Who is to Blame for the Steelers’ Offensive Woes? What Can Be Done to Cure Them?

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Bruce Arians

I understand that it is a tad cliched to be blaming the Offensive Coordinator for the Offense’s problems.  Frankly though, the buck stops with Arians and everything that has happened under his watch.   And he has shown time and time again over his 4+ year tenure that his playcalling is a large part of the problem for not only the Offensive Line, but the entire Offense as well.

When the Offense gets into the Red Zone particularly, the playcalling  simply ceases to have any creativity or positive outcomes.  Want proof, take the last game for instance.  The last game I might add was probably played against the worst team with arguably the worst Defense in the League.  Anyways,  Arians called that off-Guard play to Mendy inside the 5 yard line, which in theory isn’t a bad choice.  However, Seattle obviously watches game film because Arians always calls that damn play and they knew exactly what was coming.  Then how about the dropback by Ben where he was murdered later inside the Red Zone was simply an asinine play to call.  I mean having the Rookie Gilbert matched against a quicker DB with nobody to chip him in a Goal Line package?  WTF.  How about his turtling when Batch entered the game and called basically nothing that would have netted a TD?   And that’s just a sample of the red zone mistakes, I won’t even go into the rest of the game that was played between the 20’s.  All you had was that moronic gadget with Sanders that only worked because he made a terrific throw under duress.

How about a few pass plays to the Backs or TE’s to shake things up?  Or how about running Redman a time or two? Regardless, consider these statistics if you are an Arians supporter and his Red Zone wizardry:

In 2009 the Steelers only scored TD’s on 48.2% of their trips into the red zone which placed them 21st in the League.  Then in 2010 they finished 15th in the League with a slightly higher percentage of 52.46% which was helped significantly by playing patsies Carolina and Cleveland the final week of the season.  Theoretically the amount of Offensive weapons that Arians has at his disposal should have allowed the Steelers to have far and away better results than the two I just mentioned.  I mean the group of skill players that the Steelers have now is probably the most talented since the glory years of the 1970’s.

I’m sure some of you will say, “Yeah the skill guys are awesome, but the Line is terrible, and they are the cause of such lousy statistics.”  I say not necessarily.  Arians’ crew puts up yards, there’s no denying that, but his playcalling in general and his playcalling in the Red Zone is something to be desired when you consider the Steelers’ lack of success in terms of points actually being scored and Ben getting pummeled in the process.  Yet most disturbingly of all, numerous playcalls by Arians actually give his Offensive Line hardly any chance at all to succeed at all points on the field, and that is bad news for Steelers fans, for example:

Ben is literally destroyed on a lot of pass plays with 5-7 step drops.  Ben is just left in the pocket to get hammered by the oncoming tide of defenders who know that all that is standing between him and them is a shoddy Offensive Line that can be penetrated easily.  The hodge-podge Line has no chance on many of these plays because they a) require Ben to stay in the pocket and b) require lots of pass protection and time for Ben to throw.  You’d think Arians would know how bad his Offensive Line is and try to avoid putting them in situations like that.  Or how about when Arians calls one of those telegraphed run plays to Mendy out of a bunch single back formation where he tries to run up the gut.  It’s like “Hey Diddle Diddle, Rogel Up The Middle” all over again (Steeler history joke).  When the Defense knows it’s coming, it’s very difficult for even an above average line, let alone a line with hardly any chemistry to do anything.

There’s no bones about it.  The Steelers’ Offensive Line is not good and requires upgrades and cohesion.  However, it should be noted that Arians does little to try and help them with playcalls that do the following: benefit this below average group, promote Red Zone scoring, and in turn help to protect their $100 million dollar investment in the form of Ben.  Below I will provide some simple ideas that Arians and his staff should consider using which I feel can not only assist and mask the deficiencies of the Offensive Line, but also benefit Ben and the entire Offense as a whole:

1. Get the Backs More Involved in the Passing Game

The Steelers are a very lucky team to have 3 RB’s that are adept pass catchers.  Mendenhall, Moore, and Redman would consistently be used as pass receiving weapons out of the backfield on most other teams, but they are usually left to rot in the passing game in Pittsburgh.  Having these receiving options at Ben’s disposal is something of tremendous value, because mismatches can be had with LB’s and Safeties in the middle of the field, and screens can be drawn up against blitzes that can burn the opposition for big yards.  Screens don’t necessarily require the most top notch of pass protection and the Offensive Line can use their weakness to their advantage by allowing the Defense to get too far upfield and over pursue.  With the Defense too far upfield, the Line can congeal and lead the way for the backs (each of whom display nice R.A.C. ability at this point) for some nice gains.  Throw in a shovel pass or two during the game, and the opposition will really not know what hit them.

2. Quick Slants, Arrows, and Screens to the WR’s

While the Steelers have arguably the most dangerous deep threat in the game in Mike Wallace, the Offensive Line can’t always protect Ben for 7-step drops that are required for bombs and longer throws.  I’m not saying the deep passing game should be nixed.  It needs to still be in the playbook because Wallace is too damn good to just rot on shorter routes.  However, to alleviate the Offensive Line from the onslaught of the Defensive pass rush, Arians (who uses a couple of these per game) should try and get his superb slot WR’s and Wallace involved with quick slants and screens.

These types of pass patterns and plays do the following important things: First, the ball is out of Ben’s hands (on screens and slants) before any defender can even touch him, thus the O-Line will have a much easier time protecting him with such little time being needed to pass block.  Second, the speed of Brown and Wallace coupled with the adept route running of Sanders and Ward can help to pop these slants for big yardage.  In addition, if there is enough space on the screen passes, it allows for the speedsters to make something happen if they make a man miss.  Finally, these quick passes keep the Defense honest and will cause them to rethink their blitz packages and coverages.  With uncertainty comes opportunity.  When the Defense is looking for screens and slants and can’t simply blitz the crap out of Ben when they know what is coming, then Arians can dial up the 9 routes and 7-step drops for Wallace and Co., and the O-Line won’t have to be under so much pressure.

3. More Rollouts for Ben

This one is pretty obvious.  Ben is one of the better if not one of the best passers on the run in the entire N.F.L..  Having him stand straight in the pocket like a statue with a poor Offensive Line in front of him can and has been disastrous at times.  Ben rolling out allows for him to avoid the rush more as well as take advantage of the opposition’s lapses in coverage and help find pass catchers downfield (especially the savvy vets that know how to get open like Miller and Ward) without having to run for his life.  Plus Ben is athletic enough to just tuck and run if nothing is there.  The only problem with plays like this is if Ben chooses not to slide.  But other than that, rolling Ben out promotes safety on all fronts for the Offense.

4. Use TE’s and Redman in the Red Zone

Arians’ use (or lackthereof) of his TE’s simply disgusts me.  Not only does Heath have soft hands, he can at least be used as a decoy in the passing game because of what an adept receiver he is.  You can’t trick the other team into thinking he is a pass receiver when he is constantly used as a bleepin side-car or run blocker.  It makes literally no sense.  The same goes for David Johnson and the athletic freak UDFA Weslye Saunders.  Both of these guys could be used as weapons in the passing game because of their ability to catch the ball, but because Arians likes to use 3 TE sets as well.  Yet they’ve been relegated to the old T.E. position for the Steelers (a.k.a. Tackle Eligible), and aren’t even permitted to be included in the Offense.  The amount of options Ben could have on quick throws or rollouts to these guys is unimaginable and could really make this Offense scary in the Red Zone.  Getting Ben on the move and/or the ball out of his hands to guys that the Defense rarely accounts for can only the O-Line.  And with fewer sacks and more success, there will eventually come more confidence for this beleaguered unit.  I mean, watching these athletic TE’s relegated to Goal Line blocking and side-car duties is literally like one entering a knife fight with 3 pistols (which your opponents don’t know you have) and simply not even bothering to use them.  It’s simply ridiculous.

The fact that Isaac Redman is not used in Goal Line rushing scenarios also incenses me to no end.  As I alluded to before, everybody knows that Mendenhall will take it off-Guard inside the 5.  And if I know it sitting at home, I’m pretty damn sure the Defensive Coordinator on the opposing team who gets paid to do his job knows it too.  If Bruce wants to keep calling that play, he can go right ahead, it’s a free country, and sadly it’s his Offense.  Yet I don’t understand why he doesn’t use his best power runner at least once in freaking a while on that play!  Or who knows, maybe he can get creative and have Redman catch a pass here or there (because he has shown his skills before), or even line up with Mendenhall or Moore in the backfield to shake things up a bit.  Oh, but I forgot, Brucie doesn’t like using Formations with 2 Backs in them!  Nevertheless, Redman is an under utilized weapon that needs touches and can be used arguably most effectively inside the opposition’s 10 yard line.

What do these plays have in Common?

Well, all of these plays do two specific things.  First, they take quite a bit of pressure off of the Offensive Line and their pass protecting responsibilities and the pressure that comes with it for this below-average group.  The quick passes require shorter amounts of time when it comes to blocking, and the plays to the TE’s and Redman allow for the Defense to be kept on their heels, and not content to send the house at Ben on every obvious passing play or ignore possible pass catchers on any given play.  This alludes to the second thing: these plays in turn help Ben to stay upright, and an upright Ben means a healthy Ben, a healthy Ben means the Steelers can score more points with intelligent playcalling, and a healthy Ben with the Steelers scoring more points with smarter playcalls means the Steelers have a shot at winning a lot of games.  Sometimes it pays to think outside the box and look at the bigger picture and who benefits.