OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers spent the offseason implementing new offenses designed to rely heavily on running games that could take a little pressure off their passers.
Two weeks into the season, neither running game has gotten off the ground.
Despite having a healthy Darren McFadden for a change, the Raiders (0-2) go into Sunday’s game against the Steelers (1-1) with the league’s second worst rushing attack.
“You don’t let it frustrate you. The saving grace is, you know McFadden is back there,” Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He’s one arm tackle away from breaking off a 40-, 50-yarder. He’s got that potential, he’s got that ability, he’s done it before. We’re going to stick with it. We’re not frustrated. We’re disappointed in ourselves for not executing it better but we’re not going to let it frustrate us, we’re not going to let it deter it from our goal.”
The Steelers haven’t had much better luck running the ball so far this season in new coordinator Todd Haley’s offense.
Pittsburgh has rushed for just 141 yards the first two weeks and averaged a paltry 2.6 yards per carry, putting more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game to get things going.
“It’s obviously been a little frustrating because that was the emphasis of the offseason, getting a new coordinator, is running the ball and being able to pound it,” Roethlisberger said. “But it’s not working quite this minute and things aren’t going well.”
The Raiders have been much worse with just 68 yards rushing per game in losses to San Diego and Miami. For a team that has stressed being a run-first offense under coordinator Greg Knapp, it’s not hard to figure why the offense has sputtered so much with a running game that can’t get going.
McFadden, who missed the final nine games last season with a foot injury, is healthy but not productive. He has 54 yards on 26 carries as he once again has struggled while playing in a zone blocking system.
Knapp brought back the system the Raiders used in McFadden’s first two seasons, which were filled with disappointments. McFadden emerged as one of the league’s top backs once Hue Jackson brought his offense to Oakland that stressed more power running.
McFadden averaged 5.3 yards per carry under Jackson, compared to 3.7 in the other systems. The main difference has been the lack of big plays. He has also gone from having one of every 15 runs go for at least 20 yards to one of every 49.
“I just feel like going with the zone system is one of those situations where you’re going to have to keep hitting it until you get going,” McFadden said. “It’s going to be 1 yard here or 2 yards there, but eventually it’s going to start popping.”
The Steelers hope it’s not this week.
“We know he’s an explosive back and can go off at any time,” defensive lineman Casey Hampton said. “We know that. We’re very aware. We’re not taking it for granted.”
Facing the Steelers stout defense has not usually been the tonic to cure struggling running games over the years. Pittsburgh has allowed the fewest yards rushing per game over the past 10 seasons because of its physical front and sure-tackling secondary.
In two games against the Steelers, McFadden has 39 yards on 19 carries.
“It’s going to be a rough, tough fist fight out there,” he said. “They are going to come in here with a hard-nose defense, and you know that’s something you expect from the Steelers. We just have to go out there, and play our game, and stay on schedule.”
Roethlisberger has made up for the deficiencies in Pittsburgh’s running game with sterling play on third downs. He has completed 19 of 25 passes for 251 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 146.8 on third down, allowing Pittsburgh to overcome the long yardage situations created by the lack of a running game.
The Steelers had been hoping to get a boost Sunday with the possible return of starter Rashard Mendenhall, who had his practice workload increase throughout the week. But he was eventually ruled out against the Raiders. He hasn’t played since injuring his right knee in last season’s finale against Cleveland.
With Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman sharing the load, the Steelers have had a league-worst 18.5 percent of their runs go for negative yards.
A boost could come from playing a Raiders team that allowed 263 yards rushing last week to Miami, including 190 in the second half.
“It would probably help if we had Reggie Bush, but we don’t,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “They played to their strengths and did it well and were able to get the things done that they desired to do, but obviously we have our personality and we’re going to try to stay within that and play to that.”