gilbert, but the real star has been left guard Willie Colon.
In moving from tackle to guard this year, Colon has been able to maintain his physical style of play without having to take on as many fleet-footed, physical pass-rushers. As a pulling guard, he's a wall of man who often requires two defenders to block. As he's become more comfortable in his new role, the Steelers run game has improved on a weekly basis.
A greater familiarity with the new offensive system, the ability for the offense to confound defenses in new ways and a gelling of the line seem to have all played parts in how well the Steelers have run the ball of late.
Also telling is how both Redman and Dwyer (Mendenhall hasn't played enough as of yet) have excelled in the past three weeks, proving that this new system is both not dependent on the running back as well as illustrating how talented the group of Steelers backs really are as long as the blocking is in place.