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Steelers coaching hires: Developing an offensive game plan

With the hiring of two new coaches this week, it's prudent to take a look at how the staff works together to produce results on the field.

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For both players and coaches, the football season is a grind. The days are very long and the pressure is great. Folk tales have been created about coaches sleeping in their office, beginning work at 4:30 in the morning, and working to the point of both physical and mental exhaustion. All of these things bring to mind the question: What the Hell are these guys doing?

I mean, it's football, right? No one is curing cancer or disarming North Korea at the Steeler offices. So what exactly is all the work for? What takes such a huge investment of time? This article will attempt to shed some light on the daily work week for NFL coaches. The article relies upon discussion with numerous coaches, coaching articles, and books (the best and most accessible on this subject is Brian Billick's that shares the same name as the title of this article). I have no inside knowledge of how the Steelers specifically divide up their work week, but the article should serve as a framework of discussion.


Monday is a very long day for NFL coaches. On Mondays, coaches grade their positional groups, review the previous day's game, and begin the game-planning for the next opponent. The positional grades are very important. Walt Harris, former head coach at Stanford and Pitt, had a reputation as being a very good coach of quarterbacks. Harris would make a cut-up tape of every throw of the quarterback. Harris would then hand write a critique of each play. He would document what the quarterback did well, and what he did wrong. Then, when the quarterback came in, he would have him write up what he agreed and disagreed with within the assessment that was given to him.

That type of thoroughness makes it difficult to not be on the same page. And, that is an essential part of grading. Grading helps a coach get across to their players exactly what is wanted and expected from them. We (at least me) have all probably at one part in our professional careers have walked out of a big meeting with our immediate supervisor, and thought to ourselves, "I have no idea what he/she want me to do." Hopefully, the grading process eliminates this type of confusion. Players usually come in on Monday for treatment, and there is a usually a review of the grades with their position coach.

Tape review is also very important. What grading is for the players, tape review is for the coaches. This is the chance for the head coach to make sure the assistant coaches understand exactly what is expected of them. This is sometimes not all roses and sunshine. To put it bluntly, a lot of assistant coaches can't stand their bosses. If a particular player is not performing, especially a high paid one, the pressure on an assistant can be immense. And unpleasant.

During tape review, coaches don't just evaluate players. They also evaluate the calls that occurred during the game. The Steelers have stats that go back for years. So, they know what they normally average per run and per pass attempt. If the Steelers had an abnormally high average per pass attempt that week, instead of patting themselves on the back, the coaches would probably be spending their time trying to figure out why they didn't throw the ball more. They'll review their personnel groupings, how they communicated during the game, and how they handled certain situations.

For game planning, each position coach is normally in charge of one specific part of the defense. The offensive line coach looks at all of the blitzes whereas the wide receiver coach analyzes the different coverages. This is all quality control stuff. So, the line coach looks at all of the 3rd and long blitzes of the opponent. He then makes sure that the line has an answer for all of those stunts. You don't want to have to throw hot on 3rd and 10 with the result being a 5 yard completion. You want to have an answer for the blitz. As you can now probably begin to get a sense for, this can be very time consuming. It becomes even more time consuming when you take into account other variables. For example, the Steelers may have an answer for a particular blitz that the Ravens like to run on 3rd and long. Everyone is blocked. But, Kelvin Beachum is left blocking Terrell Suggs one on one. Is that really a win for the Steelers? Probably not. Good coaches always try to put their team in the best possible position to be successful.


Tuesday is spent putting the finishing touches on the game plan and putting together the practice schedule for the week. In terms of game plan development, the creation of openers is usually the first step. Openers are a list of plays that form the basis of your game plan. Some people think that openers are a sequential list that coaches move straight down in order. So, not matter what the situation, they are going to call play number 3 on the list for 3rd down. That is not how it works. What openers attempt to do is create a detailed and organized plan of attack within your game plan. Billick lists a few reasons for the employment of openers:

  1. Allows you to make decisions in the in a much less stressful environment than game day.
  2. Allows you to determine and establish a run/pass ratio.
  3. Allows you to take advantage of formations and personnel grouping. Moreover, it allows the guys in the box to see how the defense is defending certain formations and personnel groupings.
  4. With that in mind, it gives the assistant coaches a specific focus.
  5. Gives your players the chance to get into a rhythm.
  6. Gives you a chance to set up special or trick plays
  7. Breeds confidence
  8. Allows you to attack a complicated defense in a simplistic way
Staffs handle this process in all different ways. Sometimes, each coach gets a chance to create their list of openers. If the OC sees a play on everyone's list, they might decide to include the play on their list. Some OC's take very little input from the staff. And, some staffs are somewhere in between.

This process goes on all day on Tuesday. The key is to try to cover as much as you can and be prepared as possible. Coaches need to walk a fine line here. As an offense, you want to have certain things that you can hang your hat on and execute no matter what look the defense gives you. On the other hand, you want to take advantage, as much as possible, what the defense gives you. The one constant among all teams in the NFL is time. How much time do you spend repping plays that you'll use extensively on Sunday, as opposed to trying to cover every single contingency? These are the types of questions that the offensive staff grapples with on Tuesday.


Players report on Wednesday and are given the install for that week's game plan. Wednesday's practice is usually devoted to repping the openers. All of the other situations are discussed during the positional meetings. There is obviously a lot of overlap. If you are backed-up, you are probably going to run one of your base running plays. Therefore, you don't really need a period for that. After practice and positional meetings, the coaches will usually meet again to discuss the openers. If something did not look really good against the scout team, then it's probably not going to look good on Sunday. Or, maybe the QB and receiver are having a hard time getting on the same page against the defensive look your going to see on Sunday. Once again, throw the play out. Finally, the quarterback usually has some input also. If he really likes or dislikes a particular concept, then that is taken into consideration also.


On Thursday, situational football is going to be stressed. 4 minute offense, 2 minute offense, end of the half, end of the game, 3rd and long, 3rd and medium, 3rd and short, 1st down on the plus side of the field, etc. Those big play call sheets that an OC uses is divided up into these situations. Just like the defense scouts the offense, the offense self scouts. Therefore, if you've run a particular running play on 3rd and 1 for the previous two weeks, then you might install a play action off of it for this week's game. Beyond plays, personnel groupings are also repped in these situations. This helps constrict the playbook for younger players so they can get on the field quicker.

Teams know how much of a particular situation they usually face. If the Steelers are in 3rd and <3 12% of the time, then those plays will consist of 12% of the practice. Keep in mind, all of this stuff has to be scripted and organized. The defensive looks, the personnel groups, the allotment of plays, and all of the contingencies.

Coaches sometimes get fired for things that we, the fans, could never see. If the starting wide receiver gets hurt, how does that affect what you want to run on 3rd and long? Or, how does it affect the 2 minute offense? These contingencies need to be covered, discussed, and repped. Nothing can be left to chance. What if you have 2 plays to get 25 yards in order to get into makeable field goal range? You better have a plan for that. I don't really have an opinion on Cam Cameron's worth as an OC, but he was caught completely unprepared when the Steelers came out and played Cover 2 against the Ravens a few years back in the AFC Championship game. That can't happen.

The same thing goes on after the positional meetings post practice. How did everything look? Does anything need added or taken out? Did we cover everything?


Friday in normally spent on red zone installation. Coaches normally break the red zone down further. Inside the 5 yard line, between the 15 and 10 yard line, just inside the 20 etc. Everybody knows the importance of scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. Therefore, a lot of time needs to be devoted to the red zone. It is hard to out scheme a defense in the red zone because of the condensed field, so therefore, you try to take advantage of what you feel your best matchups are.

All of the same preparation and review goes into Friday as did for the previous days. You start to get an appreciation of the grind these guys go through.


Saturday is a walk through. Finishing touches are put on everything. Final reviews are conducted. Any last minute scenarios are discussed. Some coaches take this time to make sure that everyone is on the same page. So, coaches will pose questions (who do we want to throw the ball to on 3rd and long) to make sure everyone feels good about the plan. Some staffs sit around to watch a college game in order to practice calling a game.

How the players feel about the plan is of primary importance. Therefore, Saturday is importance in the sense that you want everything to be as sharp as possible. No mental mistakes. Oftentimes, coaches keep a file of all the mental mistakes that occurred during the week. Those plays, with the necessary corrections, are then reviewed in the positional meetings before the Saturday walk through.

Plan your work and then work your plan.

As you can see, a lot of perpetration goes into game prep. A million things can go wrong during the process. Things always do go wrong, and the adjustments that are made as a result go a long way into determining the success of a gameplan. Adjustments made during a game determine a lot. Good teams prepare for many of those adjustments during the week. This goes back to the openers. This also goes back to how well a coach knows his system. A guy like Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech doesn't need a play call sheet because he has been running the option forever. He has seen every way to stop it. If his team does not run the ball well, it's because he didn't recruit well enough. Not because he was out coached.

This is why it was so ludicrous for many to think that Haley was going to come in here and keep much of Arian's offense and/or his terminology. The thinking was that the young receivers would need the continuity. While I'm sure there was some attention given to that, Haley needs to be running his offense.

With the hiring of two new coaches, it will be important to see how well they mesh into this process. Coaching staffs are like any other community. You have jealousies, cliques, gossip, etc. How well these guys are able to work together is just as important as their ability to work with the athletes.