As the game clock ticks down below the two minute warning in the fourth quarter, you see your team with the ball, deep into their own side of the field and down by six. You’re sitting at the edge of your seat with anticipation, but deep down you know they’ve been here before and almost always emerge victorious. You wait with a confident sort of anxiety–for Big Ben has staged much more miraculous comebacks than this to pave the way to Super Bowl glory for your Steelers.
But this last minute effort wasn’t staged by Big Ben. It was staged by Bruce Arians.
Instead of the well choreographed, last minute, no huddle dance to the goal line, you got four poorly coordinated, poorly timed lobs to would-be receivers. NOT ONE YARD was gained and not one run play was even attempted.
So what happened? Were the reigning World Champion Steelers finally outmatched? Outplayed? No, they were simply out-strategized. With just under two minutes to play, Ben could be seen talking to Bruce Arians just before he went on for what would be his final drive. Bruce made very OBVIOUS hand motions that led the audience and the Bengals to believe that all Bruce wanted Ben to do was throw the ball. And throw he did. Ben attempted a pitch to each of his typical receivers, but failed to connect every time.
With one of the best quarterbacks in the league and quite possibly one of the most well rounded offenses, the only logical explanation is bad strategy. First, 1:55 on the clock is far too much playing time to resort to desperation passing. Especially since each failed pass attempt results in the clock stopping, sneaking a running play to the right and getting out of bounds would have thrown the defense without eating too much time off the clock. It also would have kept the defense honest and playing tighter, fearing another sneak run play, which could have allowed Ben to air it out long and ideally to the end zone. Second, rarely do we lose when we bring out the no huddle offense in the closing minutes of the game. Not only does it throw off the defense and not allow for adjustments and substitutions, but it also puts the strategy in Ben’s hands, where it belongs.
Now, I was hesitant to jump on the “Fire Bruce Arians” band wagon. I assumed that with the extremely loyal lot that are the Pittsburgh Steelers fans, that perhaps most of the hatred of Arians stemmed from the fact that he came on to fill the shoes of the great Ken Whisenhunt. Or perhaps because he came from Cleveland. It was not until this game against the Bengals that I realized that all this time, the raw talent and strong will of the team has been hiding his inadequacies all along. Put simply, his play calling is not always “bad” per se, just often predictable. The Bengals didn’t outplay the Steelers by any means (aside from the fact that Jeff Reed just doesn’t seem to want to tackle people running back his kicks). They just seemed to always know what was coming next.
Since it’s not likely that we’re going to fire the guy mid-season (if ever), I believe the answer is simple. Let Ben do what he does best. He understands the flow of the game and responds well to it. He understands much better than Arians the diverse cache of weapons that is the offense and how to use it in battle. Arians, on the other hand, gets so enamored with Ben’s throwing arm that he forgets that Mendenhall can sometimes rush for ten yards, even if he gets first contact at the line of scrimmage.
Ben has been lobbying for more no huddle this season. I hope Coach Tomlin overrides Arians and just lets him have his way with the Chiefs this Sunday.