Steelers Training Camp is just weeks away, and for thousands of faithful out there, it might as well be Christmas. Back when the Steelers lost their heartbreaker to the Broncos on January 8th, the start of the new season seemed like an eternity.
Now it's almost here, and I can't wait for things to get rolling.
Yes, every new season brings hope and optimism, especially for me. I'm not one of those people who ever has any grave "concerns" about the Steelers, at least not in the offseason. During the season, I might worry about an injury or a crucial game that's coming up, but in the offseason, I'm normally just counting down the days until September.
But this offseason is different. Everytime I think about the upcoming season, my mind never strays too far away from new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and how the dynamics of his new system will play out in 2012.
From the beginning, I was a little concerned with everyone's enthusiasm about the implementation of an "official" fullback, even though, as it turns out, it's more than likely going to be David Johnson with a new number.
With a fullback in place, this could open up the play-action pass for Ben Roethlisberger a little more. There is also excitement for the possibility that Haley may be putting more emphasis on running the football this season. I could never figure out why people didn't think the Steelers had an effective ground game under Bruce Arians. While it may not have been the best in the league, it was probably a little more effective than people gave it credit for.
According to the stats I compiled on Pro Football Reference, in five seasons under Arians, the Steelers averaged 118 yards a game rushing the football, just over 4.1 yards per carry, and nearly 29 carries a game. In 2007, Willie Parker was leading the NFL in rushing before he broke his leg late in the season. And Rashard Mendenhall has averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his three full seasons as a starter.
I'm not trying to make this an Arians vs. Haley argument. There was clearly a problem with scoring points under Arians, as the team normally finished near the middle of the pack or worse under his leadership--last year, the Steelers only scored 16 more points than the pretty pedestrian Denver offense. Whether it was from a lack of imagination with regards to play-calling or an inferior offensive line, a change probably needed to be made just so we could find out once and for all. But 118 yards a game on the ground would seem to be effective enough production in today's pass-heavy NFL, especially when the OC had an elite quarterback and many aerial weapons at his disposal.
So, when people say "more emphasis on the run," what are they hoping for? Are they looking for a return to the mid-90's under Cowher? Well, I sure hope Haley isn't.
There is also great excitement about Haley's philosophy of utilizing the running backs out of the backfield in the passing game, and I can certainly get behind that. There were many times over the years when I wished Big Ben would just check the ball down to the open back circling out of the backfield instead of going for the bomb.
In Mendenhall, Redman, and maybe Batch and Rainey, the Steelers certainly have a stable of backs who are more than capable of being effective weapons in the passing game. Having said that, there is concern on my part about the absence of the lead horse in the stable of backs--Mendenhall. Without Mendenhall, who could possibly miss at least a portion of the 2012 season due to offseason ACL surgery, will the other backs be able to carry-out Haley's game plan?
Also, I think putting too much emphasis on the backs would take away from what I think is the real strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense: the wide receivers.
In Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, I believe the Steelers have the best receiving corps in the NFL, and I think they should be the main focus each and every week.
My real hope is that Haley is able to come in and make the Steelers' offense more explosive and dynamic by utilizing every facet of his arsenal, but especially the offense's strengths.
Haley's said that he's not a "systems" coach, and that he'll design his game plan each week according to what his team's strengths are and what he thinks is the best way to attack an opponent's defense. That's pretty comforting, and I hope he's sincere. One of Arian's weaknesses was an apparent unwillingness to tailor a game plan for a specific opponent more often than perhaps he should have.
At least Haley has a history of being flexible in that department. As OC in Arizona, he had maybe the most dynamic passing attack in he NFL, including three 1000 yard receivers in 2008. And as Head Coach of the Chiefs in 2010, he had the number one rushing attack in the NFL.
I'm not saying that I don't want Haley to come in and run the football at all. It's just that I don't want to see him do it just because he feels he HAS to in-order to appease the fan base.
And I haven't even talked about the terminology that all these guys must learn. Yes, plays are plays, and most teams pretty much have the same ones in their playbooks, but the terminology and signals are surely different from team-to-team. Hopefully, that's not something that hinders the unit for very long. Especially Big Ben. At 30, he's at the age where everything is starting to make sense to him. Last season, broadcasters would comment on how much more comfortable he was with everything, and how he was able to read defenses better than he ever had before.
The last thing I want to see is Roethlisberger take a step back at this stage of his career. He's already one of the best in the game, and I hope Todd Haley pushes him further in that direction and doesn't pull him back to the pack.
Anyway, these are my concerns about the new offense. They're not grave concerns, but they're enough to make me sit down and write about them.
Anyone else have similar concerns?