The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the verge of an offensive explosion in 2014. Ben Roethlisberger is playing some of the best football in his career and Todd Haley has finally found an offensive scheme that can help turn the Steelers into one of the most explosive teams in the NFL.
That is hard to believe after the offense had such a horrid start to a 2013 season in which Roethlisberger was a turnover machine and the offense couldn’t score to save its life. It is hard to believe that this same offense helped lead the team to six wins in its final eight games.
Not only did they finish strong, but the 379 points scored was the Steelers' most since they scored 393 in 2007.
Based on what the offense did down the stretch last season, there is little reason to believe they will not continue on this upward trend and develop into one of the top offenses in the league.
They will do so by taking a balanced approach on the offensive side of the ball.
Rather than air the ball out like many other NFL teams, the Steelers plan on using an improved ground game to help the offense become more productive. A strong ground game and a dangerous play-action passing attack with Roethlisberger should give fans plenty to get excited about.
Pittsburgh gave everyone a taste of what this offense is capable of during the second half of 2013, when it had some of its best production in years. Not only will the Steelers look to replicate this success, but they want to build upon it and take the offense from an average unit to one that will be the talk of the entire league.
Here is a look at what the Steelers can do to optimize their offense in 2014.
Dominate the Trenches
It seems as though every year we hear that the offensive line will finally come together and realize its potential. Well, this may finally be the year this comes true.
The Steelers made one of their best moves of the offseason when they hired Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach. He is recognized as one of the best—if not the best—line coach in the league, and he will be counted on to get the most out of the young and talented, yet underachieving, linemen.
Munchak will look to achieve this by focusing on the strengths of each individual player, according to what guard Ramon Foster told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“He understands each player is different. He understands how to cater to everyone,” Foster said of Munchak. “The respect factor is very high. … It's a joy right now to be taking advice and coaching from him.”
Munchak will focus on developing technique as he implements the outside zone-blocking scheme—though that will just be one part of the blocking scheme, based on what Kelvin Beachum told Robinson.
“(We're not going to be) devoted to just one thing and that being the only thing that we live by,” Beachum said.
It did not take long for Munchak to get his message into the players’ heads, and he is very much looking forward to implementing the outside scheme and much more, according to Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com.
The Steelers have a good foundation to build upon, not only with the talent in place, but also with a strong finish to the 2013 season, as they only allowed 11 sacks over the final eight games.
Now they must carry this momentum into the 2014 season, where they must continue to win the battle in the trenches. A dominating performance from their front five will only mean great things for the offense.
Revive the Running Game
For years, the Steelers have talked about improving the ground game. This year, they seem intent on actually following through with this promise. Based on their offseason moves, they have the personnel in place to get the job done.
The addition of LeGarrette Blount in the backfield should provide a much-needed boost to the short-yardage and red-zone offense. These two areas have been problematic for the Steelers, as evidenced by the fact that the Steelers had 80 of 394 rushing attempts stopped for zero yards or a loss, according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Besides the play of the offensive line, the running style of the backs will help the Steelers improve in this area. Running back Le'Veon Bell told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the differences in their styles of play will provide opposing defenses with plenty to prepare for.
When he's in the game, it's going to bring a different look than I bring. It's going to be showing the defense a lot of different looks. I'm excited about it. I definitely can't wait to see what he can do when we get the pads on.
While Bell is a balanced running back and Blount brings the power, rookie Dri Archer will fill the role of change-of-pace back with elite speed.
Eliminating negative plays from the ground game is a goal, but the Steelers must learn to live with them from Archer. While he will lose his fair share of yardage, he is also a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
To maximize his effectiveness, Haley must install specialized packages to get the ball in Archer’s hands in the open field. Here, he can use his blazing speed to outrace defenders.
At this point it will be finding a proper balance between all three running backs.
Bell and Blount will get a majority of the carries, with Archer filling in as a specialty role player. But do not expect the distribution of carries to be the same as it was last season.
|Pittsburgh Steelers' 2013 Rushing Statistics|
Backup running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones combined for nearly 100 carries in 2013, and it should be expected that Blount will not only absorb all of those carries, but also some of Bell’s.
In his four-year career, Blount has averaged about 145 carries per season and should see similar numbers this year. He has averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry and has 20 touchdowns. That projects to about 682 yards and five touchdowns for the Steelers this season.
The Steelers should get Bell an additional 220 or so carries, and if he can approach 4.5 to 5.0 yards per carry, he could have his first career 1,000-yard season. Combined with his ability as a receiver, Bell could be one of the most productive running backs in the league this year.
That leaves maybe four or five touches—at most—for Archer each game.
Finding a balance for these three backs will be important. No longer should Haley use the backup running back every third series just for the sake of using a different runner. Instead, he needs to use them effectively in the context of the game so the running game can improve and help dictate the pace of the game.
Efficiency in the Passing Game
While there has been an emphasis on improving the running game this offseason, it is hard to say the same about the passing game. The Steelers let two of their top three receivers leave via free agency—Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery—thus leaving some questions with the weapons surrounding Roethlisberger.
To help replace these players, the Steelers signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey and invested a fourth-round draft pick on Martavis Bryant. In addition to these receivers, Markus Wheaton will also be expected to take on a greater role with the offense—most likely as the starter opposite Antonio Brown.
It is imperative that these receivers get adjusted to Haley’s offense as quickly as possible. There needs to be a comfort level between Roethlisberger and his receivers if the passing game is going to click early in the season.
Offseason workouts will help get the timing down, but it won’t be until training camp and the preseason before we truly see what these receivers are capable of. We do know, though, that they have a variety of skills that will help diversify the passing game.
Moore and Miller can effectively work over the middle of the field while Brown and Wheaton can take a short pass and turn it into a big play with their abilities to accelerate and make defenders miss in the open field. The Steelers can even design plays to utilize the speed of Heyward-Bey and Bryant.
But when it comes down to it, the Steelers do not need to do anything fancy with the passing game. They became very efficient last season by taking what the defense gave them and should continue to build on that.
There will be plenty of opportunities to take risks down the field—especially if they can develop a play-action attack—but moving the chains through the air will be just as important. By doing so, they can use the passing game to dictate the tempo of the game, especially if they are running out of the no-huddle offense.
Focus on the No-Huddle Offense
Tempo is a tremendously important aspect of the NFL game, and controlling the pace of the game can have tremendous benefits for a team. There are few better ways to control the tempo on offense than running the ball and utilizing a quick passing attack, but one of them is the no-huddle offense.
Running this style of offense keeps a defense on its toes, and it just so happens to be something that Roethlisberger loves to do.
Well, Haley let go of the leash and Roethlisberger finally had a chance to run the offense extensively out of the no-huddle, and the team thrived.
The Steelers surged over the second half of the season, winning six of their final eight games. Their offensive scheme—particularly the no-huddle approach—was a major factor in this.
As a team, they scored nearly 28 points per game—up from about 19 points per game during their 2-6 start. Besides scoring more points, they were protecting the football. The number of turnovers decreased and Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked nearly as much.
|Pittsburgh Steelers' Offensive Production in 2013|
|First Eight Games||Last Eight Games|
|Passing Yards Per Game||291.3||241.4|
|Rushing Yards Per Game||73.6||99.3|
|Points Per Game||19.1||27.9|
In order to have similar—or better—results in 2014, the Steelers must get everyone on the same page. The offensive line is returning and should be good to go, but it will be the receivers and new running backs that must have a thorough understanding of the offense before this scheme can be truly effective.
Roethlisberger understands this, according to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com.
We’ll see. I think a lot of it is going to determine how much can the new guys and the young guys learn. We lost two starting wide receivers that knew the offense and knew the no-huddle really well, so for us to use it we’re going to need the young guys and the new guys to pick it up quick.
The Steelers got a crash course in it already, as Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin have wasted no time seeing what their offense can do.
According to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, the Steelers worked on the no-huddle offense on Wednesday and should continue to do so throughout the remainder of the OTAs.
The sooner the Steelers get the no-huddle offense in gear, the better they will be. The second half of last season was an example of what this group is capable of when everything runs smoothly, and there is no reason why they cannot have a top 10 offense in 2014.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com.