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Eric Goska column: It's been tough road for Steelers' ground game

Dec. 21, 2013
 
Le'Veon Bell, Reggie Nelson
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is upended by Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson during Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. / AP
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Speed limit 90

Teams averaging fewer than 90 yards rushing in road games this season.

Avg. TeamOverallRoad
70.6Steelers6-82-5
74.1Saints10-43-4
76.6Jaguars4-103-4
83.7Cardinals9-53-4
84.4Giants5-92-5
86.3Browns4-101-5
88.6Rams6-82-5
89.4Lions7-63-4

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The Steelers don’t need a suitcase when taking their running game on the road.

A carry-on bag would suffice based on how unremarkable it has been.

Pittsburgh, the Packers’ opponent this afternoon, doesn’t run the football particularly well away from Heinz Field. The Steelers have the fewest rushing yards on the road of any team.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker are history. The three top ground gainers in Steelers history each helped the team to more than 1,000 yards on the road in multiple seasons.

This year, the team doesn’t even have half that, amassing 494 yards in seven away games. Unless Pittsburgh rips off close to 200 yards against the Packers, it will break the club record it set in 2003 for fewest road rushing yards (691) in a 16-game season.

Pittsburgh’s running game overall has been in decline since 2010. That was the last year in which a Steelers back surpassed 1,000 yards (Rashard Mendenhall, 1,273).

Mendenhall helped Pittsburgh to 1,924 yards that season. Output dropped in 2011 (1,903) and 2012 (1,537).

This year, Pittsburgh is on pace for 1,186 yards, a number that would snap its record low for a 16-game season of 1,488, also set in 2003. Only the Falcons (1,110 yards) are less productive this season.

The road has not been kind to the Steelers. In addition to having the fewest yards, their average per carry (3.2) is lower than all but the Jaguars (2.9).

Le’Veon Bell handles the majority of the workload. The rookie has carried 100 times for 342 yards and has all four of Pittsburgh’s rushing TDs away from home.

Bell, who was selected 13 spots ahead of Eddie Lacy in April’s draft, has gained more than 50 yards four times on the road. His best effort was a 23-attempt, 80-yard performance in a 27-11 win at Cleveland.

The Steelers’ best outing was a 108-yard afternoon in a 55-31 loss at New England. Bell and Jonathan Dwyer accounted for more than half of that with runs of 25 and 30 yards, respectively.

Pittsburgh has been most productive in first and third quarters, when it has gained 136 and 174 yards, respectively.

The fourth quarter has been interesting. In the Steelers’ two road wins, it rushed 29 times for 65 yards. In five losses, the team ran just eight times for 19 yards.

Also a bit unusual is what the Steelers have done in relation to the 50-yard line. In rushing plays that originate on its side of the field, Pittsburgh has gained 394 yards on 96 attempts (4.1-yard average). When in opponents’ territory, the Steelers have staked out 95 yards on 57 tries (1.7).

One play, a 4-yard gain by Bell, occurred at the 50.

To be fair, the team’s three longest runs were close to having occurred on the other side of the 50. Those plays — Dwyer for 30, Bell for 25 and Bell for 43 — came on snaps at the Pittsburgh 43, 44 and 49, respectively.

With its ground game stuck in neutral, Pittsburgh tends to throw often. The team has attempted more passes on the road (290) than all but Cincinnati (320), New England (303) and New Orleans (295).

Ben Roethlisberger already has set one career high. His 186 completions are seven better than his previous best on the road (179 in 2011).

Big Ben likely will set a couple of other personal bests. He needs seven attempts and 154 yards at Lambeau Field to better his previous road marks of 295 and 2,200.

Whether the Steelers run or pass, Green Bay’s defense will be tested. The results could get ugly as the Packers have surrendered more than 400 yards four times at home.

Looking for a sliver of optimism? Green Bay is 4-0 at home this season when holding opponents to 108 or fewer rushing yards. That number is a ceiling the Steelers have been unable to break when traveling outside Pennsylvania.

Regular-season series

Overall: Packers lead 18-14.

At Lambeau Field: Steelers lead 3-2.

Starting QBs

Packers: Matt Flynn (3-3 overall; 0-0 vs. Pittsburgh).

Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger (93-47; 1-0 vs. Green Bay).

Once a Steeler, now a Packer

Fullback John Kuhn (2006) is a former Steeler.

Once a Packer, now a Steeler

There are no former Packers on the Steelers’ roster.

aegoska@sbcglobal.net

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