Let me stipulate right off the bat, that I don't have an answer to the questions I am putting forth in this article. So, please don't think that I am saying I know the direction that the Steelers should go in. My initial point is, however, that the aforementioned direction seems to be, for the first time in recent memory, not so clear cut.
Under both Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have consistently won, and they have won ugly. I define winning ugly as having a strong defense, a clock-killing run game, and a efficient run game. The mantra has been to keep the game close and find a way to win in the 4th quarter. The Steelers have dominated games, and ended up winning by 10 points.
While the Steelers may have perfected winning ugly in 2008, the wins have gotten uglier since.
2012 brought these issues to the forefront. During the 2012 football season, the Steelers lacked big plays. Offense, defense and special teams were all lacking. Neal has done a great job pointing out that while the defense took its annual place atop many of the defensive categories, their inability to create turnovers (or even negative plays) led to a less than stellar season on that side of the ball.
Offensively, we had to fight, scratch and claw for everything we got. When we would get a big completion down the field, inconceivably, the receiver would drop the ball. The running game? Forget it. Whereas the Ravens might have have the "heave and pray" offense, we were just praying. Praying that the flag on the field was not a holding penalty. Praying that Ben would not get killed on 3rd and long. Praying that the running back would not fumble. Simply, if anything went bad on offense (a negative play) we could not overcome it. Moreover, we were not consistently good enough to drive the ball down the field on people. Somewhere, somebody would make a mistake, and the resulting 3rd and 10 or 2 and 15 was too much to overcome.
Special Teams? Do we really want to go there?
So, these lack of big plays have led us to look at the 2013 draft for players that are able to what essentially Cortez Allen did over the last quarter of the season. Make plays. Splash plays.
However, some in the BTSC community are clamoring for the past piece of the offensive line puzzle. Whether it be Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper, many are interested in finally returning the offensive line to the its glory days in the 90's. Who can really argue with this logic?
Well, many people really. Others are looking for the Steelers to draft their version of Clay Matthews or Aldon Smith. Someone who can terrorize quarterbacks and cause fumbles. Mike Tomlin has always let it be known that he loves "run and hit guys" and it seems obvious that we need them. Whether it be at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, or safety the thinking is that the infusion of speed and aggressiveness would pay big dividends.
What about that tall receiver that can catch the ball in traffic? Or, the running back that can finally become a threat to run outside of the tackle box?
Lots of discussion of who the Steelers could take. But, I think a more interesting discussion could be the why behind the pick, not the who. Which brings me to the title of the article, can we continue to try to win games by winning ugly?
Basically, what I mean is will 2008 ever happen again? Great, suffocating defense and a middle of the road offense. Arizona, while being the loser that day, seems to have been ahead of the learning curve for the rest of the NFL. The teams that dominate the NFL right now dominate with big plays on offense and defense. Green Bay, New England, the New York Giants, these teams all win with points on offense and creating turnovers on defense.
Houston had a team this year that everyone for the past 25 years has said is the blueprint to win a championship. Play great defense and run the ball. They got bounced in the playoffs, again.
So is defense and running the football irrelevant? No, but maybe how we judge it is.
Instead of having a defense that dominates in every statistical category, maybe we would be better with a defense that was able to bail itself out with big plays. Where I am going with this is the discussion around a guy like Dion Jordan. Here is a kid that has lights-out ability to rush the quarterback. But, many are quick to point out that he may be a liability, at least early, against the run. My point is this: should we care?
Since that Arizona game in 2008, teams have been quite content to dink and dunk the ball down the field against the Steelers. We don't have an answer for it. Ironically, this is why Baltimore struggled so much against us offensivley this year. We are able to take away the big play, but we never force teams off their offensive schedule. We never do anything to cause the offense to be in those situations that our offense found itself in so many times this year. We don't have a guy quick enough in the front four that is going to create holding penalties. We don't have guys in the secondary that challenge the ball and thus make the quarterback hesitate before he throws quick.
Offensively, I don't think anyone is going to argue that we are sorely lacking playmakers. Keep in mind, I'm not suggesting that we return to the Arians philosophy of trying to complete low percentage throws with every third attempt. However, we don't have guys that make plays when defense has the play defended.
To use the Super Bowl as an example, both Baltimore and San Francisco made plays offensively when they shouldn't have. Whether is was a back making someone miss, the quarterback throwing someone open, or a receiver competing for the ball, the guys on offense won when the defense had the advantage.
Sadly, the Steelers have seemed to embrace our lack of playmakers. While Tomlin is the first to say that we did not make enough plays after a loss, he is also quick to embrace the mantra of winning ugly. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes, you are going to win ugly in the most competitive of all professional leagues. There is something to be said for a pitcher that is able to win games when he does not have his best stuff. However, the Steelers have taken winning ugly to mean games like the Cincinnati game late in the year. The Bengals won that game ugly. If the Steelers would've taken advantage of one of the 5 opportunities they had to win that game, they would've won ugly.
And that is my point. Those types of wins do not translate into long playoff runs any more. In the playoffs, you are going to have to out score teams to win. Yes, you will have to make plays on defense in crucial times, but you have to consistently be able to put points on the board. Or, if your offense is struggling, the defense can cause enough turnovers and/or negative plays to allow the offense to get over the hump.
Maybe the answer is a guy(s) like Dion Jordan. Maybe the kid from BYU. Or, maybe we finally get another difference maker at receiver.
But, maybe the guys saying we should take Chance Warmack have a point also. Maybe controlling the line of scrimmage better will allow guys like Antonio Brown to become playmakers.
As I mentioned earlier, though, that is not really the point. My point is, would the Steelers ever embrace a tight end like Jimmy Graham? David Paulson spent more time blocking this past year then he did probably in 4 years at Oregon. Why? If Paulson could be an asset in the passing game, especially late in the year when their was a dearth of wide receivers, why were we still asking him to block defensive ends?
Whether we draft Jonathan Cooper in round one in order grind out wins in the 4th quarter, or a guy like Dion Jordan to rush the quarteback in the nickel will say a lot about the direction of this team. When we drafted Jason Worilds a few years ago, Keith Butler said it would be almost impossible for him to get on the field as a rookie. Contrast that with the pick of Bruce Irvin by the Seahawks. I thought it was nuts. I was wrong.
The Steelers need playmakers, but more importantly, they need to drop the mantra of winning ugly.