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Steelers Found Their Offensive Coordinator, Now, What is Their Plan?

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With confirmation that Todd Haley is at the Steelers South Side facility today and will be named the team’s offensive coordinator, Phase I of the modification of the Steelers offense is complete: they found their leader.

Now, there are plenty of broader picture issues that Haley and Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin will need to prepare for come minicamp, which is just three months away.

This list is far from all-inclusive, but much of the offensive transformation will be based on these three concepts:

Managing the relationship with QB Ben Roethlisberger

The adage “no one man is bigger than the team” is true, but it is with the exception of the franchise quarterback. It’s particularly applicable in this case, as Roethlisberger and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians are good friends and there’s little chance that won’t be in the back of Roethlisberger’s mind when Haley works with him. Ben is a professional, and will no doubt follow the coach’s instructions, but his willingness to do that – and way more importantly, his ability to deal with issues behind closed doors, away from the young players on the team – will be essential if this relationship is to work at a high level.

Haley must take on a willingness to meet Roethlisberger on a 60-40 basis. Good leaders have the humility to be able to recognize he or she is not more important than all of the people s/he is leading. In order to win the hearts and minds of the offense, he must get Roethlisberger to buy into the direction he’s leading them. Therefore, he must know when to fight, when to concede and how to keep Ben engaged.

Haley certainly can do that, but if he fails, it will halt the progress of this talented offensive group.

Staying committed to the run

A commitment to the running game is not solely displayed by the amount of rushes a team has – it exists in the one-off situations. It’s about choosing to run when the situation calls for a run, and being successful in those efforts.

To that end, it’s not about the play-calling. It’s about the amount of time Haley will spend in training camp working on those short-yardage plays. It’s about making sure the back is running at pad level and securing the ball. It’s about the linemen firing low off the ball and engaging their assignment with passion.

If those details are emphasized and fine-tuned and the players digest it, the play-calling itself is a snap. Instead of choosing the “right” play, Haley can choose from a slew of plays he knows the team can execute, and the real skill of a coordinator – being unpredictable – is achieved.

It makes little difference whether RB Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman lead the league in carries, yards per carry or touchdowns. The Steelers will achieve the front office-mandated commitment to the run simply by watching how well they execute in short-yardage situations, including the goal line. Speaking of that…

Understand the problems in the red zone come from emphases placed outside it

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders made an excellent point earlier this season on how there is no direct correlation between a team’s overall offensive efficiency and its efficiency when inside the opposing 20-yard line.

The Steelers may stray from that statement a bit, considering they were 12th in the NFL with 373.2 yards per game, but tied with Tennessee for 21st in the league at 20.3 points per game. To put this into context, the Steelers needed 18.33 yards for each point they scored this year. That figure was the 27th highest total in the league.

No team lower than them (Washington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Kansas City and St. Louis) even sniffed the playoffs in 2011.

What this anomaly illustrates is the Steelers’ core philosophy last season: rip off big chunks of yards at all times. That may work between the 20s, and red zone efficiency may not be anything more than another way to judge an offense’s success overall, but physical properties establish there aren’t as many yards to grab in chunks when you’re that close to the end zone.

In other words, they moved the ball when they had room to move it. They failed when they needed less yards.

That is because Roethlisberger’s elusiveness is far less valuable, because receivers don’t have the same amount of real estate they had 40 yards earlier in the drive. Defenders know they have the back of the end zone as an extra defender, and that cut off Roethlisberger’s ability to make big plays off-schedule.

The decisions made before the red zone are made before the game. A red zone commitment to the ground doesn’t mean only call running plays inside the 20, it means recognizing the situation for each down and distance as well as the location on the field from which the play will be run.

Arians’ play-calling decisions and failures were ultimately made before the opening kickoff. Haley must prepare this team to challenge its opponents in the short field as well as the vertical one.

All of these things should keep Haley, Tomlin and the rest of the offensive staff busy between now and the next set of organized team activities. Perhaps with 14 hours a day, every day, until the start of OTAs, they could have it down pat.

Unless, of course, something happens to a player entering camp looking to become a prominent member of the offense. What’s Wes Saunders up to?

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Championship Game Analysis Looks at Physical Giants Receivers and a Plan of Success for New England

Working off-schedule is kind of nice.

Without much of a news budget scheduled until march (draft madness, baby), we’re pretty much going to freehand most of the writing. I see that as a good thing. Being serious get old after a while.

I’m gonna stay off-schedule, and just give you some of my uncensored, random thoughts on the match-ups this weekend. I shared my feelings on the Brady v. Flacco match-up coming up, I’ll try to dig into the NFC game a bit too.

I have two older brothers, and I’ve often thought about what it would be like if both of us were (chuckle) head coaches in the NFL.

Everyone talked about the Harbaughs exchanging information in regards to upcoming opponents. I dismissed this as having anything of value because coaches do that all the time. Raheem Morris, the former Buccaneers coach, worked under Mike Tomlin on Jon Gruden’s staff in Tampa Bay in 2005. You think they don’t share information as well? Does the fact they aren’t blood relatives make that scenario any more or less likely?

If anything, when I think of either of my brothers being at that level with me, I think more of the times I had to be the center while one completed the Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to the other, or the times they’d play goal line stand, where I had to get in the end zone from a yard out against both of them.

I may give them some of my honest opinion, but I’m going to throw a red herring or two in there as well.

“Nah, don’t worry about Ninkovich, run away from him, what happened against Denver was an aberration. And that bit with Hernandez in the backfield? Don’t worry about it, there’s no chance all they were doing was putting it on film so you think they’ll run out of that formation next week. Sell out for the run, Ray Lewis can cover him in the open field, no problem.”

It may not necessarily be with Hernandez, but look for the Patriots to stretch the Ravens defense out much like what Houston did. Granted, they don’t have Arian Foster, and they aren’t the greatest run-blocking team, but their linemen are quick and athletic, and setting up play-action off getting Baltimore’s linebackers moving horizontally will open up a lot of room down the seam.

Clearly, the story in this game is Baltimore’s defense vs. New England’s offense, so the other side on both teams needs to come up with a few plays. With the Ravens offensive line falling apart, and the Patriots defense playing above the sum of its parts (which still isn’t much), this will come down to Baltimore’s ability to keep Flacco upright long enough to eventually hit one of the deep passes they insist on throwing. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Ravens would simply pepper the Patriots with even doses of Ray Rice and TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, but I’m done trying to apply common sense to Baltimore’s offensive game plan.

Rest assured, though Tom Brady will not throw straight into tight high-low coverage multiple times the way T.J. Yates did. Remember that when you hear Ravens fans crying about the lack of coverage in their secondary. However, it may not matter, because if the Ravens defense is as good as everyone says it is, there’s no reason they cannot dial up the kind of pressure needed to stop Brady.

As for what Brother John is saying to Brother Jim about the Giants:

“Make Nicks beat you. It’s ok to cut him loose to eliminate Cruz. He’s really not that strong, and can’t really make big plays in traffic. He’ll fumble, too, if you hit him square in the chest, so emphasize stripping the ball over putting him on the ground. Whitner can play on his own in the deep secondary, so tell your corners to go for the pick.”

Donte Whitner nearly single-handedly cost San Francisco a win when they had no business losing. Yes, turnovers have been San Francisco’s bread-and-butter all season, but there comes a point you need to recognize when an offense simply has a physical advantage over you. Whitner’s lame attempt to go for the ball on the 7-foot-5 Jimmy Graham missed horribly, and Graham went for a 66-yard touchdown.

The Giants are going to try to run deep posts and digs on Whitner and take advantage of the good size and excellent strength of their receivers. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Giants are added to the “best receiving corps in the game” conversation before this season is over. Nicks and Cruz are easily the strongest pair of receivers in the league, and they’re emerging as the best playmakers as well.

Look for this to be a brutally physical match-up. San Francisco has the most aggressive defense of the remaining playoff teams, but as the Saints proved, over-aggression can be a problem in big games. Also, like the Saints proved, five turnovers means little, because, in the end, the team that goes the hardest for the longest is going to win. A true battle of attrition. And you know Mike Tomlin likes that.

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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One Horrible Game, One Horrible Drive, One Horrible Plan and One Horrible Play


During the previous off-season I begged the Steelers to improve the cornerback situation (The Importance of Shopping at the Corner Market). I did not think they could win a championship, in this era of prolific passing, by winning 10-to-12 regular-season games and then getting torched in the playoffs by one of the fantasy quarterbacks who have become their daddy – guys named Brees, Brady, Manning and Rodgers.

The Steelers didn’t exactly overwhelm me with cornerback hopes in the 2011 Draft. The first two rounds were allocated elsewhere. They did, however, use the third and fourth rounds to pick Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. While Brown was used exclusively on special teams, and quite productive I might add, Allen had his moments as a defensive back, but still too young for major impact.

Pittsburgh led the league in pass defense this past season, but Brown and Allen weren’t legitimate reasons. The number one reason was the obvious shift in philosophy by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The soft-cushion, sure-tackling coverage that is good enough to lead to an impressive regular-season record, is not good enough to beat the fantasy quarterbacks in January and February. LeBeau’s philosophical shift to a tighter, riskier coverage scheme was a wise decision for the most part.

The second reason for the Steelers passing defense crown was the acquisition of secondary coach Carnell Lake. Lake had the unique background of being a Pro Bowl player at both corner and safety. Lake brought that blend to the table and it showed on the field. The Steelers secondary often looked like interchangeable parts, and that was a good thing. Many times it looked like there were five or six Carnell Lakes on the field, not knowing which were cornerbacks and which were safeties. Opposing quarterbacks also took notice and in fact, had trouble with their counter-moves.

The third reason for Pittsburgh’s improved secondary was the accelerated play of the incumbent personnel. Ike Taylor had the best year of his under-rated career. Many argued that he was the team’s MVP. Willie Gay, the traditional whipping post of the secondary, made many more significant plays that brought smiles to Steeler Nation, with far fewer bad plays. Keenan Lewis finally looked like he could be a player. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark never looked better. When three or four people improve in a five-person unit, the improvement of the whole is dramatic. It could also be concluded that reason number three (accelerated play of incumbent personnel) might have been the byproduct of reason number one (philosophical shift in coverage schemes) and reason number two (Carnell Lake’s contribution to the soup). In any case, the total synergism of all three reasons produced a massive upgrade to Pittsburgh’s defense. This upgrade should spark optimism in the Nation for better days ahead. The NFL’s offensive video-game performances are not going to go away soon. Instead of being kryptonite, the Steelers defensive backfield might continue to grow into the antidote.

Why then, with such improvement and optimism, did the Steelers not win their division and not win two playoff games like they did a year ago? The reason, and I hate to use Bill Cowher’s favorite cliché, but it is resoundingly true, is that there is such a fine line in the NFL between Super Bowl Champions and teams that do not win playoff games. In the case of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, that fine line came down to one horrible game, one horrible drive, one horrible plan and one horrible play.

The horrible game, of course, came in the opener against Baltimore. There is no point in analyzing that game to glean anything positive. Every player and every coach was horrible. That happens in the NFL, but when it happened to the Steelers against the Ravens, it became the harbinger for a season-long chase in which the rabbit never did get the carrot. Pittsburgh fans were teased when the Chargers beat Baltimore on a Sunday night to open the door, but with half of Ben Roethlisberger traveling to an outstanding San Francisco team, that door was shut the following night.

The horrible drive, of course, also happened against the Ravens, this time in the re-match. Pittsburgh had 92 yards to defend in order to reverse the opening debacle. The Steelers gave up only 2,751 passing yards all season, more than 200 fewer than the second-best passing defense and more than 2,000 fewer than the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packer defense. But in the NFL, like life, timing is everything. The timing of those 92 yards against Baltimore changed the outcome of the season. I mumbled to Mary Rose that we were going to regret that drive for a long, long time. Being good overall can be deceiving when you’re not good when you really need to be. In ironic retrospect, the strongest part of the Steelers’ defense was the weakest part at the very moment when it was needed most.

The one horrible game and one horrible drive was the difference between being the number one seed in the AFC, with home field advantage and a valuable week’s rest for a banged-up veteran team, and a five-seed limping into a mile of altitude without the league’s most underrated safety. Not a good time (there’s that “timing” thing again) to concoct your worst defensive game plan. The Steelers put two field goals on the board before Denver gained a first down. On their third possession, the Broncos were faced with a third-and-12. In an absolute critical moment of the game, a moment when Denver was on the verge of knowing that its previous three games produced the real Broncos, Tim Tebow hit the first of his long passes that gave his team life, brought the crowd back into the game and with another 30-yard pass later, gave Denver the lead. They would never trail again.

The Broncos scored all three of their touchdowns by completing four passes for 200 yards. The game plan called for the same tight man coverage that conquered Tom Brady earlier in the season. In fairness to the defense, Pittsburgh’s offense played brilliantly against New England and basically kept Brady off the field. Still, Tim Tebow is the anti-Brady. He is incapable of dinking and dunking you down the field with long drives. The Steeler defense of 2010 and prior, playing soft and requiring numerous precision passes to score a touchdown, would have beaten Tebow. Remember, that defense almost always beats poor-to-mediocre quarterbacks, of which Tebow is clearly a member. Tebow was accurate 10 times the entire game. He would have needed to be accurate 10 times in just one drive to score just one touchdown. Moreover, it is likely that somewhere along the way an errant or deflected pass would have landed in the arms of a Steeler defender who was playing behind the receivers.

The gamble to play the same defensive scheme against Denver as New England was one which cost the Steelers to at least live another day. On that other day, Bill Belichick did not repeat Pittsburgh’s mistake and with a far inferior defense, made Tebow-mania a passing (or should I say non-passing) fad. The Patriots didn’t need Brady’s six touchdowns passes. Two were enough. I often say that hindsight makes geniuses of the cowards who use it, and far be it from me to critique the great Dick LeBeau, but New England’s defense of guys milling all over the field was far more effective against Denver than Pittsburgh’s plan to put everyone on the line of scrimmage like the starting line at the Boston Marathon. Once again, the strongest part of the Steelers’ defense was the weakest part at the very moment when it was needed most. That timing thing again.

Which finally leads to the “one horrible play.” With all 11 defenders stretched across the line, Denver needed just one play to end Pittsburgh’s season in overtime. It was the second time in a decade that Pittsburgh lost a road playoff game in overtime without touching the ball. Despite adding another chapter to the many stories of heartbreaking playoff losses in Steelers’ history, optimism will still be aplenty going into the 2012 season. It is built in to the psyche of Steeler Nation. But when looking back at the story of 2011, we will always be reminded of that ultra-fine line in the National Football League. 2011 will forever be titled, “one horrible game, one horrible drive, one horrible plan and one horrible play.”

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Contingency Plan For Possible Postponement Would Include Playing In Oakland


Mike Tirico on ESPN got word from the NFL, and stated the contingency plan for any further delays that would potentially cause a public hazard would result in postponement of the Steelers Week 15 game at San Francisco to Tuesday during the day.

The power at Candlestick Park has gone out twice tonight, once right before kickoff and once during the second quarter.

What would that do to the Steelers, who have a Saturday game against St. Louis on Saturday?

The least amount of time teams have between games is four days – Sunday to Thursday. A three-game respite between games is unprecedented since the league adopted Thursday night games.

San Francisco would obviously have the same liability, but the 49ers don’t need to get on a plane back to the Eastern Time Zone after the game ends.

Whenever that is.

It’s midway through the third quarter, and there doesn’t seem to be any power issues. The first two came without warning, though, and another stoppage could lead to a postponement.

If Candlestick Park is unable to host the remainder of the game, it would shift across the bay to Oakland Coliseum.

The 49ers have the ball in Steelers territory with 10:21 left in the third quarter, leading 6-0.

In a game where Pittsburgh’s defense appears to be performing at a high level, their offense could use a night off. While their overall yards (202) aren’t terrible, they aren’t coming in bunches on the same drive. They’ve threatened in the red zone, but Roethlisberger interceptions have held them back.

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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