Much criticism has befallen Bruce Arians during the last two Steelers football campaigns. We are hard-core prognosticators, we Pittsburgh Steelers fans. We know our schtick ... better than most NFL fans frankly! And we know what we like! When it comes to offensive football, for the tried and true Pittsburgh Steelers fan it is pretty much cut and dried ... we want power football! We want to run it down their throats. We want explosion off the o-line and domination in the trenches. We want our RB to hit the hole and drive through with power and authority. We expect our offense to deliver a physical brand of punishment upon opposing defenses that wear them down to nothingness by the middle of the 4th quarter. It is our identity, as a team, as a city, as a community of fans. It has been so for 40 plus years. And we are passionate that this is who we are today!
Enter Bruce Arians, whose version of the spread offense is predicated entirely off a different philosophy, and what we have witnessed as fans of Steelers power football is nothing short of anarchy. And this much-maligned Brucey has propped himself up, on a team of loveable, physical, overachieving World Champions, as the perennial whipping boy ... the man solely responsible for a futile, broken brand of wimpy offensive football that is entirely un-Steeler! So, why am I bothering to attempt a show of support for this misplaced offensive coordinator and his much criticized brand of uninspiring offense? Let's visit this topic together with an open mind.
Foremost, the Pittsburgh Steelers are World Champions ... twice now in four seasons! That is the goal. That is the Holy Grail of Western Pennsylvania fandom. That is the acceptable outcome. And Bruce Arians has coached, first, the wide receivers and now the entire offense through those triumphs. That alone would buy most coaches a free pass. But not our incompetent play designer. You see, we didn't win those Lombardi's the right way ... we didn't run over the opposing victims with the type of dominating authority our fans have come to expect.
I see the issue as an unwillingness of our fans to embrace a radically different offensive philosophy, one that has already proven both creative and effective, and a philosophy now entering it's 3rd season. Let me remind our fans that Jerome Bettis is long gone. Get over it! So too is the type of in-your-face offense that netted Bill Cowher exactly one Lombardi Trophy and many upon many painful reminders of why we are all fortunate that the past offensive futilism of the Cowher era is long behind us. That's right ... we are fortunate! Because for 15 season of Bill SchottenCowher football, our Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't accomplish what Big Ben and the Arians Offense managed to achieve in the final minutes of the 2008 campaign ... a 2:02 minute picture perfect drive predicated on the pass (Ben threw eight passes and the only run was a QB scramble) with just 2:37 left on the clock that netted 7 points and an NFL record sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Who placed Bruce Arians in charge? None other than head coach Mike Tomlin! Do I trust Mike Tomlin's judgement? With no uncertainty! Arians is our man people! Get it through your craniums. Stop moaning and complaining and start looking at this team's offense with the same vision and conviction that the coaches and players are striving minute by minute to achieve. The spread offense is more than a fad. It is a high-powered attack designed to move the ball downfield quickly. We have seen this aspect of it work with no uncertainty people. You need to know that this offense is predicated on entirely different blocking schemes than those schemes fabled by 40 plus years of Steelers pound-it-down-their-throats football. You need to know that the future talent to be recruited by NFL teams are kids being reared on the elements of this offense in the major college ranks and all the way down through high school and pee wee football. The best future offensive stars are learning this stuff my friends. You need to know that it takes three to five years at the NFL level to draft and prepare the necessary players to execute this offense. Most importantly you need to know that the Steelers have the braintrust and the players now in place that are capable of executing this offense to multiple Super Bowl championships.
It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of Steelers fans who persecute Bruce Arians weekly after the Steelers offense offers up lackluster performances. But be reminded the immense obstacles that 2008 laid in the way of this new and developing offensive system ... 1) one of the NFL's all-time most difficult regular season schedules against the run (they faced no worse than a 16th ranked rush defense in 10 out of 16 regular season games), 2) four new starters out of five across the O-Line (that's right ... starter Marvel Smith was replaced by Max Starks at LT, starter Alen Faneca was replaced by Chris Kemoeatu at LG, Justin Hartwig was in his first season as starter at C, and starter Kendall Simmons was replaced by Darnell Stapleton at RG). The fifth starter, Willie Colon, is arguably the most criticized RT in the history of Steelers football. So the Steelers O-Line was in a shambles all season long, 3) injuries to starter Willie Parker and highly-touted backup Rashard Mendenhall left the running attack to career journeyman Mewelde Moore for Games 5,6,7 and 9, whereby Moore promptly put up 360 rushing yards and 5 rushing TD's in those outings (phenomenal numbers for Moore and by far his most productive season scoring TD's in his NFL career), 4) a season-long shoulder injury to Big Ben that hindered his effectiveness throwing the football, and 5) a three game injury to starting TE Heath Miller. People, those obstacles were so very large that, at times, our offense was simply futile, pathetic even!
Please be reminded that in 2007, Willie Parker was winning the NFL rushing title behind a much more effective offensive line until a freakish leg injury early in the 1st Quarter in Week 16 versus St. Louis cost Parker the title. I realize that we don't play the game for rushing titles in Pittsburgh, we play the game for Lombardi's. The running attack of the spread offense is secondary to and relies heavily upon an effective passing attack. The spread offense is designed to open running lanes by moving LB's away from the interior of the line of scrimmage. In 2008 the running lanes weren't there. Teams were not respecting the run against Pittsburgh because there was so much personnel turmoil all season long in our rushing attack, across the o-line and in our backfield. More critically, some of the formations that Arians runs have the opposite effect ... they actually pull LB's and safeties closer into the line of scrimmage. And Arians calls a running play out of those formations very often, leading to what amounts to instant fan retaliation. Even still, Arians persisted in making every effort to establish the run, in part to protect and minimize Ben's injured throwing shoulder. It was ugly at times. And fans were clamouring for the FB to ressurect the running attack. With the FB having been minimized in this offense, the Steelers have not been able to get those tough short yards like in seasons past. But this is less related to how we use the FB in general and more related to how our O-Line personnel have change their blocking schemes at the point of attack. The blocking schemes are radically altered now and the players doing the dirty work offer entirely different skills that are more tailored to the spread offense than the power offense. The coaching up of these players into a spread capable unit has been ceaseless now for two seasons. I would expect to see in 2009 some new wrinkles in the short-yardage offense to correct some of those woes from the last two seasons, but I can assure every fan that it still won't look like SchottenCowher power football. It will still be predicated off the same formations (often the ones you all have grown to hate) that have fans clamouring for Arians head. Even still, when it is clicking and our RB's are finding their rythm, the Steelers running attack will once again become formidable in 2009, like it was for Willie Parker in 2007.
Big Ben shattered the single-season season passing TD record in 2007 with 32 TD's (Batch tossed in 2 more) and an eye-popping 104.1 passer rating. Our red zone passing offense was remarkable. It was so effective that the Steelers rushed for only 9 TD's in 2007. When the spread offense is working well and the personnel are executing the system with efficiency, the propensity to score TD's is clear. Those passing TD numbers fell off badly in 2008, as there was a more concerted attempt to force the ball through the line of scrimmage in the red zone in 2008. Again, 2008 was a nightmare of unforeseen personnel alterations. The conservative (and critically denounced by the fans) approach taken was to try to muscle the ball into the endzone at all costs. The problem is that those attempts were often out of poor formations, executed by less capable players at the point of attack, and against some of the NFL's most awesome run defenses. The fans of Pittsburgh wanted Arians head! And even still, Arians persisted again and again to pound it into the endzone. The result? The 2008 Steelers rushed for 16 TD's, an improvement of 7 over the previous season and well within the range of "normal" rushing TD numbers Steelers fans have grown accustomed to throughout the years under Coaches Cowher and Noll.
I've seen elements of a fantastic offense developing in Pittsburgh over the past two years. It has indeed been ugly at times. But a 22-10 winning record and another Lombardi Trophy have me trusting and believing in this offense. And even Ben Roethlisberger himself readily endorses and thrives in this Bruce Arians offense out of the no-huddle. Fortunately our coaching staff has given these reigns to Ben whole-heartedly. They believe in the system and they believe in Ben. It is his offense now, and Bruce Arians is his primary consultant. The formations being run are creating wide open WR's all over the field of play, and Ben is finding them with regularity. It is going to continue to look ugly, even futile at times, in 2009. But I expect it to look more like 2007's version than 2008's. I expect our RB's to tear up huge chunks of yardage this time around. I expect the passing offense to once again click inside the red zone. I expect our short-yardage attack to be more effective. And I expect another Lombardi Trophy to be within this team's grasp when January's playoffs roll around. Most wishfully of all, I expect that more and more Steelers fans will embrace Bruce Arians and his unique vision of the spread offense more readily in 2009 and beyond. I realize this is wishful thinking being among fans of the Steelers who possess hard-core Steelers values. It is not what we have grown accustomed to. It doesn't meet us where are hearts are set. But Arians is our offensive coordinator ... at least for 2009. Root for this man!