Confessions of an Arians Agnostic

It is interesting to see how polls evolve.

The current poll rating Steelers offensive coordinators appeared in mid-February, when the article ran commemorating the St. Valentine’s Day Disaster – aka Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton. Walton took and held a firm lead in the poll while such a stark reminder of his horrendous ineptitude remained fresh (to read the full article, click here.)

But as the article moved further down the Steel Curtain Rising’s home page, and then into its monthly archives, Bruce Arians and Ray Sherman overtook him and assumed their neck-and-neck contest for worst place. Which leads me directly to the subject of this article…

What to Make of Bruce Arians?

Steel Curtain Rising struggled to come to grips with Bruce Arians throughout the Steelers ill-fated 2009 season. Yours truly had heaped criticism aplenty on Arians in 2008, but took some legitimate comeuppance when Arians’ offensive game planning was one of the master strokes that led to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

So, as someone who is a Smash Mouth Football Purist but who has nonetheless has argued time and time again that Roethlisberger, notwithstanding his current legal difficulties, deserves respect as one of the elite NFL quarterbacks, I, generally, kept quiet as the Steelers pass-run ratio crept to a historic 60/40.

Part of this reticence came from wanting to give Arians the appropriate respect and part of it was rooted in the fact that I simply hadn’t, and couldn’t, make up my mind.

At mid-season, Behind the Steel Curtain’s “Drinkyourmilkshake” was expressing my view better that I could have myself.

It appears that Drinkyourmilkshake had also worked hard to keep an open mind towards Arains. But one play critical play during the Kansas City game pushed him to the tipping point:

Early in the Kansas City game Rashard Mendenhall runs the ball off right tackle on first down and gains between 7 and 8 yards. Let me explain in advance; it does not matter one bit to me whether Arians passes or runs in this circumstance. Either decision can be easily defended. What Arians did which made no sense to me is that he lined up for the next play in an empty backfield set. The defense would have to respect the presence of a runner in the backfield which would make a play action fake particularly effective…

(To read “Drinkyourmilkshake’s complete article, click here.)

That’s was an excellent analysis, if not outright prophetic, given that it came two games into a five game losing streak.

What Exactly Constitutes a “Balanced” Offense?

Early in 2009 season Arians claimed that he was interested in maintaining the Steelers tradition on offense. However, he indicated that the tradition he was aiming for was not from the 1990’s, but from the late 70’s.

Music to my ears.

As a unit, the Steelers offense has never been as effective as it was during the seasons that led to Super Bowls XIII and XIV

But let’s keep in mind that the 1978 team had a pass-run of 38/62. OK, Noll didn’t really open it up until 1979 you say? The 1979 team had a pass-run ratio of 47/53.

The conclusion is simple. Chuck Noll and Tom Moore knew that they had been blessed with a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Hall of Fame Running Back, and two Hall of Fame Receivers. They weren’t interested in putting up statistics or showing of their genius.

They were interested in winning, and they knew the best way to do that was to design game plans that that made the best use of the gifts of the tremendously talented men they had playing for them.

Does Airans Game to Get the Best Out of the Talent He Has?

Can we say the same of Arians?

The record reflects that Arians followed that example in 2007, when Willie Parker was in his prime, and Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington were still developing; Parker was leading the league in rushing until he got hurt in week 16.

And you can credit him for doing that in 2008. The Steelers suffered ravishing injuries to both the offensive line and the running back corps and, despite complaints here in elsewhere, success for the Steelers in 2008 meant move the ball through the ball.

With the exception of the second half against Denver, Arians struggled to get the entire offense firing on all cylinders in 2009.

  • Sometimes he seemed either disinterested in establishing the run
  • Other times, he seemed too ready to abandon it
  • There were games when Arians appeared too eager to go for the knockout punch
  • Despite passing game’s shock and awe, the Steelers could never score consistently in the Red Zone

Against Cleveland, it appeared that the decisive factor had been reached. The Steelers started out strong, rushing to a third and one, only to see Arians call and empty set backfield, followed by a punt.

The empty backfield issue had returned to haunt the Steelers with a vengeance – after one possession, the Steelers found themselves on the ropes against the lowly Browns.

Arians went on to call 40 pass plays, on a frigid, windy night in Cleveland….

….I was ready to throw in with drinkyourmilkshake in calling for Arians’ head.

Then came the Green Bay game.

Defensive Titans Stage Shoot Out

Green Bay came to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number two defense. Pittsburgh had the NFL’s number four defense.

Thickening the plot, Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau, perhaps the two men who did more than anything else to put the zone blitz on the map in the NFL, were facing off…

…The result was an all-out, unabated shoot out.

For perhaps the first time, the Steelers were in a game that Ben Roethlisberger had to win all by himself.

And Ben was more than up to the challenge throwing 503 yards. Ben joined an elite group of quarterbacks who’ve passed half grand mark, and he further distinguished himself by doing so without throwing a single interception.

When speculation was rampant that Mike Tomlin was about to fire Bruce Arians, Post Gazette columnist Ed Bouchette took to PG Plus to make a compelling case on Arian’s behalf.

Bouchette pulled no punches. Like me, he agreed that Arains play calling sometimes befuddled.

But he offered one compelling argument as to why he should stay.

  • Ben and Bruce work well together.

Certainly, Ben could excel with another coordinator.

No one hopes more than me that the NFL’s current MO of “Thou Shalt Not Run” and “Thou shalt not have superior defense” is a passing fancy, but there’s a lot of objective evidence to suggest its not, at least in the short and perhaps medium term.

Assuming his current legal troubles do not curtail his career as a Steeler, Ben Roethlisberger is a true franchise quarterback, and the Steelers should treat him as such.

Both Ben and Bruce on the same page, and in an age when the quarterback is king one only trifles with such bonds at their peril.

No tears would have been shed by Steel Curtain Rising had Mike Tomlin decided to dismiss Bruce Arians.

But by the same token, if Tomlin accepts Arians’ commitment to being able to run the ball when it is necessary, so should Steelers Nation.

Thanks for visiting Steel Curtain Rising.

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