Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Season Of Change: Five Key Players For A Successful Steelers Offense

by Jason and Jayden
Want to know a secret? NFL offenses are surprisingly milk-and-water and bland. It's true. Approximately 75% of what NFL teams do on offense is very straightforward. Virtually every team runs the same things every week. In fact, there isn't even that long of a list.

Just look at games around the league - almost the entirety of the NFL's run game amounts to about five plays. Plays that haven't changed much in 40 years: running between the tackles, running the outside zone (or the "stretch zone"), power play, a counter, and/or a pull or lead draw play. To some degree it's like a red-light district: no matter how much or how different the makeup used, it's still the same trick.

Now turn your attention to just one NFL team - the Pittsburgh Steelers. After failing to make the playoffs after last season, changes to the Steelers roster were needed and inevitable. General manager Kevin Colbert said as much last January.

"If we don't change 8-8, if we don't change the roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result if we've got the same group of guys," Colbert said. "We can't box ourselves in and limit what we potentially could do."

Change they did, as at least eight players, four on offense, are gone from last season's roster. Now, be it touchdowns, explosive plays or red zone production, the Steelers face the daunting task of replacing their production. How will they do so? By changing a lot, yet not much at all. Within that, though, three things in the former category are paramount: execute, execute, execute. Execution, especially for the offense, is sacrosanct. For example, 110 points were scored off of Steelers turnovers in the 2012 season. Such careless and inept play much desist, it must change. But the controlling of the clock and controlling the tempo of the game, which they often did in their wins, conversely must continue.

Married to those points are the players who themselves must bear the load of the needed change. Aside from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being the undisputed leader and resident John Wayne of the team, there is a mix of veteran leadership and wide-eyed youth to look to as the offensive keys to unlock the door to the playoffs. Big Ben has publicly said recently that he wants more Super Bowl rings than Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. Well, since "the best defense is a good offense," the Steelers need to continue some of the things they were doing on offense last season and edify other things in order to keep their defense and the opposing offense off of the field. If they do so, then another of those rings may find its way to Big Ben's finger sooner than later. To that end...

EMMANUEL SANDERS - "They're expecting 70 catches and 1,000 yards, and that's the same thing that I expect for myself," Emmanuel Sanders said in June.

A lofty goal considering the Steelers' leading receiver last season had 64 receptions for 836 yards and Manny himself had a career-high 44 receptions and 626 yards. Not only that, but Manny is the second receiver behind Antonio Brown, who'll receive the majority of the targets. The goal may be possible, but it isn't probable because of the fact that Brown will also already have an increased role himself.

Manny's speed, quickness and diverse route-running fits right in with offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense. Therefore, there should be more red zone targets for Manny, who had a career-high 762 snaps on offense, but only five targets inside the 20-yard line. He received 14 targets over his first two seasons, catching nine of them for a total of 65 yards and three touchdowns. Though that is just one shy of Miller’s total during that time, those numbers are skewed considering that Miller's red zone targets and catches increased under Haley.

Still, we can see that there will be room for Manny to receive more red zone targets with the departure of various players. Manny has great hands, as was shown by over 70% of his receptions going for first downs - the Steelers leader in that category. His prowess and potential have him poised for a breakout year.

WILL JOHNSON - The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review posted an article last Sunday that highlighted the shortage of tight ends heading into Training Camp this coming Friday. It pointed out that "no one within the organization knows when Heath Miller will be prepared to play this season." If It Ain't Steel also stated back in March that the Steelers would miss Miller, who'll likely be PUP listed to start the season, more than many may think. - http://tinyurl.com/n7j3yyq

Add to that the knee injury that David Johnson suffered and Matt Spaeth and one can expect either David Paulson or Will Johnson will fill in until Miller recovers.

As we wrote a couple of weeks ago, Johnson was noted in OTAs and mandatory minicamp as showing maturation, increased ability to sustain his blocks and leadership. Johnson also was in the pass pattern 134 times last season and caught 15 balls for 137 yards in 22 targets. This would then support another Trib article that suggested Johnson's likelihood of being in pass patters more often next season. So, while listed as fullback, expect more overall H-Back duties.

Johnson was an important player to the Steelers as fullback and lead blocker, with his catching more passes being part and parcel to an increased importance this season, especially early on in the season. A fact that suits him just fine.

“I will do whatever I can do to make myself more valuable to the team," said Johnson, "and if that means catching passes, then I am fine with that."

LE'VEON BELL - "I think he's going to be exceptional," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey on Sirius XM Radio in May about Le'Veon Bell. "He came in, he was 250 (pounds) in college, he came into rookie minicamp at 234 and they say with him running around the edge being an outside zone player that he can be with the power that he brings, I think its really going to help us out."

The job isn't exactly his yet, but the Steelers' brass have to hoping Bell comes in and rips the job away from new teammates Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. They want him to literally take it and run with it, something no one could do last season.

Being an approximate 235-pound back, running that "outside zone" would suit Bell just fine as he is can pop it outside as easily as he can pound it inside. He's not a power back, though, but one who can read and react. That, then, would fit in just perfectly with the Steelers running more of a zone-blocking offensive line scheme next season. Which leads us to our next key player.

OFFENSIVE LINE - We could easily have focused on one of the individual positions or players on the offensive line, but we realized that this year as much as any in recent memory requires them to act as one. To be one.

The Steelers spent the past several drafts investing heavily in the OLine. Since 2010, they've spent two first-round and two second-round selections on offensive linemen, and now they must come together as a unit under new coach Jack Bicknell, jr.

They are led by top 10 NFL center, Maurkice Pouncey who can pull like few centers in the league. He is great at getting to the second level and never takes a play off. But he does have an injury history and can be handled by bigger nose tackles. He is surrounded by guards Ramon Foster (left) and David DeCastro (right). Both are very good at run blocking and pulling, though are somewhat less proficient at pass blocking. That trio is then book-ended by tackles Marcus Gilbert (projected left) and Mike Adams (projected right). Both are athletic and quick-footed and can grind in the run game. But the key for both of them, principally Gilbert, is pass blocking, which can't be stressed enough. Keep Big Ben upright and the Steelers win.

The depth, if it can be called that, behind them manifests itself in the forms of Kelvin Beachum and Guy Whimper, and undrafted players Mike Golic, jr., Joe Long, Mike Farrell, John Malecki and possible Training Camp darkhorse Justin Cheadle.

The most important aspect of their collective job is unity. Being on the same page as much as humanly possible is essential and, according to Pouncey again, they are already buying in to the new system in order to do just that.

"With us this year trying to go to the outside zone scheme...I think we got the offensive line to do it this year," Pouncey said, "and we really plan on attacking it at these OTAs."

JERRICHO COTCHERY - We spoke earlier of the opportunities that Manny will have to take a big step forward this season. He isn't the only one, though. Jerricho Cotchery will not only be the No. 3 or No. 4 wide receiver, but he can also be very useful in the red zone, a role in which he already excels.

In the nine years that Cotch has played in the NFL, he has reached pay dirt (via TD reception) 20 times. Of that number, 11 have come inside the red zone. So, like Manny, it's important that Cotch stays on the field next season as both have missed time due to injuries. He knows how to use his body to shield the defender from the ball and get the needed yardage for TDs or first downs.

It is those qualities that will be vital to a Steelers offense that still presently has more questions than answers. If the Steelers are to answer them in time for the playoffs, those five elements must come together.

~

TIDBITS: This isn't a Steelers story, but we had to touch on it. A University of Florida Gators sophomore linebacker by the name of Antonio Morrison was arrested Sunday morning for the second time in just over a month. Bad enough, yes. Get this, though. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Morrison “was charged with interfering with police by harassing a police animal.”

"Harassing?" Ok, that sounds weird enough, but get this. According to The Gainesville Sun:

"On the same day the Alachua County Sheriff's Office released the dashboard camera video of the Sunday morning of arrest of University of Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the arresting deputy should have given the 19-year-old a warning for BARKING AT A POLICE DOG instead of placing him under arrest."

Yes, friends, he was actually barking at a dog. Barking. At a dog. A police dog. Barking.

Had the officer and the dog been playing "good cop, bad dog?"
Was Morrison trying to gain the police dog's trust by speaking its own language?
Is Morrison a relative of Michael Vick?
Was Morrison affected by the dog days of summer, or by a substance that could be partly cured by the hair of the dog?
Was Morrison acting out because he'd recently learned that he was going to be PUP listed to start the Football season?
Or did the Florida Gator simply mistakenly think the dog was from Georgia?