"I think that being familiar and getting a certain amount of exposure to it, it's going to bring comfort. But we can't relax in that comfort. We have to continue to move forward as a unit. I thought we did some good things, particularly initially. I thought we waned down the stretch. I look forward to putting the pieces together and trying to be the best we can be in 2013." - Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on Todd Haley's first season as offensive coordinator and the offense evolving this season.
As the team wades through the free agency waters and preparations continue for the 2013 NFL season, the focus for most is on whether enough will be done to rebound for a playoff appearance. Even this blog tackled this subject and declared that the Steelers are in for a rebuilding year. However, one thing is certain: if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley continue to get into that "comfort" zone, the Steelers have a shot.
Haley's offense is predicated on two main concepts. Firstly, he wants his unit to go on sustained drives that kill the clock and, in doing so, keeps his defense and the opposing offense off of the field. When done successfully, thus inhibits the opponent's ability to score points of their own. Secondly, he wants the running game to set up the passing game.
Both of those were being accomplished early in the season. As we pointed out in a previous blog, the offense did work early on. Its failings were directly associated with injuries (especially to that of Big Ben and the offensive line), a limited running game, dropped passes, fumbles and interceptions. In the first nine games of the season, the team was 6-3, was scoring 23.0 points per game, was just -1 in turnover differential and was averaging 103.8 rushing yards per game.
The Steelers' offense was one of the most efficient in the league. By a large margin, it led the NFL in third-down conversions and in time of possession. Big Ben was leading the NFL in third-down passing and was on pace for having one of the best seasons of his career.
Then came the injury in that week nine game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He would miss three and a half games total and has admitted that, not only did he return to the field too soon, he didn't have the same confidence in himself and his game.
"Sometimes, certain passes just weren't right. I didn't trust myself to get enough zip on it to throw it out there. I tried to guide it too much instead of just throw it." - http://tinyurl.com/bwtvwoo
Fast forward to March of 2013 and faces among the crowd have changed. His left tackle, running back, his big-play target and his tight end (for a while anyway) are all gone. But he hasn't let that deter his outlook.
"You never like to see anybody leave. But I'm pretty sure there's never been in the history of this sport the exact same team come back two years in a row.... I have confidence [the front office will] get guys in here who will be ready to compete and play," Big Ben said.
That being the case, the replacement of those missing faces is paramount. Because, as good as the defense was again last season, the offense steers this ship. Make no mistake, the NFL wants more scoring and its rules favor that end. Want proof?
Over the last five seasons (2008-2012) the NFL teams with the fewest yards per game allowed were the Steelers ('08: 237.2 YPG), the Jets ('09: 252.3 YPG), the Chargers ('10: 271.6 YPG), the Steelers ('11: 271.8 YPG) and the Steelers ('12: 275.8 YPG).
Did you notice the trend? The yards allowed increased each year over that period. The fewest points per game allowed during that same time frame also increased, going from 13.9 PPG (the '08 Steelers) to 15.3 PPG (the '12 Seattle Seahawks). Yet, only two of those teams turned those accomplishments into Super Bowl appearances: the Steelers (twice).
So replacing the missing pieces, limiting turnovers and being more efficient in executing the offense are the conglomerate key - a key still turned by Big Ben. Which he can do, along with Haley, if he lets it happen. Something that someone familiar with Haley says he can and should do.
Kurt Warner, former NFL quarterback who played under Haley had quite a bit to say regarding the benefits that can be had by Big Ben. He said, in part, that Big Ben needs to ask himself, "‘Why are we doing this? How does this benefit me? How does this play to my strengths?' If the offense didn't play to his strengths, I think it would be tough to ever buy in. But I do believe it plays to his strengths.” - http://triblive.com/sports/nfl/3406657-74/warner-offense-roethlisberger#axzz2JWrlKYRm
Taking the offense and embracing it is essential. His gaining a greater understanding of the offense, and they of each other as Tomlin alluded to, will lead to success. As it is, most of the so-called tension between the two was media driven. But you still have two stubborn, A-personality individuals here, both of whom want to win - tensions, especially in a season where expectations went unfulfilled, were bound to rise.
In essence, they need to make sure that they solidify their professional relationship, straighten up and fly right and determine the direction they want to go, which one the navigator is and which one is the pilot. (Just cool down, papa Ben, don't blow your top.)
Big Ben will be playing behind potentially the youngest offensive line in the NFL next season. Warner also faced a similar situation during Haley's tenure. How did he handle it?
“When we were together, we threw the ball down the field a lot. But we complemented that with a lot of the short-passing game — and we were limited at our offensive line position," Warner also said. “It was understood, ‘Hey, we can't just drop back seven steps and try to wing the ball down the field all the time.'"
Before Big Ben's injury, he was on pace for the fewest sacks of his career (23 in 2005), and still ended up being sacked "only" 30 times. The real difference in this is that he suffered the fewest sacks per pass attempt in his career (6.3%). So the 'tweaking' of things has helped in that at least.
It needs to continue. Adding a productive run game will help facilitate that, and will help facilitate winning in general. As a comparison, including the playoff games against the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots were 13-1 when rushing for 100 yards, yet they were 0-4 when held under 100 yards. Tom Brady's sack-per-pass-attempt ratio was also a low (4.1%). So the running game is still important. And Ray Graham of Pitt wants to feel important. - http://tinyurl.com/cx23jg3
This is still, though, a quarterback-driven league and your franchise must be protected - even from himself.
“They can eliminate hits and then they can take chances down the field, which is what Ben is so good at,” Warner said. “(The short passes) eliminate the risk factor of him having to get hit over and over again."
Not only that, but Warner summed it all up better than we could by what he said next.
"Not just the risk factor for Ben but the risk factor for the team that when Ben doesn't play, this team is a different team.”
That they are.
TIDBITS: Speaking of quarterbacks... There was the one that got away: http://sulia.com/channel/pittsburgh-steelers/f/4d2fe802-4363-464b-b001-6dfa7bdd8c1a/?source=twitter
And the one yet to visit...Tulane QB Ryan Griffin: http://tinyurl.com/cezzkpc
With the new helmet rule, should the Steelers forget drafting a running back in the first round? - http://tinyurl.com/bt9dzbs