The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into an offseason of change. How much change is yet to be determined, but a change that should be made would bring about a familiar identity.
The Antonio Brown saga continues and will continue until the day he is traded (or not traded). It’s the most fitting way to cap off a frustrating season for the Steelers. The season started with drama, had drama go on throughout the season, and has saved the best for last in the grand finale. Unfortunately, the ultimate sacrifice has been paid as the Steelers join the rest of America is watching the playoffs from their couches.
In his post-season press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin promised changes were coming. And he hasn’t failed to deliver on that promise. The Steelers have already parted ways with outside linebackers coach Joey Porter and running back coach James Saxon. More changes are more than likely coming. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a finalist for the Denver Broncos’ head coaching vacancy and there is still speculation over Keith Butler returning as defensive coordinator.
In many ways the Steelers have gotten away from what they’ve been known for. The offense is more explosive and talented than the defense, players are more outspoken and noisy than ever, and of course, they throw the ball way more than they ever have in their history.
The NFL is a passing league. The rules cater to quarterbacks and defenseless receivers over the middle. Until the league changes (and they should), the spot fouls on pass interference infractions increase offensive output as well. The game has never been more favorable to offenses who want to throw the ball all over the field.
Yet something that remains true is running the ball and having a good defense consistently gets you to playing games into January, even possibly February. The Legion of Boom defense in Seattle embarrassed the number one offense in Denver that year in the Super Bowl. The Denver defense shut down the seemingly unstoppable Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers.
While it may not seem like it, the Steelers defense is closer to being really good than really bad. They have legit players and finished as the sixth-overall defense. They just need to scheme better late in games and be able to make in-game adjustments.
The one area the Steelers have full control over, and have the personnel to do so, is make the run game more central to the offense. You have a legitimate running back, and potential star, in James Conner, and even if guys like Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert are gone next season, the Steelers still have a great offensive line.
In 2018, the Steelers ran the ball 20 or more times in a game nine times. In those games, they were 8-0-1. Let that sink in. When the Steelers handed the ball off, or Ben tucked it and ran only 20 times in a game, they were undefeated. That also means there were seven games they ran the ball 19 or fewer times and they were 1-6 in those games.
Now, there are other variables that play a role in this. They fell down 21-0 to the Chiefs and 14-0 to the Ravens and HAD to abandon the run to preserve time and score quickly to have a chance to come back and win. But that’s only two of the seven games.
What about Oakland and their abysmal defense? While James Conner wasn’t available, you couldn’t have had a better game plan to help Jaylen Samuels be successful? Were they so dedicated to the pass in that game because they were afraid Samuels couldn’t get it done?
Mike Tomlin has many mantras, but two of them are not living in their fears and having a “next man up” mentality. The Oakland game violates both of those. You don’t have that drastic of a difference in results without it meaning something. When you go undefeated when you run the ball, why abandon it?
If the Steelers look to throw more often to cater to Ben Roethlisberger, that’s a huge mistake. Ben is the unquestioned leader of the offense, in more ways than one, but he needs to also realize that when they run the ball, they win.
The bottom line is the Steelers threw the ball on 68% of their plays in 2018. That is horribly unbalanced. Throwing the ball is a great ability to have, and even if the Steelers trade Antonio Brown, they will still have the ability to throw the ball effectively. But here’s that ancient strategy that never seems to actually die: when you can control the clock and play defense, you win football games.
The Steelers were 8-3-1 in 2018 when they won the time-of-possession battle. It is clear the Steelers are more successful when they are more balanced. Of all the off-the-field changes that need to be made, this is one that needs to be made on the field.