So What Happened?

Many thanks to RickVa for this fine submission. He's always been one of the site's great story tellers and perspectives about the short and long run alike. Cheers. -Blitz-

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Chuck Noll dispensed a lot of wisdom during his tenure as coach of the Steelers. One of my favorites: when things are going well it may not be as good as it appears. Conversely, when things go badly it usually is not as awful as it seems. I think this is the perfect description of Steeler Football 2008 and 2009.

The season has ended in disappointment and not a small amount of confusion. The time of scapegoating, recriminations and inquisition has begun. If you look carefully, you can see the glow of the torches and the outline of pitchforks on the horizon. Somebody's got to go in such a situation, heads must roll. That's the nature of the business. Of course, there is no shortage of opinions as to who must be sacrificed. I know I have my favorites. However, you may have noticed that a lot of people; fans, players, coaches and journalists are less than certain as to what factors led to this year's collapse, at least for the public record. This is an issue that I have been struggling with since the Chicago game in September. I came away with two conclusions which I want to share with the community. First, the main problem has to do with systems and how they interact. In other words, its not the Offense or the Defense, but how they complement each other as well as special teams. Its also less about individual players but how players are positioned to succeed or fail. Second, I realized that pretty much everything that we need to know about the '09 Steelers was on display during last year's Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl began the way so many of the games did this year. It seemed as if the Cardinals didn't belong on the same field. The offense was irresistable, the defense immovable. But already the first signs of trouble are apparent. In spite of steamrolling inside the five yard line on both early drives the Steelers only have 10 points to show for it. On the other side of the ball I believe Phoenix was held to something like five offensive plays in the first quarter. In the second quarter the Steelers O disappears as the Cardinals O begins to get its act together and scores a touchdown. A tipped pass results in an interception deep in Steeler territory. With 18 seconds left the Cardinals have the ball on the Steelers one yard line. Only an exceptional play by James Harrison helps the Steelers avoid a halftime scenario where Pittsburgh trails by four points or in the best case is tied. Instead, Pittsburgh carries a shaky ten point lead into the half.

The defense contains Phoenix through the 3rd quarter. The offense manages a drive to within the five yard line, but cannot score a  touchdown, even though a penalty gives them double the downs to get into the endzone. The Steelers must settle for a field goal.  20 - 7, as opposed to (potentially) 28 - 7. Put another way, the Cardinals enter the 4th quarter needing two scores to win, as opposed to needing three scores to force overtime. For three quarters the Steelers defense holds the Cardinals O to a 7 -7 tie. They receive precious little help from an offense that is essentially like an undisciplined baseball slugger; they either connect for a homerun or they strike out, being unhelpful in shortening the game (time) or the lengthening the field. Fourteen points is not too much to ask of a high powered Cardinal offense with plenty of time and unchallenging field position and they don't disappoint. The Pittsburgh O helpfully kicks in a safety for good measure.

The heroics of Ben and Santonio salvage the situation. The Steelers claim their 6th Lombardi, everyone goes home stressed but happy. But if they had lost...If they had lost it would have the same 'feel' as this year's losses to the Bears, Bengals, Chiefs, etc. A robust start that cannot be maintained over four quarters, an inability to finish teams. A defense that can't seem to stop anyone over the long run combined with an offense that can produce the occasional 'splash' play but does not have the capacity to either bury or demoralize an opponent (like they demoralized and buried the Chargers in the divisional playoff). A successful team is put together in such a way that every segment of the team (offense, defense, special teams) contributes to the effort. On defense, for example, in addition to the direct efforts of the defensive unit, offense and special teams play keep away, help to lengthen the field, to reduce the opportunities and increase the degree of difficulty involved in scoring. Just like the defense will generate offense by forcing high risk play calling that results in turnovers (Think about Ike Taylor's pick late in Sunday's game. This followed a long time consuming drive by the offense featuring the running of the 'washed up" Willie Parker).

Or if you really want to throw some gasoline on the fire, consider a playoff game we played in the early part of the past decade against the Browns. The Browns jumped to an early lead, but were caught and passed by the Steelers late in the fourth quarter. The Browns offensive coordinator was Bruce Arians.

We managed to win playing this type of ball in 2008. We fell on our faces playing it in 2009. I don't want to go too deep into what has been very strongly and effectively debated by Maryrose, tan of steel and others. But a few things could bear more emphasis.

The arguments made to defend Arians are for the most part valid. For entertainment purposes the NFL favors a game that emphasizes the pass and have legislated its product in such a matter that such an approach is more likely to succeed. Nor can you expect a team with a 100 million dollar asset at QB and a stable of receivers, including two Super Bowl MVPs to not be emphasized. But Dallas has proven this year that you can have a team that excels in both areas. I believe that for Arians approach to succeed his system needs to be complemented with a strong running game. In this sense I am not in agreement with the traditionalists who insist that Steelers Football must be run first and/or run only. My guess is that this is not the issue that so riles so many in the Nation. Arians does not just prefer the pass, he is also (IMHO) contemptuous of the run. Too many other sets of eyes have seen the same thing.

I don't know BA's mind or heart, but it looks to me that he sets out on occasion to sabotage the running game. When some of these poorly timed and conceived plays fail, confidence in the run is undermined and provides an excuse to abandon running altogether. This approach which not only undermines folk like Willie Parker (one wonders what kind of numbers could have been generated if he and Mendenhall had doubled their carries against Miami) and annoys the sensibilities of Steeler traditionalists. It also goes a considerable distance in explaining some of the 4th quarter collapses of our defense as well. Running the ball fatigues the defense like nothing else. Running saps the confidence of the defense like nothing else, 'cause if you can't stop the run you really can't stop anything and everyone knows it. Perhaps most importantly running uses up time. In football time is oxygen. Conversely, while their D wilts, ours rests. While time dwindles, deprives the opponent of offensive options and panic begins to sow its seeds for them, our defense has an improved capability to create chaos and mistakes. The short passing attack that is almost always effective against the Steelers isn't available to an opponent  because they don't have enough time for such a methodical approach. They don't have to cover that space and can place their resources either up front creating a better blitz or back creating better deep coverage. Want to see the proof? Divisional playoff last year against a powerful Charger offense. Or this year against the Vikings. Or the last four minutes against the Dolphins. The knife cuts both ways. Not only did the Cardinals move the ball effectively in the 4th of SB 43, the D committed two personal fouls (incredible lack of composure considering the stakes).

Having trouble scoring points in the red zone? Wide open passing attacks experience increased difficulty as the field shrinks (Duh!). Hines, Heath and Santonio will be more successful inside the ten if the defense has to consider Rashard, Willie and Mewelde as well. And a Carey Davis, or any legitimate fullback, creates even more difficulty than Spaeth or Johnson who offer zero threat as runners.

Do I have to mention the level of vulnerability this approach creates for Ben? Something for everyone to consider: we will look back at 2009 and remember it as the year that the NFL dramatically changed its attitude toward concussions. There is enough information available about the long term effects now that teams and the league will be increasingly vulnerable to devastating lawsuits and increased public outcry unless the tightening of criteria for play continues and even increases. Ben is a big red flag because he's already suffered a significant head injury that is not football related. Both he and BA better get smart about this. Otherwise he ends up like Troy Aikman or Steve Young only with a lot more tread on his tires.

I would be less inclined to put the Steelers difficulties on individuals that just got old or incompetent all of the sudden. MR's recommendations for adjustments in BA's approach seem quite reasonable. But if he is too arrogant and narcissistic to consider or go along with this (I won't get into the power struggle issues for now), then someone needs to have a heart to heart with LeBeau and whomever the next special teams guy will be and have them to plan accordingly.

I would keep FWP for a whole lot of reasons, one being that he has probably been on the money incomplaining about how he has been utilized...Keep Casey unless you can get that kid from Nebraska...Farrior deliberately gained about 20 pounds this year. Maybe he needs to take them back off to help his pass coverage...Draft or sign some fullbacks...The movement to get younger and deeper on O-Line and D-Line should continue. I like Hartwig but I think he may be too small to be effective over time. A competition with Stapleton should benefit the team.

Don't panic. Things are not as bad as they appear.

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