The key to the Steelers 2013 season

Thomas B. Shea

It's fully possible the most important piece of the Steelers' season will not be wearing a uniform on game days.

While it might be argued that it took defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau longer than it should have to fix things with the defense in 2012, nonetheless fix them he did, with the results initially becoming apparent in the second half of the first Cincinnati Bengals game.

Of course, the Steelers' brand of defense centered around pressure on the quarterback and Troy Polamalu free lancing in the secondary; the problem was, the quarterbacks weren't feeling the pressure and Troy was often injured and either out of the game entirely, or not playing at 100 percent. LeBeau recognized this (despite the claims of many that he had finally attained fulfillment of the Peter Principal and were calling for his retirement) and made adjustments to the way the corners, in particular Ike Taylor, executed their assignments with the results by year end being the Steelers leading the league in yards allowed, yet again.

However much some may want to disparage that achievement and point to the 8-8 record as justification for their derision are missing a critical point: yes the players had to execute, but the coach had to make the adjustments in the first place.

Key veterans like Taylor, and safety Ryan Clark had to execute those adjustments; young veterans such as Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, Robert Golden had to learn to execute those adjustments. Many of these younger players did not at first, or were slow to do so and the results were obvious. But as the season wore on, they all got onto the same page and by the second game against the Bengals, Victorian and Allen both showed signs that they were getting in synch with what LeBeau had designed for them and with those signs came portents of an exciting new defense.

Obviously the performance and health of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be crucial in whether the Steelers can return to dominance of the AFC North and in dethroning the reigning Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, and beating back the advancing Bengals;

Obviously running back Le'Veon Bell needs to justify his second round selection by achieving the same pounding success and productivity he achieved in college behind a less than stellar offensive line similar to the one he may have to run behind as a Steeler; and backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman must return to the levels that gave Steeler Nation such high hopes in the recent past, and;

Obviously the offensive line must stay healthy and Gilbert, DeCastro and Adams must now, this year, demonstrate on the field why they were selected with the high draft picks used to acquire them.

But the key to this season, and the remaining seasons the Steelers have left with Roethlisberger in his prime, is Todd Haley.

History has shown that offensive coordinators with the Steelers who try to impose an offensive strategy or game plans that rely on something the existing collection of players are not suited to ultimately don't last, and the coordinators' departures are a result of the consequences of their rigidity.

From Chuck Noll's hiring of offensive coordinator Joe Walton in 1990 and his disastrous and ill-conceived attempt to impose a playbook on an offense ill-suited to execute it, to the revolving door of Bill Cowher's coordinators Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, who for the most part tried to make Kordell Stewart and the Steelers offense into something it wasn't, to Bruce Arians and his forced "retirement" because of his apparent refusal to design plans commensurate with the capabilities of the players on his offensive line and his intransigence against using a fullback or calling a consistent running game to compliment his quarterback's passing proficiency, the Steelers' facilities are haunted with the memories of unfulfilled potentials and missed Lombardi opportunities.

None of this is to imply that Arians or many of his predecessors weren't successful at what they did, but rather Steeler Nation conceivably could have been looking towards the 2013 season to "Set the Date for Eight", or "Nine is Devine" instead of once again thinking of this upcoming season as the "Stairway to Seven".

No, the key to this season is Todd Haley and whether he can learn from his own and his predecessors' hubris. The obvious correction Haley has to make is to get his franchise quarterback's "buy in" on the offensive playbook. But more importantly, Haley has to demonstrate that he can adjust for in-game conditions, and not be wedded to the game plan designed that week regardless of who he has on the field.

With Haley, the question is will he learn from his questionable play calling and what it cost him in the Kansas City Chiefs game last year where he called for Redman to run on a third and 29 from deep in Steelers' territory against a team already daring the Steelers to run; or in the first Baltimore Ravens game when in the second half he totally ignored a running attack that had averaged 5.7 yards a run in the first half, and instead called 22 passing plays for injured backup quarter back Byron Leftwich to attempt, resulting in a 50 percent completion percentage, and a paltry 4.2 yards per catch rate and an interception.

Yes, the players must execute, but calling on a fragile quarterback already weakened by what turned out to be self-inflicted broken ribs to pass 22 times in the final half of a close and crucial game against a division rival is a mistake that falls on the coordinator, especially when the running game is already proven effective and the key to winning the game was ball and clock control.

Or, how about all the times Haley called for the diminutive Chris Rainey to act like a bruising running back and attempt to run between the tackles? Twenty-six attempts in sixteen games, the majority of them had Rainey splattering himself on either the face of the defender or the backside of his tackles for a whopping 3.9 yards a carry.

The Steelers won the game in overtime against Kansas City at the cost of a 3 game injury and subsequent diminished performance to Roethlisberger, and lost the first Ravens game at the cost of (in hindsight) potentially changing the outcome of the 2012 playoffs and Super Bowl.

Haley is credited with being a creative and highly successful offensive coach, and there were more than a few examples of that in 2012 that legitimately raised the hope and excitement of Steeler Nation. The pre-season pseudo-drama between Haley and Roethlisberger unfortunately also portended problems that quite visibly arose throughout the season, especially during Roethlisberger's absence and the last few games of the season.

It appears from most accounts, and will be one of the most highly watched aspects of training camp which starts (FINALLY!) on Friday the 26th, that Haley and his quarterback have achieved a rapprochement between themselves. Now it will be up to Haley to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors and turn his offensive genius to creating success with the players he has and not try to force a square peg into a round hole.

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