PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' commitment to the run began with Franco Harris in 1972 and hasn't wavered since. With only three coaches during that time, the Steelers have never abandoned the mindset that all good things offensively start with the run.
Of course, running backs such as Harris and Jerome Bettis -- two of the top 12 rushers in NFL history -- and, more recently, Willie Parker, made it simple to stay the course.
Now, it almost seems the run is becoming the offensive option of last resort, at least by the end of the many tight games the Steelers (11-4) are playing.
Going into their regular season-ending game Sunday against the Browns (4-11), the Steelers are 24th in rushing, only one spot ahead of Cleveland. They have been held below 100 yards six times in nine games, and Parker has gained more than 100 only once since the second game of the season, Sept. 14 in Cleveland.
Given the Steelers' history of running to win, the one surprise of their season is their record is this good without the one element of their offense that has remained consistent under coaches Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and, last season, Mike Tomlin.
"I am concerned," Tomlin said. "I think that with an effective running game, it increases our chances of winning. Therein lies my concern: Do we need to get hot in the running game? Absolutely."
Tomlin's concern is, uhh, well-grounded.
Last season, Parker was leading the NFL in rushing with 1,135 yards until he broke a leg in St. Louis on Dec. 20. Without Parker's productivity and speed, the Steelers lost a week later at Baltimore and in the playoffs to Jacksonville, rushing for exactly 46 yards in both games.
Parker came back strong to begin this season, running for 138 yards and three touchdowns against Houston and 105 yards a week later in Cleveland. Since injuring a knee in Philadelphia on Sept. 21 and an elbow after that, Parker has lacked his usual acceleration and cutting ability, and the effect is evident.
Parker, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, was held to 29 yards on 18 carries during a 31-14 loss in Tennessee last weekend, the fourth time in five games he has had 12 or more carries for 47 or fewer yards.
Parker's injuries aren't the only reason for the dramatic dropoff in the Steelers' run game productivity. An offensive line that is without injured starters Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith has been inconsistent all season.
The Steelers recognized their line would be a worry after star guard Alan Faneca signed with the Jets after last season, so the season-long problems with run blocking and pass protection aren't a total surprise. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 46 times, one off his career high set a year ago when Faneca was around.
Several times recently, Parker said the Steelers must commit themselves to running the ball the way they have in the past. The problem with this is they don't have the healthy Parker of the immediate past.
After nearly winning the rushing title last season, Parker is down to No. 30 in the league with 673 yards gained. He has scored one touchdown since the season opener and has one 100-yard game since Sept. 14.
"The run game is always something you want to focus on because you want to always stay two-dimensional as an offense," left tackle Max Starks said. "Eleven guys all being on the same page is going to be a big emphasis."
Developing some continuity is one reason Tomlin plans to play many of his starters as long as possible Sunday, even if the Steelers can't improve their playoff position by winning.
"We acknowledge some of the areas we are deficient in, we work at them, we wait for the next opportunity to prove that we are not," Tomlin said. "That's the same mentality I have regarding the run game and all of our deficiencies. I tend to have a short memory."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press