The Steelers officially hired Arthur Smith as their offensive coordinator, and the instant reaction has been mixed, to say the least. Some fans and media members think this was a perfect fit for this team, while others detest the move. After stewing on it for roughly 24 hours, I think the Larry David “Ehhh” meme encapsulates my feelings on this move.
Smith, on paper, is a great fit for this team. He embodies an old-school mentality of establishing a grueling run game that is then complimented by an efficient passing game. This was fueled in Tennessee by a prime Derrick Henry, who made that type of offense click. The Steelers build on offense is almost perfect for that, but I struggle to see the upside with this hire.
This was evident during his time in Atlanta. While he was naturally in charge of more than just the offense, his focus was spent on building out the run game in order to minimize the lack of talent at quarterback. He cracked 2000 total rushing yards over the past two seasons (he failed to log 1500 total in his first year as head coach). Even with a lackluster passing game, Atlanta continued to try and build a Smith-style offense on the ground.
In a modern NFL system though, that is hard to do, and all of your pieces need to work perfectly. In Tennessee, you had Henry around to take the majority of heat off the passing game. That is, for the most part, why his system was so successful. You didn’t have that in Atlanta even if the run game still hummed.
What can Smith do with the Steelers QB position?
My biggest concern with this move is that the Steelers are still seemingly all in on Kenny Pickett this season and hope a fresh face can change his fortunes. Smith doesn’t have a great track record with quarterback play though. He was a tight ends coach before his promotion to offensive coordinator in Tennessee, so his main interactions with quarterbacks began in 2019.
He didn’t do any wonders for then-incumbent Marcus Mariota. At 26 years old (in 2019), there was still time to right the ship and have him play like the top draft pick he was. While not a disaster, he failed to effectively move the ball and capitalize in the red zone, throwing a Pickett-like seven touchdowns over seven games.
People are quick to point out Ryan Tannehill’s success, but I chalk that more up to the scheme than Smith doing anything to better his game. He joined Smith at the age of 31, and it isn’t like he suddenly evolved into a more dynamic passer. He took what was given to him and benefited from an offense dominated by Henry.
Even when Tannehill had a full season to start in 2020, his stats were in line with his per-game performance from 2019. Henry, meanwhile, rushed for over 2000 yards and was the lifeblood of that offense. This isn’t to say that Tannehill’s success was entirely due to the scheme, but he was a veteran taking advantage of a great situation, something he never had in Miami.
Notably, Tannehill did regress the year after Smith was promoted to head coach. That was also the year that Henry missed over half the season with an injury. Suddenly, the core cog of the unit was gone, more pressure was on Tannehill, and he struggled.
This isn’t to say that Smith can’t help a young quarterback develop. That said, I think his offensive scheme is built around hiding the passing game as opposed to elevating it. This could lead to some success and even a career year for Pickett, but it likely won’t translate to great playoff success.
What does this mean for the Steelers as a whole?
I think the Smith signing is a safe one, which is both a blessing and a curse. I wrote often about how the Steelers were building this run-first offense to hide their passing deficiencies last year. That never panned out for a variety of reasons, so it seems like the team has doubled down on that notion.
While Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren don’t compare to a prime Henry, both should benefit from the Smith hiring. While both found success this past season, the run game was slow to get started. I would hope that it finds its legs earlier this year.
My issue stems from the long-term success of the team. I was skeptical of the way the offense was built last year, and it proved to be ineffective once you got into the playoffs. The defense can only do so much, and playing to keep the score low against top offenses likely won’t lead to a deep playoff run.
This goes back to my long-standing question: What is the Steelers standard at this point? Smith should position the offense to keep Mike Tomlin’s stretch of not having a losing season intact, but I’m not sure it will lead to playoff success. It is a low-risk move with a capped ceiling, and I don’t find myself jumping for joy with this addition.