Pittsburgh Steelers a Pass-First Team? OK, But Let's Keep It Real

Tim DrozinskiContributor IDecember 25, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 20:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers on December 20, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

So Ben Roethlisberger has recently made the proclamation that "this is not your father's Steeler offense," ushering in the idea of a pass-first, aerial offensive juggernaut.  

A lot of long-time fans have a hard time accepting that idea, with fond memories of three decades of smashmouth, run-it-down-their-throats, clock control football.

Some (like me) are puzzled given the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall as an effective runner, even behind an offensive line that has largely been suspect despite flashes of cohesiveness. Many give credit (or blame) to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has made it pretty clear over the past two seasons that he abhors the workmanlike running game and wants to turn the Steelers into the "Greatest Show On (or Above) Turf" featuring 60 minutes of aerobatic stunts.

And in reality, is that such a bad thing?  After all, we have the high-paid franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, whose weekly exploits inevitably contain some highlight-reel footage consisting of improbable escapes which he astoundingly turns into positive yards and even points, sometimes.

I think what EVERYONE needs to keep in perspective is that while the air attack has certainly made for riveting football games, full of action and excitement, where it hasn't delivered is in the "W" column.

You can blame a defense that disappears in the fourth quarter for the losses (as well as the many wins that probably shouldn't have been as close as they were), but here's the rub; if you know and understand that the defense isn't going to salt away the game with a double-digit lead for you (and Mike Tomlin admitted just that fact in the defense of his choice to go for the on-sides kick against Green Bay), then you have to adopt an offensive strategy that puts more points on the board.

This air-it-out offense relies too much on slugging it out and keeping games close. Again, part of the problem is that the defense is giving up way too many fourth-quarter points, but that just underscores the need to run up the score in the first three quarters. If the defense can't preserve a win with two scores in hand, then we need to be leading by three scores late in games.  If they can't hang onto a three-score lead, then we need four.  See where I'm going here?

I think the problem is that Ben, and possible the offense in general, needs to feel pressure to "get up" and perform well.  When their backs are against the wall, they often come out firing on all cylinders and move the ball more effectively.  

The offense is at its most dangerous when it needs to come from behind.  Where opponents have beat us all season is clock management, leaving little or no time for Ben to manage one of those miraculous come-from-behind victories.

To me, this is the biggest indictment of the pass-happy Arians offense.  Coming out gunning is perfect.  Getting an early lead is good thinking.  Piling on the points with an effective passing game is ideal.  

Passing out of an empty backfield set on third down and less than a yard to go, with a running back who's averaging close to five yards per carry is not so smart.  Three passes and a punt from deep in our own territory late in the game with a slim lead is borderline suicidal.  Ignoring the run altogether in the second half is just plain dumb.

While the hopes for salvaging this season are slim, rumors of Arians' imminent departure will hopefully usher in a more sensible offensive philosophy.  A team can still be a pass-first team without abandoning the run completely, and still understand how to use the run to control the clock, preserve a lead, and keep the defense rested and off the field.  

Someone needs to tell Arians (and maybe Tomlin) that you don't have to run on every play, you don't have to score only rushing touchdowns, and you don't have to stop throwing the ball ... and point out that so far this pass-heavy offensive philosophy has contributed at least as much to the 7-7 record as any defensive failures.

In more than a few of the Steelers' losses, running the clock down even a minute or two while still in possession of the lead could have been the difference between a win and a loss.  Instead, the Steelers preferred to stick with the pass-pass-pass game plan, handed the ball back to the opponent with just enough time on the clock and gift-wrapped the game at the same time.

With that, I leave Santa my wishlist for the rest of this season:

* More play-action.

* Ben rolling out more.

* Don't let us ever go 5-wide on 3rd-and-inches, ever again.

* And please give our cornerbacks the ability to get closer than 10 yards away from receivers before the ball is thrown.

I know that's a lot to ask for, Santa, but I promise, I've been a very good boy.