As the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to adjust to Todd Haley’s offensive system after four years running the Bruce Arians offense, fans are clamoring for an idea of what to expect out of Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive teammates now that a new boss is in town.
They really shouldn’t expect something completely foreign. In fact, they may want to look back to the team’s history for some idea of what they’ll see in the future.
Here’s a look under the hood.
Remember Ken Whisenhunt?
Briefly, let me explain my “back to the future” comments. Haley cut his teeth as a coordinator with Ken Whisenhunt after the latter became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Their 2008 team reached the Super Bowl—the first in Cardinals history—and lost a heart-breaker to the Steelers.
Haley moved on to Kansas City, but he took the same offensive approach with him that had found success in Arizona and previously in Pittsburgh when Whisenhunt was Bill Cowher’s offensive coordinator. The differences are subtle enough that they’re hard to notice. That’s why Whisenhunt’s work in Pittsburgh is a good blueprint.
Efficiency and Productivity
One of the big complaints about Bruce Arians' offense that was well-founded was that the running game slowly suffered a decline in production that sped up in the last two seasons. Yardage is one way to measure it. Yards per carry is another. Both numbers fall short of giving a good overall picture.
Here’s what you should know: the Steelers were one of the worst teams in the NFL in the red zone when running the ball. Those situations should be money for a team with diversity and talent in the backfield. A mobile quarterback didn’t seem to help.
Haley will aim to alter the way the Steelers run the football. So far in camp, the team has been running and passing about equally while using the no-huddle (more on that in a bit). That’s one sign of change.
If you, like me, have watched a lot of games since 2007, you were probably screaming to just let Roethlisberger sneak the ball over the line. It was borderline maddening how little the Steelers allowed Big Ben to have a designed carry.
I’d expect to see some naked bootlegs thrown into the mix and a lot more draws than he’s run in the last four seasons. I’m talking designed plays too, not just improvisation.
In the running game itself, I think Haley will place an emphasis on productive carries. Isaac Redman is a great player for that type of thing because he can generate yards where holes don’t exist and churn for extra yards after he’s hit or wrapped.
Something the Washington Redskins are trying, a three-headed attack of Evan Royster, Roy Helu and Tim Hightower, could be useful in Pittsburgh between Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch. Those three give Haley a diverse skill set that includes the ability to gain tough yards inside, bounce outside for big gains and catch the ball in the backfield or over the middle in traffic.
One thing I’d predict will disappear would be those four straight dives at the one. The Steelers are going to be more creative and versatile in those situations.
Bring Back the Play Action
Back when Ken Whisenhunt was running this offense, I often thought that Ben Roethlisberger was becoming one of the best play-fake guys in the league. Peyton Manning raises it to an art, but Ben hasn’t been awful at it by any stretch.
The last couple of years, the play fakes were there but were less effective because the running game wasn’t nearly as threatening. This year, I expect Haley to work on reversing that trend.
Something I found a lot in tape from Haley’s first year in Kansas City—when the team was healthy enough to be judged—is that he would give teams the same look but different plays. For example, he might trot out four receivers with a single back and throw the ball deep. Then, he’d send out the same formation and send the runner up the middle or around an edge.
This is something lost on Pittsburgh, which would frequently do the same things in a diverse set of formations. One thing that Arians liked was to give different looks, especially early in games. The problem was that, in many situations, you could predict the play based on the look.
One thing that might end up interesting would be to throw out of the jumbo package with three tight ends. Regardless of how you slice up this year’s tight end spot, the Steelers have a talented group of guys who can block and catch. Imagine the headaches for a defense if the Steelers can trot out three tight ends and complete a big pass!
Different looks out of the same formations will help with play fakes. Haley is adept at keeping defenses guessing and off-balance. That’s what you want for play action. The threat of the run might be more valuable at that point than an actual run.
A devastating side effect for opposing defenses is that they’ll have trouble covering the teams burners (Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders) and won’t be able to securely cover the middle where Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller will be roaming. If you add in erstwhile Mike Wallace, this situation becomes even more deadly.
I’ve read and heard a million things about how Haley is rough on quarterbacks. He doesn’t like failure and we’ve all seen the video of him and Kurt Warner jawing with each other or of Matt Cassel getting into it with him. It’s easy to think Ben Roethlisberger will be the same, but I doubt it.
I don’t for a minute doubt Haley will yell at him. I don’t doubt for a minute that Ben might yell back. I highly doubt it will be detrimental to the team.
Kurt Warner understood that Haley was trying to help him grow as a passer even as he entered the final years of his career. Roethlisberger is still in his prime and, like it or not, he has room to grow some.
Among the things I expect Haley to attack are the mistakes with interceptions—Roethlisberger throws about four per season that are completely bad mistakes on his own part—and the tendency to hold onto the ball and take a hit rather than throw it away.
I don’t want Haley to change Roethlisberger’s style of holding onto the ball a little longer than normal. I do want him to teach Ben how to recognize when he’s going to get hit badly and how to get rid of the ball in those spots. Roethlisberger’s devastating ankle injury last year was the result of waiting far too long for nothing to develop.
Play Calling Style
One of the things people loved about Ken Whisenhunt was that he wasn’t afraid to do something outside the box. Jerome Bettis threw passes. So did several wide receivers. Flea flickers happened.
These are all things that have largely been missing, especially last season. Bruce Arians had some creativity, but it was not the kind of thing that fans dream about and opposing defenders dread.
Todd Haley will likely bring that back. He’s got several very athletic and versatile receivers. He’s got a diverse crop of running backs. He’s got one of the best clutch play-making quarterbacks in the league. There’s talent at tight end and an improved offensive line too.
The possibilities are endless and I think for now I’ll let everyone dream of their own crazy plays. The point is that defenses likely won’t be able to figure things out nearly as easily as they have been for awhile now. It’s time to use Roethlisberger’s backyard style and other players’ unique talents to the Steelers’ advantage.
Forget The Huddle
Let’s face it. Bruce Arians had something against the no-huddle. He only would run it if the game required it. Even then, it was grudging.
Under Todd Haley, the Steelers will actively employ it. They were working on it in camp today for both running and passing plays.
Ben Roethlisberger is a throwback in may ways, but one of my favorites is that he has a talent for calling plays at the line. Only a handful of other quarterbacks playing today could call their own offense. That’s an invaluable skill because it means that the quarterback can recognize what’s in front of him readily and adjust on the fly.
The no-huddle saves time and timeouts. It also scores points and exhausts a defense. An offense dictates the pace of any drive by how quickly they move between plays and which kind of plays they use. The no-huddle is a great way to exploit a weakness because, once you start, the defense can’t adjust without spending a timeout.
Haley can and likely will turn this loose a lot more often. Anytime he or Roethlisberger find a crack, they’ll be able to exploit it with this method. The Steelers are usually about controlling the clock, but protecting leads is a dangerous business these days, particularly when you finish 21st in scoring yourself.
How do you think Haley’s system will play in Pittsburgh? What else can we expect to see? Leave the comments!