Thursday, June 18, 2009

Arrival of Frank Summers to Revive Fullback Dive

The greatest things a fan can see in football are safeties, punts with two minutes remaining in the game from teams trailing by 28 points, and the fullback dive.

While weaknesses on a Super Bowl champion are not easy to find, it could be said that the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers were less than effective in short yardage situations. Willie Parker isn’t exactly the sort of back one wants to plow up the middle with the defense overloading the box.

Which makes the return of Rashard Mendenhall (5'10", 225 pounds, 16 heavier than Parker) and the arrival of fifth-round draft choice Frank Summers (5'9", 241 pounds) so important.

The fullback dive will be back!

Technically there aren’t that many fullbacks anymore. The I formation has long been considered blasé and obsolete by the NFL.

But as long as we have 4th-and-1 in football, there will be a need to have the running back dive into the line.

And the Steelers weren’t very good at that last season. They were an NFL-worst 3-of-12 on fourth-down conversions and 3-for-14 including the postseason.

By comparison, the second-worst team in the NFL converting fourth downs in 2008 was the Carolina Panthers, who converted 38 percent of their regular season attempts compared to the Steelers’ 25.

Yes, a fourth-down conversion would seem to be an irrelevancy if the offense did their job on the first three downs. The success of both the Steelers and Panthers in 2008 proves this.

But the Steelers' inability to pick up 4th-and-1 did hurt them in 2008.

Against Indianapolis on Nov. 9, the Steelers and Colts were tied 17-17 when Pittsburgh faced second and goal at the one-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Two runs by Mewelde Moore failed, and the Steelers resorted to a Jeff Reed chip shot to take the lead.

Which would have been fine, except that two possessions later Peyton Manning took advantage of a short field by hitting Dominic Rhodes with a 17-yard touchdown pass.

For want of a yard, a game was lost, 24-20.

The next week in the second quarter against the Chargers, Moore again couldn’t pound it in from the one, and this time on fourth down. Thankfully, James Harrison responded by sacking Phil Rivers two plays later for a safety, eventually resulting in the winning points in an 11-10 victory.

Without Harrison’s heroics, the game is likely lost.

Let’s not forget Gary Russell’s inability to get into the end zone on fourth and goal from the one against Dallas on Dec. 7.

By the time the Super Bowl rolled around, head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t taking any chances.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t break the plane on the opening drive? It’s fourth and goal from the one?

Hello, Skippy. Instead of Pittsburgh instilling their dominance and making a statement on their opening drive, the Cardinals salvaged a positive out of an otherwise poor initial defense performance and were able to stay in the game throughout.

Blame the offensive line all you want—it's worthy criticism, and the Steelers did draft right guard Kraig Urbik in the second round for this reason.

But the running backs can't be ignored, either.

That’s why drafting Summers and Mendenhall’s return are so important. In his lone start before breaking his shoulder, Mendenhall had nine carries in a 23-20 victory against Baltimore on Sept. 29.

Eight of the rushing attempts were between the tackles, excusing an otherwise pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry average in the game. And when Mendenhall did get hurt in the third quarter, the Steelers again faced a third and goal at the one a quarter later.

Again they gave the ball to Moore, and again he was stopped. Instead of clinching the victory, the Steelers' lead was just seven points. The game would go into overtime before Reed kicked a 46-yard field goal for the victory.

Traditionally, “short yardage specialists” have gone on to greater things on the Steelers. Jerome Bettis was supposed to close out his career in this role in 2004; he wound up leading a 15-1 team in rushing and then closed out his career with a starring role on a Super Bowl-champion team the next season.

Frank Pollard (5'10", 218 pounds) was often described as a “short yardage specialist” in the 1980s, a title he backed up by scoring a two-yard touchdown on second effort late in Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory at Denver in the 1984 playoffs.

And while in hindsight I’m not quite sure what Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s role was, I sure was happy when he completed a 17-point comeback against Cleveland in the 2002 playoffs on a three-yard touchdown run with a minute remaining to win 36-33.

Whether or not this fate befalls Mendenhall or Summers remains to be seen.

This, however, is known: Fullback dives, even when they aren’t successful, often wind up as safeties with the opponent gaining possession at the one-yard line—witness the Chargers game.

And when successful, they result in touchdowns and in defeated opponents punting with two minutes left, trailing 35-7.

Yes, in this modern era of zone blitzes and timing patterns, it still all comes back to the fullback dive.

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