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Even with Big Ben back, Steelers must retain running identity

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The return of Ben Roethlisberger has been touted around the league as the move that pushes the Steelers to the top of the title contenders.

However, the way the Steelers incorporate him into a drastically altered offense could determine how far the team goes this season.

While the two-time Super Bowl winner has developed into one of the top playmakers at the position, his emergence as an elite quarterback prompted the Steelers to build their offense around his skills. After operating like a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust unit during the early part of Roethlisberger's career, Pittsburgh opened up its offense to feature more three- and four-receiver formations from the shotgun.

Although the formations have always been a part of the Steelers' third-down (nickel) package, the extensive use of the shotgun combined with a no-huddle approach put Roethlisberger in a system that was very similar to the spread style that he directed in college at Miami (Ohio).

Bruce Arians, the Steelers' offensive coordinator since 2007, has long been a proponent of spread football after spending time as quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts from 1998-2000. He immediately implemented some of those concepts upon taking over in Pittsburgh, and continued to build on those principles as Roethlisberger matured.

Although the team insisted that the running game continued to serve as the foundation of the offense, the numbers suggested that the Steelers were moving away from the grind-it-out approach that has been a trademark of the organization. In a three-year period, the Steelers went from ranking third in rush offense in Arians' first season to finishing in the bottom half of the league the past two seasons.

The pass offense, however, went from averaging 27.6 attempts in 2007 to 33.5 a year ago. Roethlisberger flourished with more opportunities to throw, posting the first 4,000-yard season of his career and finishing with a passer rating over 100 for only the second time.

Though his ascension has been positive in many ways, the increased emphasis on the passing game weakened the rush offense and contributed to squandering several leads late a season ago. The Steelers were unable to close out games with a methodical approach behind a physical running game. As a result, they often gave their opponents additional possessions, which led to a few last-minute defeats.

Given those factors and the sentiment that spread-formation football makes a team soft, the Steelers entered the offseason intent on re-establishing their hard-nosed, physical mentality by showing a stronger commitment to the run.

Roethlisberger's four-game suspension only strengthened the Steelers' desire to get back to running. It helped them mask the deficiencies of their backup quarterbacks while allowing their stifling defense to single-handedly win games. Surprisingly, the approach worked as the Steelers rolled to a 3-1 record despite being forced to start two backup quarterbacks (Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch) during the ban.

Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards in 2009, has thrived under the run-heavy emphasis. He ranks third in rushing yards per game (102.8) and has posted two 100-yard efforts in four games. Most impressive, he has been able to produce when the opponent knew that the Steelers were poised to run and often used eight-man fronts on early downs in an attempt to take away open running lanes between the tackles.

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However, the tactics have been ineffective due to the Steelers' ability to control the line of scrimmage. The team's much-maligned offensive line has excelled at blowing defenders off the ball, and the renewed commitment to running has allowed the Steelers to be more aggressive coming off the ball, which has made their play-action passing game more effective.

Though the Steelers rank 32nd in pass attempts per game (20.2), they have three completions over 40 yards (tied for eighth in the league) and average a respectable 7.5 yards per attempt.

Given their success on many levels, it would be a surprise to see the Steelers return to the wide-open approach that seemingly got them into trouble last year. Coach Mike Tomlin will likely ask that Arians plays it close to the vest in most situations, and allow the team to win with its defense and running game leading the way. Though Roethlisberger will still get plenty of chances to throw, the opportunities will likely consist of an assortment of play-action passes from run-heavy formations. WR Mike Wallace and TE Heath Miller will often serve as the primary targets on these plays because they offer a vertical dimension (Wallace) and a safety valve (Miller) over the middle of the field.

Arians might mix in some spread looks on early downs, but expect to see more runs out of those sets to take advantage of the defense loading up to stop Roethlisberger's high-percentage throws to his receivers on the outside.

Tomlin has surprisingly kept his team in contention despite an extended absence from his franchise quarterback. However, Tomlin's chances of guiding the Steelers to another Super Bowl title will undoubtedly hinge on Roethlisberger's ability to assimilate to a conservative offense that might ask him to take a backseat.

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