Lost in the controversy over Ben Roethlisberger’s public criticism of the Steelers’ play-calling is the fact that the quarterback has a valid point. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has done a poor job of directing Pittsburgh’s offense in a way that takes advantage of the Steelers' unique assets.
Were Big Ben’s complaints poorly timed? Absolutely. Will his candor sow unnecessary discord within a team that needs to win its last two games to qualify for the playoffs? Potentially. Should he have discussed his concerns privately with head coach Mike Tomlin? Probably.
But was what he said untrue? Not at all.
Haley’s play selection this year has been questionable, to say the least. Unfortunately, it is the product of a broader offensive philosophy that is a bad fit for this team and may end up costing the Steelers a berth in the playoffs.
Haley returned to his hometown with a reputation for offensive schemes built around shorter and more high-percentage passes. He installed a lower-risk offense in Pittsburgh, and the results have been as expected.
Though Roethlisberger’s average pass attempts per game have increased from 34.2 in 2011 to 36.2 this year, and his average yards per throw have fallen from 7.9 to 7.3. More importantly, his air yards per attempt (AYPA)—an advanced metric that calculates how far down the field a quarterback is throwing the ball on every pass—has dropped from 4.3 in 2011 (tied for 7th in the NFL) to 4.1 this year (tied for 21st).
Fans who have been watching the Steelers play this year don’t need these stats to tell them how much things have changed. The differences are obvious to the naked eye. Pittsburgh is running the ball a lot on first and second downs. When the team throws, it opts for short, high-percentage routes like wide receiver screens, quick slants and dump-offs to running backs.
This can be a good approach for some NFL teams. Though AYPA have tended to correlate with winning over the past two seasons, there are clubs that have had success in the recent past by using a more conservative passing game.
The New England Patriots, for example, made the Super Bowl last February with Tom Brady generating only 4.1 AYPA (13th in the league in 2011). And the 2012 Houston Texans have the AFC’s best record despite 4.2 AYPA from Matt Schaub (15th in the NFL).
Why are these teams successful despite fewer AYPA from their quarterbacks? Throwing short passes can be effective if: a) the team gets lots of yards after the catch (YAC) from its receivers, or b) it has a very strong running game. Basically, the yards have to come from somewhere if the offense is going to pick up first downs and score touchdowns.
Brady got more YAC per attempt from his receiving corps than any NFL quarterback last year. Schaub shares a backfield with Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who have combined for the most carries and the fifth most rushing yards in the NFL this year.
Unfortunately, Roethlisberger isn’t getting similar help from his receivers or his running backs.
Pittsburgh’s receivers are averaging 3.25 YAC per attempt, putting them 17th in the NFL. More troubling, they are producing fewer YAC per attempt than they did last year, when Big Ben was throwing the ball down the field more. Yards gained after catching the ball accounted for a bigger portion (46%) of the Steelers’ total passing yards in 2011 than they do this year (44%).
The Steelers' ground game has been even worse. Injuries to the offensive line and inconsistent play from Pittsburgh’s running backs have combined to produce a woeful 3.8 yards per attempt, good (or bad) enough for 26th in the league.
The end result of a conservative passing game with few YAC and an anemic running game is an offense that went from averaging 5.9 yards per play in 2011 (tied for 10th in the NFL) to gaining 5.3 yards per play in 2012 (tied for 20th).
So even though Big Ben shouldn't have called Haley out in public, he was right to question his coach's choice of plays.
The 2012 Steelers aren’t the 2008 Cardinals, the team with which Haley made his name as an offensive coordinator. In Arizona, his conservative game plan effectively capitalized on quarterback Kurt Warner’s impossibly quick release and the ability of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to turn short passes into long gains. Arizona's two huge receivers added an average of 3.62 yards to every ball thrown their way that year.
This game plan doesn’t work for a Steelers team whose strengths on offense are a mobile quarterback with the ability to extend plays and a stable of smaller, but speedy, receivers who can stretch defenses by getting down the field.
The no-huddle offense that Roethlisberger has called for is a much better fit for Pittsburgh. Pushing the tempo slows the pass rush, wears out defensive backs and leaves opponents vulnerable to big plays. It should come as no surprise that some of the Steelers' best drives in recent weeks have come with less than two minutes left in the half, when the situation has required passes to receivers 10-20 yards downfield.
With two regular season games left in 2012, it’s probably too late in the season to change the entire offensive strategy. Going into next year, however, Haley needs to redesign the Steelers’ offensive plan around the personnel the team has.
Or Pittsburgh needs to find an offensive coordinator who will.