The Steelers Should Run With the Idea of Mixing Play-Calling Up More

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The Steelers Should Run With the Idea of Mixing Play-Calling Up More
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

One common complaint on message boards and blog sites throughout 2008 was that the Steelers had gotten away from “Steelers football,” at least on the offensive side of the ball.  

By “Steelers football,” the writer is typically referring to an offense built around a power “between the tackles” running game. 

It also could mean lining up a hulking power runner behind a fullback and plowing full throttle into the middle of a line until the opposing defense is ready to wave the white flag in surrender.

This idea of “Steelers football” is all about lining up across from the defense and smashing them right in the mouth again and again and again.

But, this style of offense only works when you have the right kind of personnel to execute it. 

There have been plenty of times in their history when the Steelers had the perfect personnel to play this style of ball. 

Throughout much of the 70s, the Steelers had one of the best power backs in football with Franco Harris running behind a bruising run-blocking offensive line. 

But, it is worth noting that nearly all offenses during this era were oriented around a power running game.  The difference with the Steelers is that they did it better than just about everyone else.

But, the Steelers’ offense had evolved by the late 1970s.  The Steelers’ offense that won the last two Super Bowls of that decade was not the same offense that captured the first two. 

The Steelers slew the Cowboys in round two in the 1979 Super Bowl and the Rams in 1980 with an aerial circus attack that turned John Stallworth and Lynn Swann into household names.

Terry Bradshaw overcame three interceptions in his final Super Bowl to lead the team to victory and capture the MVP trophy.

John Stallworth and Lynn Swann are in the Hall of Fame today largely on the strength of their playoff performances during those two Super Bowl runs.

This was not the same risk adverse team that believed that three yards and a cloud of dust, when backed by defense that took no prisoners, was the ultimate play, as was the case with the 1975 squad that battered the Vikings.

In the 1980s, the Steelers tried to return to their power football roots out of a sense of necessity. 

Their quarterbacks, with such headliners as Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone, were wretched.  Unfortunately, their running backs weren’t a whole lot better with the highly touted Tim Worley serving as the last failure at that position of that decade. 

The 1990s saw Bill Cowher take over the reigns of the team and reinstall a successful power running attack.  He was able to put together the pieces that ushered in a return of “Steelers football” in the first half of the decade with running backs like Barry Foster and Bam Morris running behind very good offensive lines.

But, Cowher played to the strength of his players.  The superb 1994 and 1995 Steelers’ squads relied every bit as much on its passing game, featuring Neal O’Donnell throwing to Yancey Thigpen and Andre Hastings, as it did on its running game.  O’Donnell was the team MVP in 1995. 

O’Donnell is arguably the most vilified player in the history of the Steelers, but we forget that he headlined some very effective passing attacks, especially when he was paired with the underrated Thigpen.

The Steelers acquired one of the best power runners in the history of the game in 1996 in Jerome Bettis in what might have been the best trade in team history, ushering in another era of power running football. 

But, by the time the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005, Bettis’ best days were behind him. The Steelers were not a power run team that year with Bettis filling a niche role on the team.  It was an important role, but not central to their offense in any way.

They built their leads behind their passing game while featuring a speed back in Willie Parker that kept defenses off balance. 

They primarily switched to the run game after building their leads through the air, using the run game to run the clock.

It is at best a myth and at worst an intentional slander to say that Ben Roethlisberger was along for the ride on a team that featured the run en route to the Steelers' 2005 Super Bowl title, although you hear that on a regular basis, even from sportswriters who should know better.  

The story was much the same in 2008.  When the Steelers offense was most successful in the playoffs, it built leads through the air before shifting to a run game that was mostly stuck in neutral.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, when it comes to the offense, “Steelers football” should be a fluid term. 

While the team has frequently relied on power running games throughout the last four decades, it has also shifted to a more pass oriented attacks when the personnel were better suited to that style of offense.

The problem I had with the playcalling in 2008 was that the Steelers and Bruce Arians seemed to over commit to a run game that was not working. 

Sure, the fullback was scrapped.  But, I’m not sure the Steelers would have been much more successful running behind a fullback.

The playcalling was predictable enough that I had a pretty good idea what was going to be called on any given down.  There was little ingenuity and flexibility.

As such, the Steelers were the No. 23 ranked offense in the league in 2008.  Considering the dominance of the defense, it is not unfair to say that they were one of the worst offenses in the NFL during the regular season.

What I’d like to see in 2009 is a less predictable offense that maximizes the strengths of the players while minimizing their weaknesses.  If this means largely scrapping the power running game until a future date when the personnel line up better with that style of offense, it wouldn’t be the first time. 

If it means more screens and misdirection plays, that is what the Steelers should emphasize. 

The Steelers current offensive strength seems more weighted towards the passing game.  They have an outstanding quarterback, good receivers, and an offensive line that has shown more improvement in its pass blocking than in its run blocking. 

In a healthy dose of irony considering its power running reputation, the team features two wide receivers who have both captured Super Bowl MVP trophies, making it the first offense in history to feature such a tandem.

While I’m not quite sure I want to see the Steelers try and imitate the Dan Fouts’ led Chargers of old or the team never to be mentioned’s aerial circus of a couple years back, I think they would benefit from relying a bit more on the pass. 

I’d love to see Ben Roethlisberger given the opportunity to run a no huddle offense more often, not just when the game is on the line.

Flexibility should be the key attribute of an offense that seeks to attack a defense’s weaknesses while playing to its strengths.

If this means we have to reevaluate what it means to play “Steelers football” on the offensive side of the ball, that is a small price to pay for overall team success. 

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