Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

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.


26 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2014, 12:56pm

1 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

I think part of the reason Haley comes under fire is that his widely touted incompetence as head coach of Kansas City is well remembered. The process he had in place for play-calling there was absurd, and he frequently seemed horrifically over-matched. I remember being stunned when the Steelers hired him--stunned that anyone would hire him after the debacle in KC. When your expectations of a person are for incompetence, it's easy to find flaws in him. So, the question here would be, has Haley really improved significantly from his time as head coach? Was he actually a meaningful player in the 2008 Arizona offense? I recall being under the impression that his hiring in 2009 was a lot of smoke and mirrors in the first place, and that he really hadn't shown enough for such consideration--that we were seeing Whisenhunt's work and not his.

2 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Excellent article.
On the GIF of the Browns rushing TD, it is pretty humiliating to watch McLendon get blown away like that, but at least he was double-teamed.
Watch Cam Thomas (#96,) or maybe you shouldn't. If Thomas had been replaced with a blocking sled on that play, he would have been more of a defensive threat. At least blocking sleds don't backpedal. Ben Muth will have a heart attack if he sees that.

3 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

I'm still shocked that Pittsburgh didn't take a DB until the fifth round. There's not a single defensive back on the roster I would even call average, and the team's plan for shoring up the position this offseason consisted of nothing more than trying to convince the fan base that Mike Mitchell is actually good. It's just sad watching Polamalu nowadays. I thought that during the Shazier injury they should have moved him to sub-package linebacker like he played last year; he's still remarkably strong for a safety and his lack of range doesn't hurt you as badly closer to the line of scrimmage.

On the DL front, I'm surprised that I never see any mention of Cam Heyward when people talk about the Steelers' front. He's been playing tremendously since last season and has been a rare bright spot in a pretty bad defense. There's hope that between him and 2014 second-rounder Stephon Tuitt they'll soon have another great pair of ends. They also have a fifth-round NT on the roster who weighs in at 6'7" and 350+lbs, seems like at that size it's hard not to be a better nose than Steve McClendon. I'm more concerned about the team having two good ends anyways, since the nose tends to spend more time on the sideline than the field in modern football.

6 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Another problem, at least in regards to Tomlin & possibly Colbert, is a lack of motivation. Just how much of a disaster does this team have to become for the Rooneys to even consider a firing?

8 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Yeah, it'd be easy to say they were just giving Tomlin time to right the ship but that's been an ongoing process for several seasons. Beating 'Zona in one SB and losing another early in his career can't still count for that much, can it? This doesn't look like a team that's making progress or rebuilding in the same way that other teams in the division have.

11 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

The Steelers offense made excellent progress in the second half of 2013, and ended up 8th in weighted (towards more recent games) DVOA. Sacks per game went from 4.0 in the first 9 games to a very impressive 1.0 in the final 7. The Steelers were running much more no-huddle in those games, and it worked. This year, the OL seems to have regressed almost completely in the passing game, although its run blocking has improved.

I know the first thing any casual fan of football criticizes is play calling, but Haley is just awful. I don't think it's a coincidence that no-huddle was working much, much better. I agree that running was the right approach to begin with, but here's a novel idea: How about capitalizing on early success running the ball with some play action. I would have to watch the game again, which I just can't bear to do, but I believe there was no play action whatsoever in the 1st half. And then there is the red zone. It is massively frustrating to watch your team utterly control the game for 17 minutes, only to come away with a 3-0 lead.

Fan frustration is not eased by the evident nepotism of the Haley hiring in the first place. (Haley's dad, Dick Haley, is a Steelers scouting legend.)

Were I named Rooney, I would give Tomlin a chance to hire his own coordinators for once, and see how he does.

13 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Pittsburgh has been playing way to much small ball and "let's run it early" kind of game.
On defense, the younger guys have been too young, where they would normally develop or be traded to the Cardinals.
When small ball and the scripted plays aren't working it's all about Ben, but he doesn't have the receivers anymore to bail him out.
The defensive line used to at least win at the LOS and not go backwards. Making the LB play solid enough for even a 45 year old Larry Foote to be somewhat decent in.
Now the linebackers have blockers on them and play too much out of position.
The secondary has never been individually superstars, but at least they played well together and played a solid zone game.
Now Polamalu is just messing everything up; he avoids contact, is out of position when the others are running enormous zones and just just a parody of himself.

14 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Total non-football comment but ... whenever I scroll down pages with multiple GIFs or other video content, I'm always left wondering whether it's like the zen thing about "Does a tree falling in a forest when no-one's around still make a sound" ... or in this case "Does a video on an unseen part of a webpage continue to loop" ...

15 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

As a Ravens fan, this makes me genuinely sad. Baltimore-Pittsburgh used to be the best rivalry in the NFL. Pittsburgh was a worthy adversary, and when you beat them you felt like it was a great accomplishment. Ravens-Bengals just ain't the same.

20 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

I don't agree with alot of what's said here but I found a couple things interesting worth commenting on and pointing out.

This article in general places a TON of value and importance in the running game.

We see here Cian states running the ball heavily is sound decision making by Todd Haley, not just last week but overall as a general approach since he got to Pittsburgh. We also find here that the author says the ineffectiveness of this defense is centered around in many ways a lacking nose guard and defensive line depth. Now, I don't really agree with this. I don't agree with the idea that there is a decline in offensive talent compared to the Bruce Arians era. Antonio Brown is far better than he was 3 years ago, all people ever like to call Mike Wallace is a one trick pony(including Tomlin at pts throughout his time) and while that's an over simplification there's a reason even smart people fall for it, and people shouldn't confuse Emmanuel Sanders as being any kind of premiere talent because of the stats he's putting up in Denver particularly back in the Arians era. Furthermore, Le'Veon Bell>>>>>Rashard Mendenhall and this offensive line is no worse than the ones that the Steelers went to Super Bowl's with(in fact I think the interior is better now).

I think we're giving too much credit to Todd Haley by saying he "identified" a lack of offensive talent and "adjusted" the offense, which I know Cian also claims was the case last year after the Steelers bye hence explaining better play from Big Ben. I don't think heavily utilizing the running game is the best means for the Steelers to score points. I think there are too many times when there are clear mismatches the Steelers can exploit with there playmakers that they don't due to gameplanning and rather banal playcalling with inconsistencies in it. If I had to guess Haley's mindset and approach(completely uneducated guess I'll add), it's that he saw Ben's previous style as too undisciplined and left him suceptible to big hits. I also think he places more emphasis on the run than Bruce Arians(although you could argue against that based on his stint with Kurt Warner). I don't think Todd Haley has improved either Ben's play or his susceptibility to injury really, and while I agree if there's a no 1 scapegoat for this collapse it's not Haley, I don't view Todd Haley as a positive for this team. There definitely is a level of stubbornness with him.

The defensive analysis is also interesting. On one hand, the Steelers have never had great corners even in their premiere years, the difference between then and now has to be the run defense right, especially for a 3-4? Considering how much of the recent focus has been on speed and subpackages(a big part of why Troy Polamalu is still a central part of there gameplans), I don't agree with that either. Playing man coverage is also fascinating because we know the Steelers don't really highlight that in there defense. However, all these matchup zones incorporate these principles in some way or another and previously when the Steelers did resort to it, they had success with it. The Patriots game vs 2011(the only one they ever had any answers for Tom Brady) sticks out as a good example. But it's telling now, that whenever they resort to man coverage(which they did last year vs Brady also) the difference in results. The corners aren't good enough in anyway(Ike Taylor who used to shadow opposing receivers and who's ability to do so was fundamental to the gameplan is now a laughingstock to opponents). There's a reason Big Play William Gay gets his name also. The safeties aren't nearly dynamic enough to build a gameplan around like they used to. And perhaps MOST intriguing and important, the pass rush, just doesn't exist. The last super bowl the steelers won had DPOY James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley who postseason included had 17.5 sacks. Now? Try Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones outside. If your top two players at getting to the quarterback are Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, you have one of the worst pass rushes in football. Sure you can say part of the defense's issue is that Dick LeBeau's subpackages and zone blitzes have gone stale since they are being picked up by the rest of the league over the past 20 years. But it's also alot easier to score points when the guys coming after you aren't DPOY's like James Harrison but flat footed Jarvis Jones instead.

It's interesting in this time when everybody talks about the pass and how its a passing league to see an article emphasizing the importance of the running game on both sides. To me, there are far too many fundamental breakdowns(blown overages and laughable attempts vs Play Action) and flaws in the pass defense and personnel as well as in consistency in execution offensively and its design for issues surrounding the running game on the Steelers being the key to their demise on both sides But this was still an interesting analysis to me because of that.

22 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

If Haley's not responsible for players not executing, then why is Lebeau? Maybe Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith were even better than they've been given credit for, but when the defensive line is pushed around like they are on the rushing touchdown GIF (and that's all too typical a play), the holes are big and the linebackers can't flow cleanly to the ball carrier. So the safeties have to honor play action, and voila, receivers are running open through the secondary while the line gets no penetration. Nobody is enough of a defensive genius to devise a workable scheme without some stoutness up front.

And somebody should point out that 36-year-old Brett Keisel was the defensive end who ran down Cameron on that first pass. The biggest problem is trying to replace a core of players great enough to win a couple of championships. It takes time - sometimes decades, as Pittsburghers saw after the '70s.

23 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Yeah I mean the players aren't good enough. This wasn't a problem that just started in the past year or two. It was a problem that started about 6 years ago. Look at the 08 draft, the 09 draft, the 2010 draft, the 2011 draft even. When all you have to show from those 6 years right now is an above average center in Maurkice Pouncey, a 6th round gem in Antonio Brown, an average linebacker in Jason Worilds and a solid linemen in Cameron Heyward, there's your problem. The Steeler's coaching isn't great but alot of teams have won a lot of games with so-so coaching. This team ain't winning because the players aren't good enough, simple. You draft like that, this what you end up with and the solution is multiple good drafts and so far 2012 and 13 aren't looking that sharp so it could be a while.

24 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

I get that being stomped by the Browns is embarrassing, but reading this thread and these comments would have you believe Pittsburgh is a rank bad team, which isn't the case looking at DVOA.

They've clearly declined a long way from the perennial contenders of the late 00s/early 10s, and it makes for a nice narrative to see such a historically successful franchise struggling. But some perspective is needed.

26 Re: Film Room: Sad State of the Steelers

Okay, this s is something that is rarely mentioned. I know that Haley has had just moderate success elsewhere, but I do not believe he ever played football at any level (note even high school. I know that the Steelers will downplay this, but I am guessing deep down it is hard to respect a guy (at least in the tough man’s sport of football) that has never played football at any level. I think it is different in others sports. I seem to recall at least one Steeler espousing what I am suggesting. It is real easy to say these guys are professionals and will play hard no matter what, but that simply doesn’t play out that way. Remember David Shula? Do you think they played as hard for him, as they would your average coach? Some coaches (including coordinators) ‘bring out the best’ in players. Some don’t. My guess is that Haley doesn’t.