The four-to six-game suspension handed down to Ben Roethlisberger by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will hamper the franchise’s attempt to return to prominence in the AFC.
The Steelers’ defense should return to form with the return of cornerback Bryant McFadden and the healthy status of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. If the defense can play close to the level of their 2008 season, then opposing offenses have something to worry about.
The Steelers’ offense is another matter.
Roethlisberger will miss at least the first four games, and possibly more. Star receiver Santonio Holmes was traded to the Jets after running afoul of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
But neither of those two developments represent as much of a handicap to the team’s offense as does the continued presence of Bruce Arians in the role of offensive coordinator.
Arians has orchestrated an offensive metamorphosis that has seen the Steelers evolve from a team that runs effectively to set up the pass into a team that thinks pass first and run second.
In so doing, Arians has changed the team’s identity.
Arians refuses to utilize a fullback in his offense, instead occasionally slipping in a backup tight end such as Sean McHugh or David Johnson. Any confusion about Arians’ feelings regarding fullbacks were clarified in this quote from him prior to last season: “I don't have a fullback. There's no fullback in my offense, there's never going to be one.”
So the Steelers slowly graduated into a team that passes first and runs second. But in that process the Steelers seem to have lost the ability to turn to a power running game when needed.
Short-yardage conversions have become nail-biting time for Steeler fans who were accustomed to seeing Jerome Bettis power over the middle behind a crushing block by fullback Dan Kreider. Bettis and Kreider are gone now, and with them went some of the Steelers’ swagger.
The Steelers have a competent running back in Rashard Mendenhall, but he is rarely given a sufficient number of carries to get into a complete rhythm. Too often he seems to have to deal with an opposing linebacker before he even reaches the line of scrimmage. Those spin moves that sometimes frustrate fans are too often out of necessity as he ad libs a move to beat a defender before he can even hit the hole.
So if Arians has moved Pittsburgh in the direction of a passing-oriented offense, he must have lots of trick plays in his repertoire, right? Unfortunately, no.
In fact, predictability has become a hallmark of this team.
Rarely do we see the option passes or gadget plays that former coach Bill Cowher so enjoyed unleashing on unsuspecting defenses. Not only that, but Arians seems adverse to incorporating misdirection plays or screen passes, both of which work against defenses salivating at the prospect of sacking Roethlisberger yet again.
When Roethlisberger was unable to start against the Baltimore Ravens last year in Week 12, backup Dennis Dixon was forced to take the start with very little practice time. Dixon is a remarkable athlete: a quick-footed, elusive runner with that ability to break containment and keep a defense guessing.
Unfortunately, Arians seemed committed to keeping Dixon in the pocket instead of employing roll-outs, and Arians had no answer for the defensive adjustments Baltimore made at halftime.
The loss in Baltimore seemed to sum up one of Arians' defining characteristics: his insistence on making players fit his system instead of adjusting his system to fit his players.
So an offensive line that’s better at run-blocking is forced to pass-block. A fragile quarterback who gets sacked more than 50 times a season? Keep dropping him back with little protection and hope for the best.
Does your offense feature a running back in Willie Parker whose strength is turning the corner or going off-tackle? Run him up the gut on first down and hope for the best. Got a QB like Dixon who needs to get outside the box to be most effective? Keep him inside the pocket and hope for the best.
Does anyone see a pattern here?
Arians’ stubbornness is putting the success of the franchise at risk. Yes, the Steelers have won the Super Bowl with Arians as OC, but they won despite Arians, not because of him.
They won thanks to a strong defense and a once-in-a-generation quarterback who frequently made things happen on broken plays. Roethlisberger always seems most effective running a hurry-up offense, where he calls the plays at the line of scrimmage instead of having them called in by Arians.
If the Steelers are my reality show, the first one that I am voting off the island is Bruce Arians.