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Steelers trying to stay away from leaning too much on Big Ben

The Pittsburgh Steelers might have fallen to the Saints in New Orleans, but it's becoming easy to see that the organization feels its best chance to win is dialing Ben Roethlisberger back.

What is "dialing back?" It means the days of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling pass plays seemingly every down -- something he took heavy criticism for last season-- are long gone. While some league observers thought he was only putting a halt to the pass-happy offense while Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch were taking snaps, the Steelers have been running the football half the time even with Roethlisberger back.

Offense first four games without Roethlisberger
Pass plays Run plays Run play pct.
90 123 57.7
Offense last three games with Roethlisberger
88 83 48.5

Sunday night's loss doesn't bear that out statistically, as Roethlisberger ended up passing on 60 percent of the offensive snaps, but that's because nine of the last 11 plays were passes with Pittsburgh down 10 points in the fourth quarter. Make no mistake, this is an offense that wants to establish the run every bit as much as the pass, something the Steelers haven't been able to do in recent memory.

Roethlisberger's four-game suspension might have brought about the need to run the football with the inexperienced Dixon and less-than-prolific Batch steering the ship. But Roethlisberger's return after the Week 5 bye didn't exactly bring back Air Coryell. While they are throwing more, the Steelers have maintained excellent balance with Roethlisberger back.

Prior to Marques Colston's touchdown that put the Saints up 10 early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had passed 79 times to 81 runs in 11 quarters with Roethlisberger under center. That was quite a departure from Arians' game plan the last couple of years. The Steelers only ran the ball 45 percent of the time in 2008 and 42 percent in 2009.

Steelers run-pass Ratio
Season Run play pct. NFL rank
2008 45.3 13
2009 42.2 20
Last 3 games 48.5 7th*
* 48.5 run-pass ratio would rank 7th

This doesn't mean Arians isn't prone to make some curious play calls from time to time -- run or pass -- as any Steelers fans will tell you after watching the sloppy loss to the Saints. But last season, the Steelers did not pound the run, reducing their time of possession while failing to limit the other team's offensive possessions, something the Troy Polamalu-less secondary desperately needed.

The coaching staff has taken steps to change that, starting with running the ball on first down. Running more not only sets up the passing game for Roethlisberger, but doing it on first down takes some of the edge off converting second and third downs. Third-and-long is something Arians and coach Mike Tomlin want to see less of, especially considering Roethlisberger got sacked a whopping 50 times a year ago (tied for most in the league.)

Much of the affinity for running the ball on first down, even with Roethlisberger back, is the continued development of Rashard Mendenhall. The third-year back out of Illinois has been pretty solid this season and made his presence felt during the fourth quarter in New Orleans.

Steelers on first down in 2009
Passes per game Runs per game Run play pct.
13.2 13.4 50.4
Last three games with Roethlisberger
9.3 15.7 62.8

With the Steelers needing a big play -- down 10 points -- Mendenhall took a little off tackle play designed to get a first down for a 38-yard touchdown. The point of attack blocking was stellar, but Mendenhall's explosion and side-step move on Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins set this run apart from the norm.

Mendenhall has made several big plays this season, whether it was the lethal spin move he put on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3, or his 50-yard touchdown run to beat the Falcons in overtime to open the season. Mendenhall's explosion, ball security (zero fumbles this season) and ability to put a subtle move on an unfortunate safety, gives Arians the luxury of not dumping the game on Roethlisberger's back, something he did often last season.

Roethlisberger has shown some rust in his return, particularly underthrowing some balls, which makes leaning on the ground game look even smarter. Arians' decision -- forced or not -- to take a load off Roethlisberger, while shortening the game, puts both the offense and defense in a better position to be effective. Along with Polamalu staying healthy, it might be the biggest factor in the Steelers making a run for a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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