Monday, October 3, 2011

What Needs to Change to Get the Steelers Back to the Super Bowl

The Steeler game plan did not include a way to keep Mario Williams out of the backfield on Sunday.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein who, I assume, was probably smarter than most of us in Steeler country.  Yet this does not deter Bruce Arians from repeatedly steering the Steeler offense down the same path.  Coming into this week’s game with the Texans, the Steelers were ranked 26th in the NFL in scoring with an average of 18.3 points per game.  This coming in a season where scoring a touchdown is about as easy as ordering chicken wings at your local sports bar.  If the Steelers are going to contend for another Lombardi trophy, some changes must be made on both the offense and defense. 

Bruce Arians has been the Steeler offensive coordinator since 2007.  His reign as offensive coordinator has been filled with the highest of highs and some frustrating lows.  Yes, Arians was the offensive coordinator for the Steeler Super Bowl season of 2008-2009 and last season’s Super Bowl run.  But the prevailing belief throughout Steeler Country was that the Steelers appeared in those two Super Bowls because of their amazingly stingy defense, not because of a scintillating offense.  Here is  Arians’ resume as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh:

Year        Rushing Rank       Passing Rank       Scoring Rank
2007       3rd (135.5)           22nd (191.9)         9th (24.6)
2008       23rd (105.6)         17th (206.3)         20th (21.7)
2009       19th (112.1)         9th (259.2)           12th (23)
2010       11th (120.2)         14th (225.1)         12th (23.4)
2011       20th (93.8)           11th (265.5)         27th (16.0)

*Yards per game and Points per game in parentheses

As you can see, the Steeler scoring output was best in Arians’ first year and has, at best, been mediocre since then.  Last week, Arians was asked about how the Steeler offense could generate more points.  He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he would like to run the ball better and, if that happens, play action passes should produce a better passing game—I agree with that statement.  He also said, “And I think with the lockout, it's much easier to throw it than it is to run it. I think most people would think it's easier the other way, but guys can throw and catch in shorts all the time. It takes some time to grind out that running game and now, with only one day a week in pads, it even slows the process down."  That didn’t seem to stop the Texans from running the ball on Sunday.  And there are 19 teams that are running the ball better than the Steelers right now.  My beef with Arians is not what he said above, but how his offense translates on the field.  The job of a coach is to put his players in the best position to succeed.  I don’t believe Arians is doing that.  I outlined some of the ways in which the offensive coordinator could help the offensive line succeed in last Monday’s blog post.  This included chipping the defensive ends.  I didn’t see much of that this week and there were a few times where rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert was tasked with blocking Mario Williams on his own.  After last week’s offensive debacle in Indianapolis, one would think adjustments would be made to help the offensive line block pro bowl quality players from dominating a game.  Williams had 2 sacks and was routinely in the Steeler backfield.  Insanity Bruce, insanity.  One other strategy that seemed to work well was the short passing game.  Bruce, if the offensive line can’t block long enough for Ben to throw the ball 40-50 yards downfield, then you will have to settle for what the defense gives you.  Yes, chicks dig the long ball but Steeler country digs wins.  Hines Ward is one of the best in the league at catching quick slants in the middle of the defense.  If you need an introduction to Hines, I will be glad to set up a meeting.

This might be a moot point with the hamstring injury to Rashard Mendenhall but, right now, the Steelers need to sit him and allow Isaac Redman be the workhorse.  After Mendenhall left the game, Redman promptly carried the ball six times for 40 yards and Mewelde Moore toted the rock four times for 34 yards.  Between them, they averaged 7.5 yards/carry whereas Mendenhall averaged 2.8 yards/carry (9 carries for 25 yards).  There didn’t appear to be any drastic changes in the offensive line or the blocking scheme, just the fact that Redman and Moore hit the holes hard or ran to daylight when the holes weren’t where they should be.  Everyone wants to blame the offensive line for everything from Steeler losses to the National Debt.  The offensive line was not pathetic when Redman and Moore were in the game.  In addition, establishing the run game would enhance cohesion among the offensive linemen and build confidence as a unit.  Also, this would take pressure off of the passing game as teams would have to play the Steelers as a run-first team which should be the offensive identity to begin with.  We didn’t draft Mendenhall in the first round so he could dance (we already have 1 dancer on the roster), we drafted him to run the ball, no matter if it was in the open field or in the middle of a pile of bodies.  He’s not doing his job right now, so he has to sit.

Speaking of not doing their jobs, I would like to address the Steeler linebacking corps.  I don’t have to tell anyone in Steeler country that the organization has a long and proud history of game-changing linebackers.  Some of them have been inducted into the hall of fame and many others have been regulars at the Pro Bowl.  This unit is failing the defense right now.  James Harrison is not 100%.  He doesn’t have the burst of speed or the herculean strength that we usually see from him.  He is not getting to the QB as often as he has in the past and, in my estimation, he is not seeing as many double teams as he has faced in the past (I say this because I do not have solid numbers to back this opinion).  Harrison was quoted after the game by the AP “We played like garbage.  Period.  We stink right now.”  At least he is honest about it.  Lawrence Timmons is not playing poorly, but his impact is being limited by teams running their tight end or running back down the middle of the field.  Timmons must cover these routes because James Farrior can’t do it anymore.  I hate to say this but James Farrior is done.  Since 2002, James Farrior has been the heart and soul, as much as anyone else has been the heart and soul, of the Steeler defense.  James can’t keep up with the running backs and tight ends that run pass routes in the middle of the field.  Last week when Joseph Addai ran for the Colts only offensive TD, James took an angle to the hole that was so far off, he didn’t even get a hand on Addai.  He would have easily made that play just last year.  On Arian Foster’s 42 yard touchdown run, James cheated too far to his right, then was hit so hard by the tight end that it took him three steps to regain his balance.  By that time, Foster was breaking to the outside and Farrior was left in his dust.  Speaking of being out of position, Lamarr Woodley was another Steeler linebacker who failed to contain Foster on that play.  Lamarr, made a beeline to the QB, then was so far inside that he couldn’t lay a hand on Foster even though Foster cut back towards Woodley’s gap.  The Steeler defense is set up to prevent big plays.  By playing the run first, and playing a version of cover two deep, the Steeler defense prevents long runs and passes and forces offenses to try and beat them using short passes (this is one reason why the Patriots are so successful versus the Steeler zone blitz).  Woodley has 1.5 sacks this year which, at this rate, would give him 6 sacks for the year.  $61 million for 6 sacks/year?  Nice work if you can get it.  With James Harrison being hurt, Woodley needs to turn up the heat.  The reason why Woodley was drafted was due to his combination of size, strength and speed.  He could play the run, bull rush or speed rush.  I have followed Lamarr since he was at the University of Michigan.  In 2010 and so far in 2011, he has basically given up on the speed rush and simply engages the tackle, sometimes initiating a bull rush.  If the tackle doesn’t have to worry about Lamarr’s speed rush, then Lamarr just blocked himself.  Time to step up, Lamarr.  Let me just make one final point about the linebackers.  If you notice in the past two games, Troy Polamalu has been sneaking up to the line and making plays in the offensive backfield.  If the linebackers were doing their jobs, Troy could play safety and not have to take huge risks like this.  Maybe it is time for younger players to get some playing time.  Stevenson Sylvester played well in the pre-season and Larry Foote is playing better than James Farrior right now.  I'm not panicking, I just think that if your starters are not making plays then other players need to step up and contribute.

As far as the defensive line goes, I already said after the Seattle game that we aren’t getting a big enough push in the middle.  Brett Keisel is hurt right now and that is a bigger problem than most of us realize.  I think Ziggy Hood can be a quality defensive tackle/defensive end.  One of the reasons why he was drafted is that he is big enough to play inside at defensive tackle but he is quick enough to play defensive end.  What is very disconcerting is that when Hood plays a significant portion of Sunday’s game and Antonio Brown finished the game with one more tackle than Ziggy.  There were ample opportunities to make a play on Arian Foster and Ziggy just didn’t make a difference.  Aaron Smith made some decent plays but I think it is obvious that he is just about done.  He no longer gets that surge into the backfield like he used to.  I wasn’t able to isolate Chris Hoke’s play but there was one play when Houston was in the red zone, Hoke was pushed a good five yards off the ball by the center.  That never used to happen and can’t continue if the Steelers want to return to the Super Bowl. 

Change can be good.  This team will find it hard to win by repeating the same behavior for the rest of the 2011 regular season.  If they do, you will see many new faces next year.  Some folks concluded that the Steelers came into this season with almost the identical roster as last year due to the NFL lockout.  Whether that was a factor or they were just plain giddy over their current players only Kevin Colbert can reveal.  The fact is, the Tennessee Titans are coming to town and they are playing much better football than the Steelers right now.  If the Steelers expect to win, they better bring a better game plan and execution to Heinz Field on Sunday. 

I would like to hear your comments both positive and negative.  Thanks for reading!

P.S. I did not lay into the offensive line because there are enough people blaming them for the struggles of this team.  I think they are part of the problem but not entirely the problem.  Some of it is due to coaching, some to play calling and some to a lack of quality time together (like mini-camp and OTA’s).  Is there a lack of talent?  Maybe, but I am not ready to concede that at this time. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images


  1. Excellent article! 100% agreement.

    @JoeSteelerFan - Twitter

  2. Tim:

    A good take, but to be quite honest, there are too many problems with the cap to address problems this year. To me it is obvious that Farrior should sit on passing downs, as you correctly point out he can't cover running backs or tight ends coming down the slot any more.

    I also think that Casey Hampton is not pulling his considerable weight and we need to start thinking about the future at that position. Some were wary about the contract extension he received last year, and they may have been right to be wary.

    The problem as I see it is that the front office made some bad salary cap moves coming out of the no-cap season and the lockout looming over their heads. The owners goal in the lockout was to reduce the amount of the pie going to players which could only translate into fewer cap dollars per team. The overall reduction in the cap hurt veteran teams like the Steelers disproportionately and Mr. Colbert should have erred on the side of experience on the O-line and erred on the side of youth on the D.

    I know you don't like Bruce Arians, but he doesn't suit and play on Sunday. IMHO a better analysis of the overall decline in offensive production over his four years as offensive coordinator can be explained by the age and/or relative inexperience of the O as a whole, age on the line and youth and inexperience at the skill positions. When both are in constant flux in unpleasant ways, less production is certain to result.

    I like Mendenhall but Willie Parker was a proven performer who had not noticably slowed. Hines Ward is a Steeler icon whose roster spot and sslary are probably better spent on other positions. He stayed one year too long in my opinion and is mostly a non-factor in the current offensive scheme. Getting rid of Santonio Holmes did something to Ben's confidence. His skills are certainly replaceable by Mike Wallace, but his chemistry with Ben is not so easily replaced. Holmes was Ben's go to guy and Wallace has yet to prove that he is a go-to guy.

    I like the combination of Redman and Moore at running back. You see more and more teams moving away from a feature back to multiple back sets in the NFL, and a lot of that is because of the pounding running backs take. You just plain get a fresher body every week if you don't have to rely on a single running back in your offense.

    The Steelers need to run to be effective and given the state of the O-line, run blocking is easier than trying to drop into pass protection against more experienced, speed rushing D-linemen and the whole litanty of blitz packages that teams are creating these days. Mwelde Moore gives them more options on 1st down, pass or run, and Redman and Mendenhall give you two different styles of straight head rushing on second down and third and short situations. The Steelers have to find ways to get the ball into Heath Miller's hands on short slants and swing passes to loosen up the defensive fronts they're seeing. He's a load to tackle even when they don't fool the defense. This looks like an 8-8 team and that should surprise no one in Steeler Nation who sees this typical post Super-Bowl let down season repeat itself twice before in this decade.

    The goal for the rest of this season is to get better and evaluate the young talent on this team with any eye towards a major overhaul this offseason.

  3. Thanks for the response Legil. There are plenty of NFL veterans who are waiting for a call from NFL teams but the phone isn't ringing. It seems like teams are ok with paying their stars big bucks and relying on the youngsters to make plays. I expect Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and James Farrior to retire at the end of the season. Who else has to go to make room under the cap is anyone's guess. They will either have to cut or restructure some people to sign Wallace. Unless they want to let him go somewhere else and Brown or Sanders can take his place. Big mistake in my opinion.

  4. Well explained and well said. I have felt that Arians has been kind of obvious for quite a while that is just my feeling. I agree with what you said about the RB's but also remember that they typically have come in the 4th quarter when defense's start to get tired. I am not disagreeing with the change i am just commenting. My general feeling on the team makes me think of a comment that Mike Vick said this week actually "Gut Check". I just don't feel we are playing with that edge, with that feeling that no one will beat me on this play. I am not going to comment on the offensive line either other than that when you keep having injuries and new bodies comes in it just means a lack of cohesion. Thats all anyone that wants to can follow me on Twitter: @steeler_canada. Great article though.