After clicking between tabs opened to different Steeler sites, it is hard not to notice commentators discussing the need for a big target for Big Ben. The need for a big receiver is nothing more than a fallacy based on the assumption that our offense is stagnant and just plain doesn't work. Often times, this big receiver fallacy is couple with the idea that Todd Haley is the root of our offensive struggle. This is not case. This offensive system does work and using an early-to-mid round pick on a big receiver would be a mistake. To understand why a big receiver is not needed, one must first understand the gist Todd Haley's offense. To do so, one must set aside his or her feelings for Mr. Haley and any misconceptions that this system is ineffective.
CAVEAT* This post is meant only to briefly describe the Steeler's offensive system based on my subjective opinion and observations. I am not a professional.
When discussing Haley's system in Pittsburgh, words like "west coast" or "dink-and-dunk" may get thrown around from time to time. Haley's plan is to pound the ball, get the ball out of Ben's hands quickly, and to use the running game and short-to-mid passing game to open up the defense to controlled deep passes. The reason his system has been and still is connected to the west coast offense (which many consider to be a "dink-and-dunk" offense) is because the reliance on and abundance of short routes and easy completions. The reason for such a reliance on the short passing game is two fold. First, to loosen the defense and to maintain balance while moving the chains. Doing this eliminates the need to take unnecessary risks, thus limiting momentum crippling plays and turnovers. Second, to keep the $100 million franchise quarterback on his feet. Addressing the first reason, the Steelers want to run the ball. The Steelers want to impose their will on the opposing defense, control the tempo and wear down the defensive line. By deploying a short passing attack, defenses will have to adjust by altering coverages and will not be able to run-blitz. This should ultimately open up running lanes for the Steeler backs. It is easy to see how this type of offense is considered to be a dink-and-dunk scheme. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. Haley will dial up deep throws, granted not as often as Bruce Arians. Furthermore, with defenses focused on stopping the short, horizontal passes, this leads to potential openings in the heart of the defense for the tight end. This is where a healthy Heath Miller earns his bread.
The second reason is arguably the most important of the two. Protecting your investment. The Steelers $100 million investment also happens to be an elite franchise quarterback. It is a well-known fact that the Steelers offensive line pass blocks like a piece of swiss cheese. Ben has been hit (hard) and/or sacked on more plays than anyone can count. It is hard to blame a man who has been through that kind of a beating for not being able to play 16 games every season. Getting the ball out quick masks the weaknesses in the offensive line. A perfect example of this is what Mike McCoy did in Denver and is currently doing in San Diego. He knew that he did not have top class offensive lines, so to protect his franchise quarterbacks he installed a quick passing system which led Peyton Manning to one of his best seasons and arguably resurrected Philip Rivers' career. This type of system not only protects quarterbacks but lets quarterbacks perform at an efficient level. Just look at the near 74% completion percentage of Philip Rivers.
To most fans who are used to Ben running around, making those only-Roethlisberger-can-make type plays down field, this current offense is more boring than watching the 2013 Giants-Vikings Monday Night game. What those fans have to realize, though, is that this type of play by Big Ben is a double-edged sword; it turns nothing into amazing plays, but is inconsistent and will often lead to turnovers and/or injuries, specifically to Ben. Although not as exciting, this current system is perfect for Ben at this point in his career. WIth his big arm and mobility, his skill set fits more in line with a vertical offense, but this system has potential to transform him from big play or bust, inconsistent, quarterback into an efficient passing machine. One has to look no further than to his stats leading up to the Kansas City game before he got hurt last season (a 67% completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, and a mere 4 interceptions). His stat line this year may not be what it was last season, but what he accomplished through those first 8 games was astonishing. There can be numerous reasons for why he his not performing at the same level this season. It is possible that he is not as good as last season's numbers suggest (although he is still an elite quarterback), or it can be the defense putting him and his offensive line in positions where downfield plays are needed on every snap (which is not the Steelers' strong suit and shouldn't be), or maybe it is Todd Haley's play calling? Haley's play calling is a separate topic not discussed in this article.
Now that the offensive scheme has been discussed, where do the receivers fit in? It is important to first debunk the myth that all wide receiver positions are the same. Say What? When Most lay persons think about the wide receiver position, most think "if a player regularly lines up wide of the offensive line, runs routes, and catches the ball, he must be wide receiver." Or as Terrell Owens would say, "If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat." However, in this situation a spade is not a spade. The Steelers' base offense features two starting receivers, an "X" receiver, commonly known as a "split end," and a "Z" receiver, commonly known as a "flanker." (A "Y" receiver often times refers to a tight end or slot receiver.) In base formations (two receivers, one tight end, a tailback and fullback), the "X" or "split end" receiver splits out wide on the opposite side of the tight end and lines up on the line of scrimmage (as a tight end would, hence a "split end"). The "X" is usually a bigger-bodied receiver that can make plays down field. Often times, teams will deploy a speed receiver as the "X" to stretch the defense. (Sound familiar?) The most important aspect of the "X" receiver is his ability to get off the line and beat press coverage. Aligned on the line of scrimmage makes the "X" susceptible to being jammed by a press corner. The current roster lists Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Derek Moye as "X" receivers. Notable "X" receivers: Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Plexico Burress.
In base formations, The "Z" or "flanker" aligns off the line of scrimmage on the same side as the tight end. (Think, the "Z" flanks the tight end.) The "Z" alignment gives him the ability to release cleanly off the line of scrimmage and to run quick routes usually across the middle or towards the sidelines. Often times, the "Z" will lead the team in receptions as his quick routes will allow him to be open underneath for easy completions. The current roster lists Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton as "Z" receivers. Quickness is a key to success for the "Z" receiver, although being aligned on the tight end side requires the "Z" to run block. Notable "Z" receivers: Wes Welker and Hines Ward. Although certain receivers fit one role better than the other, during games the "X" and "Z" categorization can become muddled in different formations and receivers are forced to learn routes for both positions.
How do Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders fit in the current scheme? Like a glove. Both, Brown and Sanders, have the ability to play both "X" and "Z" roles as Brown played the "Z" when Mike Wallace was in the Steel City. Sanders' speed and quickness allows him to be a threat underneath and over the top as seen against the Jets. By having two multidimensional receivers that can make plays after the catch add an explosive element to the offense. What takes this offense from dink-and-dunk to explosive is the YAC (Yards After Catch). Brown and Sanders' Ferrari-like quickness allows this team to make big plays without sacrificing Ben's body. When teams have to reign-in their blitz because of these quick YAC gaining plays, the offensive line will be able to block hat-on-hat and give Ben the time to hit deeper routes.
Of course, having a big receiver is always nice. Do we necessarily need one? No. Brown and Sanders are valuable weapons that should not replaced just for size. If Sanders decides to walk, finding a big receiver to play the "X" to allow brown to move to the "Z" would be ideal. However, the Steelers should not make any drastic moves just to fit a big receiver on the roster. Additionally, with Derek Moye on the roster, the Steelers have a big receiver to develop over time. As for the draft, there are too many holes on the roster to justify taking a receiver with an early pick. Find depth at inside linebacker and free safety should be a top priority. Vince Williams is coming along but with Larry Foote's age and injury, and facing the unknown with Sean Spence's injury, adding depth at inside linebacker is a must. Finding the next Ryan Clark is just as important.
The offense will be fine with Brown and Sanders. If Sanders walks, Brown, Wheaton, and Cotchery are a nice trio. Even if Haley is gone after this year, the next play caller will more likely than not employ a similar offense due to our offensive line. Until the offensive line plugs all of the leaks, don't expect an aerial circus. A big receiver will not turn around the offense. Rather, finding ways to execute more efficiently is the key. Of course, A big bodied tight end that can be the next Heath Miller is always welcome, but the purpose of this post was to discuss the receiver position and I rambled enough.
Although, I spent a good amount of time writing this post, don't expect bloggers and commentators to give up their ranting. For all we know there is blogger out there describing the need for a big receiver and saying rants like this are unwarranted. But that is what makes sports so great. It is a never ending battle of the biases, the personalities and the know-it-all bloggers and all of us, as sports fans, hope that this battle never ends.