by Cian Fahey
Todd Haley has become a scapegoat for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Haley is seemingly always under fire from Steelers fans, most notably one Snoop Dogg, but this week a local writer has turned his attention to the team's offensive coordinator. Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lays the blame for the offense's woes this season at Haley's feet. He recognizes the drop-off in quality of the unit since Haley replaced Bruce Arians, who is now the Arizona Cardinals' head coach.
It's very easy to jump on Haley. The Steelers' offense hasn't been good and the offensive coordinator is typically the first person to be blamed for those kinds of issues. It's not fair to compare Haley and Arians directly though, because Arians had significantly more talent, including Ben Roethlisberger in his prime, vastly more talent at the wide receiver positions, and a pre-torn ACL Heath Miller. And as much as the offensive line struggled under Arians, they never started a developmental guard at left tackle.
Haley entered the Browns game with the right approach.
On their first three drives of the game, the Steelers ran the ball 18 times for 66 yards. Those numbers were limited by poor execution in the red zone. In previous games, Haley had been too expansive in the red zone. Against the Browns, he addressed this by giving the ball to Le'veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount behind his offensive line. His offensive line simply couldn't create any running lanes.
Those three drives resulted in just three points, but that lack of scoring was due to a problem with execution, not play-calling. The first drive ended after three plays because Bell failed to understand the situation, trying to cut back on a pitch instead of sprinting to the sideline for the simple first-down conversion. The second ended when the Steelers couldn't run the ball at the goal line, and the third saw an open Markus Wheaton miss a fastball from Ben Roethlisberger before punter Brad Wing fumbled the ball on a field-goal attempt.
After that fumble, the Browns took a 7-3 lead. Haley didn't stick with the run to start the next drive, but his first play call should have resulted in a big play down the field.
Bell is a very impressive receiving back. He doesn't have the greatest hands, but he is very versatile and a comfortable route runner from anywhere on the field. On this play, he badly beats the defensive back lining up across from him on a double move. With the defense focusing on the other side of the field, Bell was free into space down the sideline. If Roethlisberger had thrown an accurate pass here, Bell could have continued down the field for a potential touchdown. If he had thrown just a slightly off-target pass, Bell would have had a chance at a big play as far as the ball was thrown. Instead, Roethlisberger led his receiver over the sideline to a point where Bell would have needed to drag both feet while falling out of bounds to complete the catch. That was the pivotal play of this drive, as Bell gained 4 yards on the next play before Buster Skrine appeared to be fortunate to get away with illegal coverage on Wheaton past the first-down marker.
The Browns extended their lead to 14-3 after this drive, before Roethlisberger's inability to throw the ball down the field became a major issue for the Steelers.
The next drive ended when Roethlisberger slightly overthrew Wheaton, who was open down the sideline. By the time the Steelers offense touched the ball again, it was late in the second quarter and the Browns were leading 21-3. Haley was then forced to throw the ball more and go in search of big plays with his franchise quarterback. Unfortunately, his franchise quarterback couldn't deliver.
Before halftime, Roethlisberger missed Wheaton when he was open on a deep out route.
In the third quarter, Haley calls up another double move on a third-and-short for Antonio Brown against Joe Haden. Brown roasts Haden with his route and is in space running clean down the field. If Roethlisberger can hit him in stride or at least avoid leading him towards the sideline, Brown would likely have had the speed to get to the end zone. Instead, Roethlisberger leads him too far towards the sideline like he did with Bell earlier.
In the fourth quarter, Wheaton comes free wide-open in the end zone, but again he and Roethlisberger aren't on the same page. Roethlisberger pushes the ball so far down the field that Wheaton has to attempt a catch at full extension despite there not being a defender near him. Unless you blame Wheaton and Roethlisberger's lack of a relationship with each other on Haley, and there is no real evidence to suggest it's his fault, this is a player execution issue rather than an offensive coordinator issue.
When playing from behind, creating big-play opportunities down the field is exactly what the offensive coordinator needs to do. Haley did that regularly; the Steelers players simply couldn't capitalize on those opportunities.
Even though the Steelers' offense has been a problem, the bigger issue is the defense. Nobody would ever call for the firing of Dick LeBeau; his past accomplishments are too great and he is too well liked by his players for that to ever happen. However, LeBeau is quite clearly doing a worse job with his defense than Haley is doing with the team's offense.
Entering Week 6, the Steelers offense ranked ninth in DVOA, 11th in pass DVOA and fourth in rush DVOA. Over the same stretch, the defense ranked 21st in DVOA, 20th against the pass and 21st against the run. After Week 6, the offense dropped to 15th and the defense dropped to 23rd. When Dick LeBeau won his two Super Bowls with the Steelers, his defenses ranked third in DVOA (2005) and first in DVOA (2008).
Those defenses primarily focused on stopping the run (first in DVOA in 2005, second in DVOA in 2008) to set up better pass-rushing situations and plays where the secondary could play off-coverage. The Steelers secondaries during those seasons were very good tackling units and exceptionally disciplined despite not being spectacular athletes for the most part.
Now, the Steelers can't stop the run and their secondary is continuously making big mistakes.
The Browns rushed for 158 yards against the Steelers last week after rushing for 191 in Week 1. When LeBeau's defenses dominated against the run, they had high-quality defensive linemen to set the tone for the defense upfront. Their defensive ends were outstanding and the depth of the rotation wore teams down, but most importantly, Casey Hampton was in his prime. Hampton was a huge nose tackle who offered next to nothing as a pass rusher, but would consistently consume space and dominate against the running game.
When teams double-teamed Hampton, he regularly held his ground and even kept working his way towards the football. When they didn't double-team him, he had the quickness and power with the awareness to hold off his blocker and locate the football at the earliest possible point. Most importantly, Hampton prevented offensive linemen from getting to the second level cleanly to engage the defense's inside linebackers.
To replace Hampton, the Steelers promoted his backup into a starting role. Steve McLendon had been a very impressive rotational piece who was primarily used as an interior pass rusher. He was much smaller than Hampton and relied more on his ability to penetrate vertically into the backfield rather than patrol the line of scrimmage horizontally like Hampton. McLendon is miscast as the Steelers nose tackle, as he is easily swept out of plays by double-teams and doesn't find the football as consistently when left in one-on-one situations.
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His inability to fill Hampton's role, combined with smaller linebackers and inexperienced defensive ends, has made the Steelers front seven very vulnerable.
With an outstanding secondary, the Steelers might have been able to mask their deficiencies upfront. The Steelers have never really had an outstanding secondary under LeBeau. They had outstanding safeties and cornerbacks who excelled in their roles. Now, the Steelers have undisciplined and flawed safeties as Mike Mitchell has proved to be an incapable replacement for Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu's freelancing has become a negative rather than a positive with age. Cortez Allen, the team's supposed bright spot at cornerback, has endured a nightmare season in coverage to this point.
With all of those issues, it was no surprise that Brian Hoyer had such easy success against the Steelers last week. Hoyer completed just eight passes, mostly because his receivers dropped balls, but those eight completions went for more than 200 yards and a touchdown without much, if any resistance.
Midway through the second quarter, Hoyer had done very little damage to the Steelers throwing the football. However, then he connected with Jordan Cameron on a huge play that ultimately set up a touchdown. That huge play came very easily, as the Steelers' four defensive backs all ended up on the same side of the field. Not one of Mitchell, Allen, or Polamalu recognized that Cameron had slipped out to the other side of the field, while William Gay was never in a position to react to him.
Hoyer was even afforded the space and time to underthrow the pass, forcing Cameron to wait on the ball. That delay cost Cameron the touchdown, but it didn't stop him from running down to the goal line.
On the very next drive, Cameron again comes across a very easy big play, but this time he can extend it to the end zone. The Steelers appear to be rotating their safeties at the snap, but Polamalu is late dropping to the middle of the field because he is distracted by the play fake. As such, Cameron has space to run into when he beats Allen on his post route. Even though Cameron has to reach back for the football instead of being led down the field by Hoyer's throw, no Steelers defensive back can get near him or the football.
Each of those plays came in the second quarter and were the biggest plays of their drives. On the very next drive, in the same quarter, the Browns' biggest play came again through the same means.
It appears that the Steelers are playing Cover-3 here, but free safety Mitchell completely abandons his assignment when the Browns run play action. Allen appears to be taking a deep outside position against Taylor Gabriel, expecting Mitchell to pick him up as he crosses the middle of the field. With Mitchell not where he is supposed to be, Allen has no chance of sticking with Gabriel. That gives Hoyer a wide-open window to find his receiver for a big play. That 24-yard play set up another touchdown run, giving the Browns a commanding 21-3 lead.
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While Dick LeBeau can point to general manager Kevin Colbert's inability to give him adequate pieces with which to build a good defense, this lack of discipline should reflect very poorly on the Steelers' long-term defensive coordinator. The Steelers defense changed their defensive philosophy to match the changing offenses in the league, but they have failed to do it adequately while transitioning away from proven veterans to younger, developing players.
As Rod Marinelli is proving in Dallas with the Cowboys defense, coaching can have a huge impact on a defense that lacks talent. The Steelers can't even point to the variety of injuries that the unit has suffered, because none of the departed players were playing significantly better than those who have replaced them.
Although Todd Haley will likely lose his job before the end of this season, he truly will just be acting as a scapegoat for Dick LeBeau, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert. Nobody who is responsible for creating the team in Pittsburgh has done an impressive job as of late.