The Yin and Yang of the 2013 Steelers: The No Huddle offense

The concept of interdependency as exemplified by Yin and Yang runs true throughout all of reality; you can’t have shadow without light. Plants die to create seeds from which they live again. Strife between offensive coordinators, line coaches and franchise quarterbacks produces dynamic game plans. Okay, maybe this last one is a bit of a stretch, or is it?


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Our Black-n-Gold symbol, the Steelers "Yin(z) Yang" if you will, illustrates both how the Steelers performed this past year as well the interdependency of the offense and defense. Their overall record was 8-8. For the first half of the season they were 2-6; for the second half, 6-2; the inability of the offense to perform effectively in the first half of the season contributed to negatively impacting the effectiveness of the defense. Conversely, the manifold increase in the number of turnovers produced by the defense in the second half of the season contributed mightily towards the offense's ability to produce more points than the opponent.

Steelers franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger loves to throw the ball deep and often; Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley loves a short-yard quick timing pattern passing attack complimented by a running game designed to control the tempo of the game, and the clock. Seems like a recipe for strife to me.

The Steelers brought in offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr to replace outgoing coach Sean Kugler. Bicknell was supposedly a zone blocking scheme expert from the Kansas City Chiefs who was thought to be the answer to team president Art Rooney II's observation that he and head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to run the ball "more effectively". The Steelers selected a running back in the second round of the 2013 draft, choosing Le'Veon Bell out of Michigan State over Eddie Lacy from Alabama, Montee Ball from Wisconsin or Christine Michael from Texas A & M. The draft notes on Bell seemed to check all the boxes on a proto-typical Steelers running back:

"Pushes piles with lower body strength. Can lower his pads for contact, churn through tackle attempts to become difficult to bring down due to second and third efforts. Wiggles and pushes through traffic inside to get the extra yard after it looks as though he's stopped. Possesses a spin move to come off tackles at the second level, maintains balance to keep on moving or at least fall forward for an extra couple of yards. Uses a strong stiff arm in space, as well. Agile enough to jump over defenders trying to cut him down in the open field. Used in Wildcat formation in the red zone. Decent receiver out of the backfield."

Thus all the elements of Haley's proposed "balanced offense" seemed in place; a new O line scheme and a back who can provide the power and diversity to execute the running component of said offense.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger's favorite deep target Mike Wallace left via free agency to join the Miami Dolphins and the Steelers had to match the New England Patriots tender offer on Emmanuel Sanders in order to preserve at least a remnant of Roethlisberger's favored form of offense, since Antonio Brown was coming off a rather lackluster "post big contract" year, and Jericho Cotchery, at age 31, was on the downward side of his career.

Add to all that the speculation we're now hearing about on the heels of the firing of Bicknell after only one season, the apparent conflict between Haley and Roethlisberger, and throw in the injury to Maurkice Pouncey at the hands of teammate David DeCastro and is the Steelers' 2-6 record in the first half of the 2013 season really a surprise?

It is said "Necessity is the mother of invention", or as Tom Landry once put it: "...something constructive comes from every defeat." After their worst start in decades, obviously something had to change with the Steelers' offense, and that something was the return of the No Huddle concept.

For reasons never explained by the Steelers, they rarely used the No Huddle in the pre-season, despite Roethlisberger's confidence in it; their pre-season record was 0-4.

In the Steelers lexicon, the No Huddle is not necessarily a "hurry up" offense; often times Roethlisberger will let the snap clock run down as he would in the "huddle" offense. The advantage of the No Huddle for the Steelers is it allows them to prevent the defense from changing personnel and by the Steelers offense being at the line right away, forces the defense to tip their hand in terms of what defensive ploy they're intending on executing.

For purposes of this article, no distinction is made in the type of No Huddle used (shotgun or under center); merely whether no huddle was used or not. In the first eight games of the regular season, the Steelers' used the No Huddle sparingly:

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The No Huddle was used less than 20 percent of the time in passing situations, and less than 3 percent on rushing plays. Given the lack of use of the No Huddle in the pre-season, it's not surprising that Roethlisberger's QB rating in the first half of the season, using the No Huddle so sparingly, was a dismal 71.8, and overall a mediocre 88.5. Just as running backs need to establish rhythm through carries, offensive units need to establish its own rhythm through repetition. Quickly going straight to the line of scrimmage from one play to the next needs to become ingrained into the O line, WRs and backs to the point where they're not thinking about it. Compare those stats with how the Steelers did in their final eight games:

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The Steelers went from using the No Huddle in the first eight games in passing and rushing situations (17.5 percent and 2.7 percent respectively) to 38.8 percent and 21.2 percent respectively in the final eight games. Roethlisberger's QB rating for the second half of the season using just the No Huddle was 108.6, and overall 95.8.

The Steelers rushing attack was vastly improved over the final eight games (Le'Veon Bell missed the first three games of the season); their overall Yds per Attempt number rose from 3.3 to 3.6. However, it was running out of the No Huddle where the most improvement came: from a sparse 2 yards a carry in the first eight games to 4.6 yards in the final eight.

It's one thing to attribute the Steelers improvement over the final eight games to a stabilization of the offensive line, saying it took Fernando Velasco the final seven games of the first half of the season to fully learn the Steelers offense, or that it took Bell the same period to get back into game-shape to become the player the Steelers thought they would get when they drafted him. While these are valid elements to the Steelers' second half success, giving so much weight on just two players' condition and familiarity of the playbook just doesn't stand up against the overwhelming statistical evidence of effectiveness of the No Huddle concept as executed by the entire Steelers offensive unit, and especially Roethlisberger.

This is particularly borne out by the difference in efficiency between the season's two halves (as shown in The Yin and Yang of the 2013 Steelers Part I):

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With the same number of possessions and plays, the Steelers increased their points per game from 17.3 to 27.9. Further, two data points, TD percentage and INT percentage dramatically improved with the increased use of the No Huddle. In the final eight games, Roethlisberger threw touchdowns 7.5 percent of the time throwing out of the No Huddle, while only being intercepted 0.9 percent; contrast this with 4.7 percent of throws coming out of a Huddle resulting in touchdowns, and 2.4 percent interceptions.

We may never know the true reason why the Steelers used the No Huddle so sparingly through the pre-season and half way through the regular; the firing of Bicknell certainly supports speculation that he had a major part to play in that decision, for the contrast between the use and effectiveness of the No Huddle in the season's two halves is striking.

The Haley Haters in Steeler Nation may choose to blame him for keeping Roethlisberger from using the No Huddle for the first eight games; they probably think Haley yelled out to Tomlin "just a couple of inches more to the right" during the Jacoby Jones runback in the second Ravens game. Whatever the actual reason may be, it seems impossible to believe that the contribution the No Huddle made to the offensive potency of the Steelers in their rise to respectability and a potential playoff spot is ever going to be forsaken again.

Roethlisberger may have had to endure conflict with his coaches in his efforts to adjust to the style of offense Haley and Tomlin are implementing in Pittsburgh, but that's okay. Roethlisberger survived all the injuries and disruptions to his offensive line and played every snap in all 16 games for the first time in his career; he was having a career season last year before injured. Conversely, his many fumbles and interceptions in the first half of this season directly contributed to the Steelers 2-6 record.

Thus, as Roethlisberger himself embodies both the good and the bad elements of this past season, his own Yin and Yang if you will, maybe, finally, the supposed conflict and strife between franchise QB and the coaching staff is the dark force, and the No Huddle the light, in the duality of the Steelers'2013 season. If so, and if the franchise QB and the coaches truly learn from this past season, harmony may finally come and victorious balance once again achieved as the natural order of things in the AFC North is restored with the Steelers harmoniously on top.

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