Steelers running old offense

Pittsburgh is counting on Staley to reinvigorate once-proud ground game

September 16, 2004|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Most of the gadget plays are gone, such as receiver Antwaan Randle El playing quarterback. Or receiver Hines Ward lining up as a tailback. Or Ward taking a pitch from El on the option. Those plays shuffled off to Buffalo with former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

Old school is back in vogue in Pittsburgh. Steelers coach Bill Cowher has blown the dust off the old playbook and is trying to hitch a ride with new, $14 million running back Duce Staley to the AFC North title.

What happened to The Bus, halfback Jerome Bettis? He is on The Bench.

"Going in, you recognize that there is kind of a new start, so to speak," Cowher said. "We're trying to start over in trying to re-establish a mind-set, re-establish an understanding of how we are going to play the game of football this year."

Everybody has gotten the message. It came through loud and clear in the preseason, and again in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders, as Staley rushed 24 times for 91 yards in a 24-21 win. Of the Steelers' 57 offensive plays, 33 were rushing attempts.

The Steelers are back to their old selves with an iron-fisted tone and frenetic work pace. After a couple of years trying to be like the pass-happy St. Louis Rams with three- and four-receiver sets, their top goal is to improve their rushing attack, which ranked 31st out of 32 teams last season.

The plan was revealed March 12, when the Steelers signed Staley to a five-year, $14 million contract. Staley rushed for 4,807 yards in seven seasons with Philadelphia but became expendable because the Eagles had two other backs, Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter.

Staley fits the Steelers' M.O.

"I think he brings that mentality they've always had around there," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "He is that hard- nosed running back that just goes in and it doesn't matter if you stop him for a 2- or 3-yard loss, he's going to come back and fight for another 2 to 3 yards on the next play."

Actually, his style is similar to Bettis', unlike Amos Zereoue, whom Cowher picked over Bettis to start last season. Once the running game started going south, however, Bettis started the last 10 games to finish as the team's leading rusher with 811 yards, compared to 433 for the now-departed Zereoue.

But if Bettis thought the job was his, that quickly ended in March. Staley, 29, is three years younger than Bettis. They battled for the No. 1 spot in the preseason, and Staley won.

There appear to be no hard feelings. As a matter of fact, Staley admires Bettis and wants him to be the starter if the Steelers get to the Super Bowl.

"That's one thing about Duce, he is the ultimate team guy," Cowher said. "When you talked to guys around the league, or people who had been with him in Philly, he was very good in the locker room. As a player, he loves to compete, loves to win. He has been well-accepted here."

At 5 feet 11 and 242 pounds, Staley has the power to run inside but enough speed to float on the perimeter. A year ago, Pittsburgh's offensive line was decimated by injuries. It's closer to full strength now, and loaded with athleticism.

Left guard Alan Faneca is overpowering but agile. Center Jeff Hartings can pull and block outside linebackers. The Steelers run trap plays and tosses, but still can muscle up for the tough inside yards.

The Ravens enter the game at a disadvantage. They'll be without starting nose tackle Kelly Gregg, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this week. He will be replaced by Maake Kemoeatu and Aubrayo Franklin, who have played sparingly in their NFL careers.

"They always have one of the best offensive lines in the league," said Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan. "We'll have our hands full, but we've been up to the challenge in the past, and we expect to be this week as well."

Last year, the Steelers rushed 33 times for 98 yards against the Ravens in the season opener in Pittsburgh (a 34-15 Ravens loss), and then 27 times for 56 yards in the regular-season finale (a 13-10 Ravens victory).

But that was a different Steelers team, with erratic quarterback Tommy Maddox spraying the ball all over the field. These Steelers have a new offensive coordinator in former Ravens tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt.

"It's a heated rivalry. By heated, I mean I know we're going to see fights, trash talking, everything," Staley said. "Their defense is fast, quick, aggressive - and those guys definitely get upfield. It's going to be a good battle."

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