It started with a loaf of bread and an encounter with a fan in a Walmart parking lot. Steelers left tackle Max Starks would tell you that a Steelers fan yelling at him in a Walmarts parking lot that he better “protect our quarterback” was the turning point for him. Indeed the Steelers oline has received it’s share of criticism this season, and rightfully so. Ed Bouchette from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette would point out that they’ve gotten better and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would agree that they’re trying but doesn’t want to let up the heat on them yet. Seems that the Steelers offensive line does better when it has something to prove.
In the Cleveland game, after criticism that the Steelers have no running game, the offensive line celebrated after the use of the I-formation that allowed Willie Parker to run for 116 yards. Willie Parker would follow up in the AFC divisional game with 146 yards against the San Diego Chargers. You might want to argue though, what about Baltimore, and my response to that is “what about Baltimore?”.
But Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, one taking him out of the game. Yeah he was, but let’s keep things in perspective. Last year was his career high sack of 47. In 2006, with both center Jeff Hartings and guard Alan Faneca on the line, and Russ Grimm as coach, Ben was sacked a surprising number of 46 times. Same as this year. Difference between 06 and now, well night and day. Then the Steelers finished 8 and 8, now they’re competing to be called this years best team in the NFL.
After Starks was called out in the parking lot, the Steelers oline allowed only one sack on Roethlisberger in the Chargers play off game. This is noteable because in the week 11 game against the Chargers at Heinz Field, the Chargers defense would register four sacks against the Steelers quarterback. Okay before you say it, “what about Baltimore?” Grant it, the Steelers gave up four sacks to the Ravens defense. My suggestion, never use a Ravens/Steelers game as a barometer to determine how one or the other team will do against other teams in the league, trust me on this one.
Of course the Steelers oline isn’t the only part of the offense that has been deemed either bad or mediocre. Steelers have no run game right? Actually not true, and in a way, I have to agree with Bruce Arians when he argued that they actually do, just not one that we’re use to. Watching a replay of “Road to Glory” about the Steelers 05 run to the Superbowl, you’ll see a clip of former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis running over Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. This is the running game that we’re use to from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sadly it wasn’t Jerome retiring that changed the face of the Steelers running game but the retirement of backfield and running back coach Dick Hoak. Hoak had been a major component to the Steelers running game as a player and a coach. Hoak would retire as a player and become a backfield coach in the early 70s. Hoak would retire from the Steelers in 2007.
Of course the face of the running game changed and not saying it was ineffective, after all, up until his injury in 2007, Willie Parker was on track to be the leagues leading rusher. In the off-season the Steelers would pick up a power back in the draft in Rashard Mendenhall, and acquire Mewelde Moore from the Vikings in free agency. Up until the Eagles game, Parker had two 100 plus games, against the Texans and the Browns. Parker would go down with an injury in week 3 and the next week, the Steelers would lose their powerback for the season. This left the Steelers management scrambling for replacements. Enter Gary Russell and Najeh Davenport. Davenport would have less of an impact then Russell and would later be released, to be signed by the Colts. Although Moore would not excel in the running game, he was effective. He ran for 99 yards against the Jaguars and 120 against the Bengals. In the Giants game, he would come out as the top back of that game, with 84 yards. But where Moore was more valuable was on the screens and receiving. Although Russell wouldn’t be utilized until week 11, he turned out to be the answer for the 3d and short yardages, something the Steelers offense struggled at.
Although it seemed like the running game was struggling through the regular season, a lot of that also had to do with the quality of defenses the Steelers were facing. Facing Baltimore twice, the Eagles, Giants, Titans and Cowboys, all run stingy defenses, it just enhanced the “illusion” of no running game. Of course, we were use to this not being a factor when the Steelers had the big backs. Once completely healthy, Willie Parker and rushing offense clicked. As mentioned before, the Steelers would have big running games going into the AFC Championship game. The lack of a run game against the Ravens, in a way is immaterial since the Ravens have historically given the Steelers grief when it comes to running the ball.
Compared to other offenses in the league, statistics wise, the Steelers total offense would look weak. However, statistics don’t show the complete picture. Against teams with “lesser” defenses, Steelers would move the ball and be able to score. Against the tougher defenses, they found a way to win or at least tie the game. The most classic would be against the Cowboys in December. The Steelers offense drove the field twice to put themselves in scoring position to come back from behind. Ben’s ability to comeback from behind during the regular season had several analysts comparing him to former Bronco’s quarterback John Elway.
What seemed to hurt this offense more in the regular season was not lack of the running game but mental errors. Dropped balls at crucial times, offensive penalties that would negate Steeler touchdowns or first down conversions, interceptions and turnovers. However, a lot of this had seemed to be addressed going into the playoffs, with the exception of some rookie mistakes by a young wide receiver, Roethlisberger has been error free, not giving up any interceptions and the Steelers offense has been a little more disciplined.
A lot is being made of the Arizona Cardinals high powered offense and rightly so. Going into the playoffs, a mixture of using the run and Warner’s ability to avoid pressure by releasing the ball early has made the Cardinals offense look unstoppable. However, there is an idea that if the Steelers needed to rely on their offense to win the game, it would be impossible. If Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians decides to get in a shoot out like he did against the Colts, then yes, it would be impossible.
Where the Steelers offense does excel at is keeping the opposing teams defense off the field, but for this to be effective, Arians will have to call something other the run on 1st and 2nd and deep passes on 3d downs. If Arians mixes it up, or allows Roethlisberger to determine the play based in coverage, then the Steelers do have a chance to repeat the same offensive performance they had against San Diego into the playoffs. If he chooses to abandon the running game, then the Cardinals defense may have a day like they had against Carolina’s offense.
Yes, I know that the Cardinals defense has stepped up, but taking away the running game isn’t guaranteed to stop the Steelers offense, especially since they’ve had to overcome that attempt all season long against some of the best defenses in the league. Not taking anything away from the Cardinals performance on defense, but they didn’t exactly become the Ravens, Giants or Titans defense coming into the playoffs. Where the Cardinals defense has excelled at is coverage in their secondary and the ability to intercept the ball. Roethlisberger recently faced one of the best in Ed Reed and Reed went home empty handed.
And yes, I know that Ken Whisenhunt has been practicing getting to Roethlisberger, and if the offensive play calling gets conservative and predictable, it will be a long day for the Steelers offense, however, when Roethlisberger is allowed to determine plays based on what he sees rather then what Arians sends in, he’s been much more efficient in getting plays off. This was something they did not do against the Cardinals in their 07 meeting in Arizona.
A lot will be made about the Steelers defense and while the focus will be on the plays they make, I think in the end, an underrated Steelers offense may just step up and surprise everyone on Superbowl Sunday.