I was thinking the other day how this 2014 Steelers offense has the potential to be one of the most diverse in recent memory. Over the past decade, we've alternately been able to run the ball well but were limited in the passing game (the Bus/Willie Parker years) and been able to throw it well but lacked an effective run game (2010-2013). At times we've done both well, but often it seemed we possessed a significant flaw for our opponents to exploit. A weak offensive line. The lack of an explosive backfield. Limited red zone options. The offense was quite often good but there was usually something holding it back from being great.
This season feels different. With the addition of running back LeGarrette Blount, young speedster Dri Archer, possession receiver Lance Moore, red zone threat Martavis Bryant and perhaps most importantly offensive line coach Mike Munchak, the current Steeler O looks on paper like a group that is solid up front, can run the ball with power backs, can get to the edge with a quick back, can stretch the field with speed, can control the ball with the short passing game and can be successful playing from both ahead or behind. It gives us a lot of options with our play-calling and provides Todd Haley with a multitude of different looks he can throw at a defense. That diversity should make us as well-rounded as we've been in quite some time and could produce the best offensive numbers in recent memory.
Just for fun, I've donned the OC's headset and tried to put our diverse assembly of talent to good use. What follows is an imagining of what a properly executed 2014 Steeler opening drive might look like against a traditional NFL defense:
1st and 10, middle of the field, ball on -20
The Steelers take over after Dri Archer downs the opening kickoff at the back of the end zone. The offense comes out in 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) with Heath Miller tight to the right and Antonio Brown wide to his side at the Z receiver. Matt Spaeth is tight to the left with Markus Wheaton flanking him. Le'Veon Bell is the single back behind Big Ben.
The defense is in a traditional 4-3 alignment but they recognize the two TE set as a run formation so they walk the strong safety down into the alley outside Spaeth. This indicates cover-3 to Roethlisberger with the strong safety as the flat player. On the snap, the entire offensive line zone steps to the right and Roethlisberger runs the ball back to Bell. The defense flies with the full flow, eager to stuff the run. But Roethlisberger pulls the ball and boots back to his left. Spaeth blocks down on the DE just long enough to let Ben clear him then releases to the flat. The strong safety jumps Spaeth's route, opening a seam in the hook zone that the backers have vacated pursuing the run fake. Ben finds Miller crossing the field from the backside and hits him in stride. Heath turns up field, gains a few yards and lowers his shoulder into the free safety, who begrudgingly manages to drag him to the ground by his ankles. The play-action from a traditional run formation has caught the defense off guard and picked up 14 yards on first down.
1st and 10, left hash, -34
Spaeth comes off the field and is replaced by Dri Archer. The Steelers align in a trips formation to the field with Miller at TE, Archer in the slot and Brown spilt wide. Wheaton is the X receiver on the back side. The defense sets their nose guard in a shade to the weak side and their DE in a 5-technique outside the left tackle. Attacking the shade, the Steelers run inside zone left to Bell, using center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster to double him up to the middle backer. Bell runs downhill with square shoulders and gains three yards.
2nd and 7, left hash, -37
Haley has gotten a look at how the defense will align to trips so the Steelers come back with the same formation. Roethlisberger eyes the corner to the field playing six yards off of Brown and the safety aligned over Archer at ten yards depth. He has a three-way read on the play. He can throw the slant to Wheaton on the back side if the alley is clear. He can throw the bubble screen to Archer if he likes the leverage Archer has to the field. Or he can run zone again to Bell if he gets five defenders in the box. The OLB to the field is splitting the difference between Miller and Archer so Ben likes the leverage. He throws the quick bubble screen and Archer scoots for six yards before the safety tracks him down.
3rd and 1, right hash, -43
LeGarrette Blount is subbed in for Archer. The Steelers align with Blount as a single back and Miller tight to the boundary with Brown split to his side. Wheaton and Bell are aligned to the field in a wide twins look with Bell nearly stacked behind Wheaton. The defense has to respect Bell's ability as a receiver and the tendency the Steelers have to throw quick screens when they get numbers or leverage. They walk their strong safety up and widen him towards Bell. The Steelers then bring Brown in motion across the formation, forcing the OLB to the field to widen with him. This achieves the desired result as it is now 6-on-6 in the box and Ben slams his 250 pound back into the line for a two-yard gain. First down, Steelers.
1st and 10, right hash, -45
Todd Haley wants to establish the run game. Run the ball and good things happen. He knows this. But he is a closet fan of a website called Behind The Steel Curtain, so he also knows that Steeler fans find his first-down play-calling terribly predictable. He has vowed to remedy this. So Haley subs Archer for Blount and puts Roethlisberger in the shotgun in an empty set. Miller is tight to Ben's left with Bell and Brown flanking him. Wheaton is split wide to the boundary with Archer in the slot. The outside backers widen to D gap, presenting Ben a five-man box. Ben lifts his foot and Archer shifts into the backfield to the right of the QB. The OLB to the short side walks up to the edge. Teams will blitz when Archer is in the backfield, Haley knows, because they will perceive it as a mismatch in pass protection. They will blitz from the weak edge and assign the Mike backer to Archer should the Steelers attempt to screen to him. At the snap, the blitz comes and Roethlisberger recognizes it. Archer is indeed going to screen, only the Steelers are sliding their protection to the blitz and Archer is screening away from it. At 5'7 he disappears behind a wall of linemen and slips out the opposite side, where Roethlisberger dumps him the ball. The Mike backer is tracking Archer but he loses him in the clutter of bodies and by the time he picks him back up Maurkice Pouncey is running interference. Archer weaves through the defense for 12 yards and another first down.
1st and 10, right hash, +43
The ball is in plus territory now. Five plays in, the run/pass balance has been excellent. Four different players have touched the football. Haley is in a good rhythm. But the other team has coaches, too. They also study film. They also make adjustments. A run blitz on 1st down stalemates Bell after a short gain. On 2nd and 9 Haley calls for a cover-2 beater but the D goes man and brings pressure. Roethlisberger looks for AB on a divide route but he is covered. He checks down to Heath in the flat but that's locked down, too. With the pocket collapsing Ben slips through a vacated rush lane and tries to jam the ball in to Wheaton on a shallow cross. The ball is swatted away by the corner in tight coverage. Third down looms.
3rd and 8, MOF, +41
First third and long of the contest. A stop here and the defense is off of the field with no points surrendered. A conversion here and the offense is in the scoring zone. It's a big early play. An extra DB comes onto the field, presenting Haley with a nickel package. Haley has countered with a four-wide, 10 personnel group- Bell at RB, Wheaton, AB and Lance Moore in a trips set to Ben's right, rookie Martavis Bryant singled up away. The defense rolls the nickel man up over Moore with two safeties high and the corners squatting in the flats. Moore, who is the middle receiver, will run a whip route. AB is on the outside and will run a dig behind him. Wheaton will run up the seam to hold the free safety. On the weak side, Ben has a slant/back-shoulder fade option to Bryant. Bell will help in protection.
As Ben begins his cadence he sees the weak corner walk up on Bryant, indicating press coverage. He and the rookie exchange a quick look. This is what the kid has been brought to Pittsburgh to do. At the snap, Bryant engages the DB, rips through the jam and runs vertical, fading slightly towards the sideline. The DB presses his inside hip in tight coverage. Ben's throw is not perfect but it is timed well. The DB whips his head inside as the ball arrives, but the throw is delivered high and slightly behind him. Bryant, who has been described as a "ball-snatcher" by ESPN's Todd McShay (chuckle chuckle) does just that, going up over the smaller DB and attacking the football with his hands. He comes down with both feet in bounds before being leveled by the safety. The kid holds onto the football, pop backs up and makes a cocky first-down gesture. Coach Tomlin will chew his ass when he reaches the sideline. Still, the "big receiver" Steeler fans have clamored for makes an early impact on the game.
1st and 10, left hash, +24
The Big Boy package enters the game. Blount, Heath, Spaeth, Will Johnson. AB is the only receiver who remains. Another personnel package, another look for the defense to consider. It's a double-tight set with Johnson as the H-back. He starts as a wing on the right side of the formation away from AB, then motions across. Ben snaps the ball as Johnson reaches the left guard. The Steelers run old-school Power: block down, kick the edge, wrap to the backer. Blount fits in behind David DeCastro, who is the wrapper, and follows his block. Four yards on first down. On second down the Steelers sub Bell for Blount but stick with the 22 personnel package. This time they are in I-backs with Heath aligned as a wing to Spaeth's side and AB split wide away. The defense doesn't want their corner to have to roll up as a force player to the wing so he exchanges responsibility with the strong safety. Still, the Steelers have a mismatch. They run outside zone with Heath arcing to the strong safety and Johnson helping Spaeth seal the edge. The Mike backer gets over the top of DeCastro's reach block but Bell puts his foot in the ground, squares his shoulders and turns up for five yards. Another big third down looms.
3rd and 1, MOF, +15
Big Boy package still on the field. Blount in for Bell. The D has taken a corner out and countered with an extra DT. The double-tight/wing set again, only this time with Johnson to the left. The OL tightens their splits. The backers show run blitz. The strong safety is unaccounted for in the box. Roethlisberger motions Johnson across the formation then takes the snap. He reverses out, extends the ball towards Blount. The big back clamps down and lowers his shoulders. Block down, kick the edge, wrap to the backer. But Ben has pulled the ball and is darting to his right. AB, split wide, is running vertical to take the corner away. The OLB has attacked Johnson's kick block and cannot recover once Will slips past him and into the flat. Ben dumps him the football and big #46 turns upfield with only the approaching safety between him and the goal line. Johnson drags him inside the five before help arrives. First and goal, Steelers.
1st and goal, MOF, +2
Todd Haley has options. Lots of them. Quick receivers who can exploit one-on-one situations. A big rookie who can go get the fade. A quality starting RB who makes quick cuts and has a nose for the end zone. A big, strong backup who can pound it between the tackles. And Heath Miller, the ever-dependable tight end who is his quarterback's security blanket.
So much to choose from. An OC can get too cute for his own good in a situation like this. And yet, if he's too stubborn, he can fail to utilize his resources properly. The answer to a simple question will likely provide the right solution: in whose hands do I want the football right now? The answer to that question is Le'Veon Bell. 240 pounds. 8 TDs as a rookie. Only one fumble. Good things happen when you run the ball.
Three wides with Heath in the formation. Open the box and give Bell some space. 6-on-6 up front. A hat on a hat. You gotta take care of the extra man yourself, kid. No problem, Coach. Just give me the rock.
That's 12 plays, 80 yards, 6 runs, 6 passes. Five separate personnel packages. Six different players touch the football. Idealistic? Of course. Unrealistic? Not at all.
From five-wides to the Big Boy package, this unit has the potential to just about do it all.