|Isaac Redman is one of the running backs that has taken the Steelers' ground game to the next level. (US Presswire)|
Conventional wisdom tells me the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the Baltimore Ravens, are the team to beat in the AFC North, and it's not so much because of guys like Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison or Troy Polamalu as it is Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
They're the Steelers' top three running backs, and they could be the difference makers in a division that should go to the wire.
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I'm serious. Because Mendenhall, Dwyer and Redman have demonstrated over the last month that, yes, they can be trusted to run and run for big yards. In fact, they ran so well the Steelers seem willing to make a commitment to them.
So what? Well, so that's a problem for Baltimore because its run defense leaks like the Costa Concordia. Over their last four games, the Ravens surrender an average of 184.5 yards per game and 4.7 per carry, with Kansas City and Dallas each gashing them for over 200 yards in consecutive weeks, the first time that's happened in the history of the franchise.
That's not good, and you don't need me to tell you. But what I will say is that those numbers can determine who finishes first and second in what appears to be a two-team race -- and from where I sit, I like the Steelers' position.
That's because they're doing something they haven't in years, which is to run effectively, and that accomplishes a couple of things: A) It takes the heat off Roethlisberger, whose sacks are noticeably down, and B) it allows the Steelers to bleed the clock, keeping their defense fresh ... or fresher than when Roethlisberger was treated like a piñata.
"We want to do whatever it takes to win games, whether it's run it, throw it, whatever," said Roethlisberger. "We don't have selfish players. If we have to run the ball every play we're going to run it, and our receivers are going to block. If we have to throw it, the running backs block and help the receivers get open. I think it just speaks to how great this team is."
I don't know about that. What I do is that where Pittsburgh once this season ranked 31st in run offense, now it sits at the 21st position. Granted, that's nothing extraordinary, but it's a noticeable improvement over where they were, and if you don't believe me you haven't been paying attention.
In the Steelers' last four wins, they averaged 147 yards rushing; in their four other games they averaged 62.75 and were 1-3. I don't think I need to draw you a picture.
When they lost Mendenhall to an Achilles injury, the Steelers plugged in Dwyer, and all he did was run for 100 yards in consecutive weeks, the first Pittsburgh back to do that in four years. But then he came up lame, forcing the team to start Redman against the Giants, and he responded with a career-best 147 yards and the winning touchdown. It doesn't seem to matter who runs the ball; the Steelers keep going where they want ... and that's up.
"Hopefully," coach Mike Tomlin said after last weekend's victory, "this is a big step for us, in terms of trying to be the football team that we desire to be."
I think it was, because the Steelers desire to be the best in the AFC North ... and they just might get their wish. First of all, Baltimore has a rockier road ahead of it. Four of the Ravens' next eight opponents have winning records -- including Pittsburgh, whom they place twice -- while there is no opponent (excluding Baltimore, of course) above .500 for the Steelers.
Not counting the Ravens, Pittsburgh's remaining opponents have a combined record of 15-35. Not counting Pittsburgh, the Ravens' remaining opponents have a combined record of 24-26, and that includes two division leaders (Denver and the New York Giants). I think you get the idea.
Then there's time of possession. The Steelers rank second in that department, holding the ball an average of 34:40 a game, second only to Houston. I don't need to tell you what that means for Baltimore -- fewer touches for Ray Rice. A year ago, the Steelers average possession was 32:33 per game, and, trust me, two more minutes for you and two less for your opponent can make a huge difference.
Which takes us back to the Steelers' improved running game. Baltimore always has been able to run, whether it's Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee or Ray Rice, but Pittsburgh hasn't ... not lately it hasn't. People like to think of the Steelers as a team built on defense and the inside trap, but tell me the last time they ranked in the top 10 in rushing. It was 2007 when they were 12-4 and the best team in their division.
OK, so their rushing attack now is nowhere close to what it was then, but it's moving in that direction -- and that's trouble for Baltimore.
It's not just that the Steelers can exploit Baltimore where the Ravens are vulnerable, it's what the running game does for Roethlisberger that's so significant -- and that's to back off defenses, extend series and reduce hits on the quarterback. Opponents can't drop six and seven into coverage anymore, not with the Steelers pounding opponents with a trio of backs, and I haven't evened mentioned Chris Rainey.
I mean, look what happened last weekend. While Redman was carving up a defense Giants' coach Tom Coughlin later called "soft," Roethlisberger completed eight of nine third-down passes, including a 51-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace, as the Steelers rallied to beat New York. An aberration? Hardly. Roethlisberger leads the league in third-down efficiency and has always been one of the game's best at converting big plays and winning big games.
And the next two games vs. Baltimore qualify as big.
In Pittsburgh's last eight starts against the Ravens (including the playoffs) when it had Roethlisberger as its starter, the Steelers never ran for 100 yards while averaging 65.1 yards a game and 2.6 yards per attempt. That put the squeeze on Big Ben to carry the offense, and the results speak for themselves: He was sacked 28 times, threw nine touchdown passes and committed 11 turnovers (seven interceptions and four fumbles).
Yet, he didn't lose until last season.
Now, imagine what happens when Pittsburgh produces a balanced attack, and the pressure is off Roethlisberger. I can, and it's not good for Baltimore.