Football coaches often talk about their team not losing its identity, but every year a couple of teams do.
It's quite puzzling. Coaches are hired to their respective positions specifically to organize a locker room and a philosophy in one direction. Yet they struggle to do that, and in an ironic twist, they lose their jobs over it.
When it comes to Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the former hasn't lost his job yet and he shouldn't; he's a fine coach, but there is cause for concern about the direction his team is heading in.
In the last three years, the offense's running game has regressed. Last season they averaged 3.7 yards per carry. That's not good. In order to fix that, the team may look to add a talented, workhorse runner in the draft, such as Alabama's Eddie Lacy.
Lacy is 5'11", 231 pounds and surprisingly light on his feet. For a supposed power back, he's not supposed to move the way he does. He is agile and quick-footed, making him a very attractive prospect for teams in the late first round or atop the second round.
Despite his talents, it's debatable whether he is a fit for the Steelers.
It was reported earlier this offseason that the team may be moving to a zone blocking scheme (via post-gazette.com). If you're unfamiliar with zone blocking, it's when the offensive line slides down the line of scrimmage in one direction, performing combination blocks at the first and second level. What that requires from a running back is cutback ability.
The ability to find the cutback lane on a zone blocking stretch play is not something every running back can do, despite coaches, such as Mike Shanahan, being able to plug and play them regardless of how or where they found them.
At Alabama, Lacy wasn't at his best when running the stretch concept. He's very good at running on the front side of plays, which is why he succeeded when Alabama called outside zone stretch runs, but doesn't necessarily make the cutback you're looking for.
Here's an example against LSU. Lacy is the lone running back in the Crimson Tide's "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends). The stretch play is designed to the left.
At the snap, Lacy takes the handoff and runs left. As he's running, he is given a three-way go. He can make a cutback to the far right, up the middle or continue to run to the outside left.
If he cuts right, he would be able to make another cut behind right tackle D.J. Fluker (who is making a block at the second level) and get into the open field on the backside. If he runs straight down the middle, he may run into a linebacker but it's still a positive gain and likely has an opportunity for a cutback. And if he runs left, he takes the long path to the marker.
What Lacy ultimately does is continue to run left. It's not necessarily a bad decision, but it's not the ideal one either. You'd like to see him make one of the other two decisions.
So if the Steelers move to a zone blocking scheme, it's debatable just how good of a fit Lacy is.
The new offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr., coached the Kansas City Chiefs on running the outside zone stretch last season. They were successful with it so maybe he can use Lacy in a similar way, but I think he'll leave too many yards on the field, which you can't have in a zone stretch scheme.
Lacy's at his best when he's running downhill. It's when he can square his shoulders, run with power and dazzle with his quick feet like he did against Georgia this past season.
It's a very similar set to the previously illustrated play. The Crimson Tide still have 12 personnel on the field, but the Y tight end (in-line) is on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage. Lacy's still the lone back, but he'll be running downhill and through the B-gap.
When he gets the ball, he immediately squares his shoulders to balance himself. While doing that, center Barrett Jones is pushed into the backfield, forcing Lacy to make a quick cut. This is where he's impressive because he is able to plant his left foot into the ground relatively quickly for his size.
And then he makes another quick move, shifting his weight to the right before squaring up again and continuing downhill.
That's the kind of run that makes Lacy an impressive runner for his size. He's not a great prospect and isn't worthy of a first-round pick, but he's a good one that should be considered in the second round. Whether the Steelers consider selecting him in the first or second (doubtful he's available then) depends on their scheme.
Lacy's best fit is in a power scheme that has him moving downhill and punishing linebackers in the A- and B-gaps. He's not a great fit in a zone stretch scheme because he doesn't have the instincts and vision to consistently find the cutback lane.
If the Steelers move to a zone blocking scheme, the latter may be a problem. But if they go back to their longtime tradition of a power-run game, then Lacy's a good fit.
Whatever scheme the Steelers choose, they're going to have to find their identity and establish it. The paltry 3.7 yards per carry is not good enough to help them win another Super Bowl, especially considering they need to give help to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his weapons.
Establishing a downhill, power-running game is perhaps more vital to the Steelers than ever before, because they are going to need to become an even better play-action passing team with the loss of wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Wallace signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency and was the top vertical threat in Pittsburgh. With him no longer on the team, the offense has to do a better job of being more balanced team.
Going back to their roots and drafting a powerful ball-carrier like Eddie Lacy may be the answer to their recent woes.
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