The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on a 5-2 record, they’ve won all of their division games, not lost inside the AFC, overcome a rash of injuries, and they boast the league’s most relentless pass rush. And yet, they have a problem.
- The Steelers offense is out of sync.
Sure, the team has put together some heroic drives to close late games, and that is an improvement. The Steelers are also dangerous inside the red zone….
…When they get there.
The offense lacks consistency. It hasn’t consistently established the run, it cannot protect its quarterback, and it is only converting 34.5% of its third downs and that by and large is the reason why the offense is ranked 24th.
- So where does the source of the Steelers offensive woe lie? With Ben Roethlisberger or with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians?
For objectivity’s sake it’s important to say right at the get go the Steel Curtain Rising was suspect of Bruce Arians as soon as he was named offensive coordinator.
The Steelers identity is of smash mouth football team. A team that wins by dominating, by imposing its will.
- Yet one of Arian’s first moves as offensive coordinator was to phase out the full back, in spite of the fact that the Steelers had the best blocking full back in the league.
While the Steelers offensive backfield isn’t the same without Willie Parker, one gets the feeling that Arian isn’t committed to establishing the run. Thus far, the team has almost 50/50 split between running plays and passing plays.
This would not be a problem if the team were converting third downs, but the Steelers are not doing that. Moreover, this run to pass ratio is resembles the run to pass ratio at this point in the ill-fated 2006 campaign, than the run to pass ratio after seven games in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
Mewelde Moore has done everything the Steeler have asked of him. In his first game as a starter, he ripped off four runs that gained double digit yardage.
- Nonetheless, Moore seems to disappear from the Steelers offensive game plan for entire quarters.
This makes no sense. The fact that the team has not used more Gary Russell also mystifies. Russell has taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given as well as Moore has, but he has looked impressive at times.
Arian’s insists on three tight end formations, despite fact that the Steelers do not have a tight end troika suited for the power formations that were the staple of NFC East offenses in the heyday of Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs.
The test of any coach or coordinator is not the schemes he can dream up, but his ability to get the most of the players he’s given. Which brings us too…
Unlike Bruce Arians, Steel Curtain Rising is big on Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is a franchise quarterback, and deserve to be revered up there with the Tom Brady’s and Petyon Mannings of the day.
- Ben deserves the praise and poise he has shown under a relentless pass rush.
Al Michael’s observation that Ben should replace Robert Downey as the next Iron Man only errs in that the analogy might not be strong enough.
- Nonetheless, Ben is not playing his best football.
His completion percentage is still around 60%, which is about where it was after seven games in the previous four seasons. But his touchdowns are down and his interceptions are up.
One of the things that Arians said he was going to do upon being named offensive coordinator was to turn Ben loose. This meant that he was not only going to allow Ben to make plays, but that he was going to bring Ben into the game planning process, and give him more freedom to freelance on the field.
The result was Ben’s best season ever, as the 2007 campaign should have obliterated any of that garbage “Ben is only a game manager.”
Too Much Freedom, at Least Sometimes…?
One has to wonder if Ben sometimes has too much freedom.
Six games into the 2007 season the Steeler went into Denver with the NFL’s number one rushing offense. The Broncos had one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. The Steelers went and called something like 21 passes in the fist half….
- At the time Steel Curtain Rising berated Arians for that, comparing him to Joe Walton.
Later on that week word got out that those 21 passes had originally been run plays, changed to passes when Ben didn’t like the looks that he saw at the line of scrimmage.
- Is something similar happening this year?
The Steelers went up early against the Bengals, and then struggled on offense for 2 quarters. Ben’s comments after the game are revealing:
“We killed ourselves in the first half; I called a bad game,” said Roethlisberger, who pitched a bad game as well until very late. “I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce [Arians], now I know what it feels like to do that. He told me I did. I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things. I really felt that we could have had 28, 30 points at halftime.”
There you have it “…I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things.” [emphasis added]
- If Ben has a definable weakness, aside from perhaps trying show how tough he is by standing in the pocket for too long, its that he some times tries to do too much himself.
Roethlisberger is a stand up guy. He never used the motorcycle accident or the appendectomy as an excuse for his poor play in 2006. But he did admit that at times he felt he went too far in attempting to take games into his own hands.
The Steelers special teams let Jacksonville right back into the game after Pittsburgh drew blood on the opening drive, and Ben spent the rest of the half trying to force the ball throwing two interceptions that led to another 14 points for the Jaguars.
Sans Parker and Santoino Holmes, much the same happened last week against the Giants. As the Tribune Review’s John Harris observed:
Manning attacked the Steelers with a scalpel, taking what the defense gave him and picking his spots downfield. Roethlisberger hacked away at the Giants, looking for big plays even when there were none.
If Harris’ diagnosis is on target, then what is the solution?
- There’s no easy answer, but the solution must come from both Arians and Roethlisberger.
Arians must commit to establishing the run and, regardless of whether Willie Parker truly is back at 100%, there should be no excuse for him not to with Mewelde Moore and Garry Russell there to help. And while it would be foolish to try to handcuff a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s talent, Bruce Arians and quaterback’s coach Ken Anderson needs to coach Ben toward making better decisions.
Bill Cowher used to like to say that a team finds its identity during the first 5 to 7 games of a season. If that is correct, then the Steelers 24th ranking offense is cause for concern.
- Yet if you told that to Mike Tomlin, his answer would likely be, “You know, all of that sounds nice, but the fact is that we are still writing our own story.”
Let’s hope the Steelers offense begins writing a new chapter tonight against the Redskins.