Debating Bruce Arians' Return and the Steelers' Offense
Adam Gretz: It was quite a week in Steeler Nation, and after a couple of reports to the contrary, Bruce Arians is indeed coming back for a fourth season as the offensive coordinator. And a lot of people aren't happy about it. This year we saw the Steelers put up numbers like we've never seen from a Pittsburgh team, but the points weren't always there. And the playcalling, it seems, was questioned every single week. So, let's start with the obvious question: Should Bruce Arians have taken the fall for what was an extremely disappointing season?
JJ Cooper: I have some friends among Steelers fans who think I'm way too even-keeled when things go wrong, but I wasn't disappointed to see Arians come back. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last year in large part because of the passing game, Ben Roethlisberger clearly feels comfortable in Arians' system and Arians has shown that he knows how to design a passing game.
And even though Arians' arrogance about the running game is often infuriating, he did show the ability in 2009 to integrate the running game more into his offense: Rashard Mendenhall did run for 1,000+ yards this year and Willie Parker rushed for 1,300+ yards in 2007. It's not that Arians doesn't know how to call running plays, it's just that Steelers fans want to see Jerome Bettis pounding it through the line on first and second and goal. How much of the red zone ineptness can be blamed on Arians' stubborness ("I won't have a fullback") and how much can be blamed on a poor offensive line and a lack of a true short-yardage back is something we're still trying to figure out.
If you want to fire Arians because he had an awful night against the Browns, I can understand the anger, but I can't necessarily get behind it. Overall this Steelers' offense was productive--it ranked eighth in the league in yards per play and 12th in points per game. Football Outsider's has the Steelers offense ranked as the seventh most productive in the league, and we know that they weren't getting a lot of help from defense forcing turnovers for easy scores.
One other thing that has stuck out to me. I've seen several comments about how Roethlisberger needs a coach who isn't as buddy-buddy with him. My question is why? It's hard to argue with how well the Roethlisberger-Arians pairing has played out. And I never hear anyone say that Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady needs to be coddled less. Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback, and part of the job of an organization is to keep the franchise quarterback in a comfortable situation. If he has a good relationship with the offensive coordinator, that's a good thing. Especially when you can't argue that he's not progressing as a quarterback.
I'd love to see Pittsburgh keep a fullback on the roster (Sean McHugh should be back next year) for goal line situations, but in the grand scheme of things I'm more interested in seeing Roethlisberger throw for 4,000 yards with lots of touchdowns and few interceptions, because the reality is that in today's NFL, it's more important to design a good passing scheme than a great run-based offense.
So Adam, what did you think about the decision?
Gretz: I wasn't sure what to think. On one hand, as the season went on and the losing streak was getting out of control, I was getting off the Arians bandwagon, but I think at the end of the day I'm very indifferent about the decision for this reason: No matter who the Steelers offensive coordinator is in 2010, I think their offensive philosophy is going to be, pretty much, the same thing we've seen the past three years -- a lot of passing.
That's the direction the NFL is going (or has gone ... we had 10 4,000-yard passers this season) and that's where the Steelers talent is. They not only have a franchise quarterback, they have one of the best collections of pass-catchers in the league with Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller and Mike Wallace ... and Rashard Mendenhall, if they ever throw to him.
I know critics will point to the 2002-03 teams as to why the Steelers being a passing team is a bad idea, but here's the thing about that: Ben Roethlisberger isn't Tommy Maddox. Then we get into the arguments of "scoring too fast and not controlling the ball enough so the defense is on the field too much." The past two years the Steelers finished 5th and 4th in the NFL in time of possession, and they actually won the T.O.P battle in 12 of their 16 games this season ... and of the four games they lost the T.O.P battle, they actually won three of them.
Cooper: Exactly. Look, the problem with the 2009 Steelers wasn't that "they scored too quickly" or they "don't know how to run out the clock." It was that they had a kick coverage unit that was completely inept and a secondary that fell apart once Troy Polamalu went down with his knee injury. The fact that Tyrone Carter kept starting at strong safety after being repeatedly exposed as too slow (in pass coverage) and too small (in run coverage) to start was a sign that Pittsburgh didn't have any answers to fix the secondary problems.
In 2010, Pittsburgh will not use a fullback that much, and they shouldn't. As much as I love what Dan Kreider did for Pittsburgh, to play a fullback you have to sit either Mike Wallace or Heath Miller, which one of them do you want to put on the bench?
The other thing that does drive me crazy though is seeing the Steelers go to a two tight-end set with Matt Spaeth in there. If the Steelers were going to throw to Spaeth, then that makes sense. But Spaeth caught FIVE passes in 2009. He gave up 2.5 sacks as a pass blocker. If that's the case, why don't the Steelers play David Johnson, a better blocker, as the No. 2 TE, since all Spaeth is doing is serving as a glorified offensive tackle?
Gretz:There's obviously some things that need to be corrected and improved. They must do better in the Red Zone and turn those field goal drives into touchdowns. They need to utilize Mendenhall's pass-catching ability more, something we didn't really see until the last three games of the season, especially the Green Bay game. And, as we seem to always complain about, let's see a bit more no-huddle. Not every series, but let's not hold it until the last two-minutes of a half.
I completely agree with you when it comes to the fullback position and not taking Heath Miller or Mike Wallace off the field.
Something that I think gets lost when people (and I'm talking media and fans in general) talk about the Steelers is that this isn't a new thing for them. Ever since the late-season run and playoffs in 2005 this has been a team that's come out early in games and starts throwing all over the place.