"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
23 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
This past offseason gave us a smorgasbord of examples of why the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the best-run organizations in professional sports. There was Mike Tomlin getting his contract extended through 2016, continuing the organization’s unparalleled tradition of head coaching stability under the Rooney Family. There was Kevin Colbert, the most underrated (if not best) general manager in pro football, playing hardball with restricted free agent Mike Wallace. Wallace is a bourgeoning star receiver, but not someone the organization is going to overpay to keep. Locking up Antonio Brown, who signed a new six-year contract before his value escalated further, was the lesson learned from Wallace's situation. There was a legendary receiver, Hall of Fame candidate Hines Ward, being ushered into the sunset with a hero’s farewell.
There were more off-the-field stories about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, though this time of a flattering nature. The 30-year-old announced that he would soon become a father, roughly a year after marrying Ashley Harlan of Western Pennsylvania. More importantly (from a football standpoint) were the stories of Roethlisberger hitting the books to learn the system of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley’s arrival came after the somewhat bizarre dismissal of Bruce Arians, whom Tomlin claims he himself, and not Art Rooney II, decided to let go. The drama from that episode quickly breezed over, as will the drama about whether Haley’s "fiery personality" can fit the Steeler culture. Haley is the first outside hire at offensive coordinator in 13 years.
There were also the more mundane stories about the rehab efforts of running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton, both of whom tore ACLs in January. Many expect their replacements, Isaac Redman and Steve McLendon, to have breakout seasons because, well, that’s just what happens when the Steelers promote from within.
The only un-Steelerlike story this past offseason was the draft Colbert put together. Usually the Steelers find players who will start two or three years down the road. This year, he found two guys expected to start right away: first-round guard David DeCastro and second-round tackle Mike Adams. No need to worry about whether Colbert & Co. are starting to impatiently drift away from their modus operandi This deviation is expected to turn the team’s only true weakness into a strength. That’s what makes the Steelers great: they stick to their methods without shackling themselves.
Maybe Todd Haley does have a "fiery personality." So what? He also has outstanding play-calling acumen. And in Pittsburgh he has something that he had in Arizona but didn’t have in Kansas City: a great quarterback.
Three years ago, Haley probably couldn’t have worked with Ben Roethlisberger. The aloof young passer made his living off sheer physical talent and uncanny improvisational skills. His brute strength and unbelievable raw throwing ability allowed for this. That’s something that’s not talked about enough with Roethlisberger: his throwing ability. We can’t help but focus on the brute strength that allows him to run around and shed would-be sackers before making seemingly ugly, but indisputably effective, game-changing plays. While our eyes are on that, we fail to recognize the ninth-year star’s brilliant passing on those plays. Roethlisberger doesn’t just make tough throws – he makes tough throws that are perfect in precision and velocity. Much of that is due to his uncanny ability to keep his eyes downfield while avoiding the rush.
Anyway, these are phenomenal athletic quarterbacking tools, but in the grander scheme of things, they’re often not enough to foster a sustainable offensive juggernaut. There’s too much randomness for the quarterback’s teammates and coaches to deal with.
Roethlisberger today is different. He’s become a much smarter, fundamentally sounder, quarterback. He has better defensive recognition before the snap and, thus, a greater willingness to make timing-based throws within the structure of the offense after the snap. Yes, of course he’s still often a sandlot quarterback. That’s his style, and he should keep it until the day he can no longer move around (which, despite the myriad hits and injuries he’s sustained, does not appear to be on the horizon just yet). But Roethlisberger is no longer only a sandlot quarterback, which is why the Steelers felt comfortable replacing his easy-going coach, Bruce Arians, with the more controlling-but-innovative Haley.
There’s a lot of undue concern that Haley will drastically alter a system that was really never broken in Pittsburgh. But what’s earned Haley a favorable reputation around the league is the creativity he shows in tweaking his system to fit his personnel. With Kurt Warner in Arizona, Haley had an ingenious field-reading quarterback with a quick release and a bad offensive line. So, he built a shotgun offense centered around three-and five-step passing. In Kansas City, Haley had a resoundingly average quarterback in Matt Cassel but a superb backfield duo in methodical Thomas Jones and speedy Jamaal Charles. So, he built a multi-tight end offense centered around an exterior run game.
Expect Haley to blend his Cardinals and Chiefs systems in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is very comfortable in the shotgun, and at this stage of his career, he can become an adept quick-drop passer. What’s great is, unlike in Arizona, Haley’s team also has a robust rushing attack and a stingy defense that can be counted on. The Steelers will likely strive for balance and control by continuing to use plenty of base two tight end personnel.
Haley plans on making his tight ends a bigger part of the passing game, which will give the offense even more dimension. The soft-handed Heath Miller is an excellent receiver underneath; don’t be surprised if he splits out more and runs routes further downfield this season. Accompanying Miller will be Leonard Pope, who played for Haley in Arizona and Kansas City. Pope is a serviceable receiver but, like Miller, he’s an even better blocker. Also worthy of snaps is third-string tight end Weslye Saunders, who proved to be an athletic mismatch creator, particularly in the red zone, as an undrafted rookie last season.
Obviously, like he did in Arizona, Haley is going to make the wide receivers the primary focus of his passing attack. His current trio of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders has a chance to be every bit as good as Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Early Doucet were. People tend to think of Wallace as the No. 1 target because his long-striding speed and acceleration puts the fear of God in defensive backs. But the 27-year-old receiver has not progressed enough as a route runner at this point. Wallace may have cracked the 1,000-yard mark again last season, but his inconsistent mechanics were why he was held to 70 or fewer yards in eight of his last nine games.
Brown is actually the Steelers’ best receiver. He’s a tremendous route runner, both when things are structured early in the down and when things break down late. Last season, Brown was the guy Roethlisberger trusted most on crucial third downs. This season, he could share that role with Sanders, whom Roethlisberger seemed to grow fond of in multiple-receiver sets down the stretch in 2010. Knee and foot problems hounded Sanders last year, but if healthy, he has the darting quickness and innate ball skills to dominate as a No. 3. If Wallace stages a prolonged holdout, he’ll become the X-receiver. Rounding out the receiving unit is steady veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who is very good over the middle.
The run game that Haley is expected to make full use of will likely feature Isaac Redman early on, as former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall is recovering from a Week 17 ACL tear. Some believe Redman, an undrafted third-year pro, will be better than Mendenhall anyway. He has great physicality in finishing his runs inside. The question is: can he offer what the speedier and subtly powerful Mendenhall did on the outside? Aside from diminutive fifth-round rookie Chris Rainey, the Steelers don’t have any options for outside running. Jonathan Dwyer (who appears to finally be in shape, shedding his reputation for being perpetually overweight) is the No. 2 running back, with converted fullback John Clay likely to be the third back until Mendenhall returns. Also, Steeler observers are high on Baron Batch, who lit up camp as a seventh-rounder last season before tearing his ACL.
For the first time in ages, the Steelers expect to aid all of these skill position players with coherent, consistent blocking up front. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler must be salivating: four of his five starters are young first-or second-round picks. The only one who isn’t is Willie Colon who, prior to missing the past two seasons with injuries, was one of the brighter up-and-comers in the league. The short-armed Colon is moving from right tackle to the better-fitting left guard spot, where he’ll be an upgrade over predecessors Ramon Foster (lacks quickness) and Doug Legursky (lacks size and phone booth power).
As for the high-drafted youngsters ... smart, nimble center Maurkice Pouncey is the gem, having made first team All-Pro in just his second season. Rookie left tackle Mike Adams has a world of talent, it’s just a matter of whether he continues to mature. The Steelers removed him from their draft board after he lied about drug use, but Adams requested a meeting with Colbert and successfully bid for a second chance. If he blows it, the Steelers can turn to the once-again-recently-resigned Max Starks, who always seems to find his way back into the lineup. On the right side, first-round rookie David DeCastro is considered to be the best guard in this year’s draft. At tackle, second-rounder Marcus Gilbert showed improvements in his movement and balance as his 2011 rookie season wore on, but he still has plenty of room to grow.
Unlike the offense, Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme has not changed much in recent years. It hasn’t had to. Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did, however, make one surprising alteration (or expansion) to his 3-4 last season. The Father of the Zone Blitz concocted several gameplans built around man coverage. Most notable was the Wild Card game at Denver, which Tim Tebow shockingly made them pay for. (I can’t blame LeBeau and his players for going press-man in that game; the only way they could have lost was if Tebow made a few incredible throws that he had never made before ... it just so happens he did exactly that.)
The man coverage schemes worked well at times (versus the Patriots, for example), but at their core, the Steelers are a zone defense and will play that way in 2012. The fact that they are able to mix their coverages more these days just speaks to their underrated talent at cornerback. It’s too bad that Ike Taylor had what may have been the worst game of his career on the big stage against Tebow, because the 10-year veteran is really one of the best all-around defensive players in the NFL. Taylor plays the run well and routinely shadows the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, often winning the battle with his strength early in the down. Unlike most corners, Taylor can be a shadow-man defender outside and inside.
Opposite Taylor will likely be Keenan Lewis, a fourth-year pro who got promoted from nickelback after the departures of William Gay and Bryant McFadden. Lewis’s promotion puts a strain on Pittsburgh’s depth, though ostensibly the Steelers believe that last year’s mid-round picks, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, will be ready to step up. Really only one of them has to, considering the Steelers use backup safety Ryan Mundy as a dime back. Expect Allen to get the nod -– many believe he could even challenge Lewis for starter’s duties.
Playing ahead of Mundy is future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and widely admired veteran Ryan Clark. Both players can operate in the box or back deep in space. Polamalu’s unique talent lends him unprecedented freedom to roam around and play his own game. He couldn’t operate this way if not for the highly intelligent Clark stabilizing the rest of the secondary. This season, Polamalu’s free-lancing needs to generate more turnovers. Shockingly, the Steelers last season ranked dead last in this department, despite having the league’s No. 1 ranked defense in terms of scoring and yardage.
Consider the low turnover count to be an aberration, perhaps due to injuries at outside linebackers. LaMarr Woodley missed six games; James Harrison missed five games, one to suspension. This took some of the edge off this normally ferocious pass-rush. If Woodley and Harrison are healthy, this defense will be fine. Both are tremendous power players who are still fast enough to turn the corner. They’re not one-dimensional, either. LeBeau is more than willing to having them set the edge for run support or even drop back to cover the flats (a staple zone blitz concept). If either player should be unavailable at some point, the Steelers can turn to their sinewy Woodley ersatz, Jason Worilds. Also, in a bind, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is capable of sliding outside.
Though Woodley and Harrison can be vicious bookend pass-rushers, the Steelers prefer to generate pressure primarily through design, not execution. When in its base 3-4, this is a fairly mundane defense. It’s in the 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 sub packages that this team gets in its complex attack mode.
Polamalu is usually a big part of the "attack mode," as is Timmons and fellow inside linebacker Larry Foote. In fact, Timmons, with his explosive first step and momentum-building speed, is one of the best inside blitzers in the game. Foote, like James Farrior before him, is very good at choosing angles and timing his burst. Those are critical skills to have in a system that relies heavily on the teamwork of guys opening up pass-rushing lanes and eating blockers for each other. Foote should play tons of snaps this season, though coaches are said to be high on third-round rookie Sean Spence.
One reason the Steelers got burned in Denver was that they played Cover 0, which meant they brought both safeties into the box for run support, leaving risky one-on-one scenarios for the cornerbacks. You can’t help but wonder if LeBeau would have reacted this aggressively to a rushing game like Denver’s the previous year, when Pittsburgh had the league’s No. 1 ranked run defense. Pittsburgh’s run defense fell to eighth last season, mainly because the front seven struggled against the lateral movement of good zone-blocking teams.
Having nose tackle Casey Hampton out of the lineup early doesn’t figure to help matters. However, fans may be pleasantly surprised by replacement Steve McLendon. The undrafted fourth-year veteran was listed at just 280 pounds last year (an estimated 40-90 pounds less than Hampton, depending on lunch), but he’s said to be tipping the scales at well over 300 these days. McLendon proved excellent at stalemating and disengaging from blockers in spot duty last season. The bigger question is whether fourth-round rookie Alameda Ta’amu can contribute right away, as McLendon will likely need to rest every third series.
The key to Pittsburgh’s run defense has always been the defensive ends’ ability to win in two gaps. Brett Keisel does this in unusual fashion, relying on agility instead of power. Keisel will start on the right side, while recent first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward compete on the left. Hood claims he replaced 18 pounds of fat with 20 pounds of muscle over the offseason. That’s good –- maybe now he’ll play with consistent leverage. That’s also what was missing from Heyward as a rookie last season.
Kicker Shaun Suisham was just 23-of-31 on field goals in 2011. Can’t blame the notoriously unfriendly kicking environment of Heinz Field; four of Suisham’s misses came at home and four came on the road. With Daniel Sepulveda unable to stay healthy, the Steelers have turned over their punting duties to Jeremy Kapinos. He averaged a respectable 45 yards per boot last year. Antonio Brown is coming off the first ever 1,000-yard return season for a 1,000-yard receiver. Brown averaged 10.8 yards on punts and 27.3 yards on kickoffs, though it’s possible Emmanuel Sanders will resume kick return duties this season.
The offensive line should improve exponentially over the course of 2012. That could make the offense as a whole borderline unstoppable. And this for a team that should again have one of the league’s stingiest defenses.
20 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2012, 6:59pm by BywaterBrat