With confirmation that Todd Haley is at the Steelers South Side facility today and will be named the team's offensive coordinator, Phase I of the modification of the Steelers offense is complete: they found their leader.
Now, there are plenty of broader picture issues that Haley and Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin will need to prepare for come minicamp, which is just three months away.
This list is far from all-inclusive, but much of the offensive transformation will be based on these three concepts:
Managing the relationship with QB Ben Roethlisberger
The adage "no one man is bigger than the team" is true, but it is with the exception of the franchise quarterback. It's particularly applicable in this case, as Roethlisberger and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians are good friends and there's little chance that won't be in the back of Roethlisberger's mind when Haley works with him. Ben is a professional, and will no doubt follow the coach's instructions, but his willingness to do that - and way more importantly, his ability to deal with issues behind closed doors, away from the young players on the team - will be essential if this relationship is to work at a high level.
Haley must take on a willingness to meet Roethlisberger on a 60-40 basis. Good leaders have the humility to be able to recognize he or she is not more important than all of the people s/he is leading. In order to win the hearts and minds of the offense, he must get Roethlisberger to buy into the direction he's leading them. Therefore, he must know when to fight, when to concede and how to keep Ben engaged.
Haley certainly can do that, but if he fails, it will halt the progress of this talented offensive group.
Staying committed to the run
A commitment to the running game is not solely displayed by the amount of rushes a team has - it exists in the one-off situations. It's about choosing to run when the situation calls for a run, and being successful in those efforts.
To that end, it's not about the play-calling. It's about the amount of time Haley will spend in training camp working on those short-yardage plays. It's about making sure the back is running at pad level and securing the ball. It's about the linemen firing low off the ball and engaging their assignment with passion.
If those details are emphasized and fine-tuned and the players digest it, the play-calling itself is a snap. Instead of choosing the "right" play, Haley can choose from a slew of plays he knows the team can execute, and the real skill of a coordinator - being unpredictable - is achieved.
It makes little difference whether RB Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman lead the league in carries, yards per carry or touchdowns. The Steelers will achieve the front office-mandated commitment to the run simply by watching how well they execute in short-yardage situations, including the goal line. Speaking of that...
Understand the problems in the red zone come from emphases placed outside it
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders made an excellent point earlier this season on how there is no direct correlation between a team's overall offensive efficiency and its efficiency when inside the opposing 20-yard line.
The Steelers may stray from that statement a bit, considering they were 12th in the NFL with 373.2 yards per game, but tied with Tennessee for 21st in the league at 20.3 points per game. To put this into context, the Steelers needed 18.33 yards for each point they scored this year. That figure was the 27th highest total in the league.
No team lower than them (Washington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Kansas City and St. Louis) even sniffed the playoffs in 2011.
What this anomaly illustrates is the Steelers' core philosophy last season: rip off big chunks of yards at all times. That may work between the 20s, and red zone efficiency may not be anything more than another way to judge an offense's success overall, but physical properties establish there aren't as many yards to grab in chunks when you're that close to the end zone.
In other words, they moved the ball when they had room to move it. They failed when they needed less yards.
That is because Roethlisberger's elusiveness is far less valuable, because receivers don't have the same amount of real estate they had 40 yards earlier in the drive. Defenders know they have the back of the end zone as an extra defender, and that cut off Roethlisberger's ability to make big plays off-schedule.
The decisions made before the red zone are made before the game. A red zone commitment to the ground doesn't mean only call running plays inside the 20, it means recognizing the situation for each down and distance as well as the location on the field from which the play will be run.
Arians' play-calling decisions and failures were ultimately made before the opening kickoff. Haley must prepare this team to challenge its opponents in the short field as well as the vertical one.
All of these things should keep Haley, Tomlin and the rest of the offensive staff busy between now and the next set of organized team activities. Perhaps with 14 hours a day, every day, until the start of OTAs, they could have it down pat.
Unless, of course, something happens to a player entering camp looking to become a prominent member of the offense. What's Wes Saunders up to?