The evolution of NFL offenses is on full display every week around the league. The creativity displayed and the statistics achieved by the players are staggering. This isn’t your grandfather’s NFL, that’s for sure. The dinosaur days of power football -- three yards and a cloud of dust -- are no more. It's gone extinct, kind of like rotary phones, video stores, and good music. It's the stuff of legend now, from a time long forgotten. Vince Lombardi wouldn’t recognize the game that he once helped to achieve national acceptance in family living rooms across the country every Sunday.
The NFL has evolved multiple times since Lombardi’s day, and it's still evolving. Every time an offensive mastermind like Bill Walsh and his West Coast offense achieves elite status, a defensive wizard like Buddy Ryan rises up to counter it. It's the natural ebb and flow of life, and every sports league experiences it. This is the yin and yang of sports.
There are a multitude of well-rounded offenses tearing through the NFL this season. It's a monstrosity of the league's own making. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say the new rule changes designed to create a kinder/gentler NFL have made playing defense infinitely harder for the players and defensive coaches. This had the effect the league wanted all along. Scoring is up to near-record levels, which is viewed as a positive development for fantasy football aficionados and for casual fans who are easily distracted by the countless entertainment options at their fingertips.
Juggernaut offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angles Rams, and the New Orleans Saints are lighting up the scoreboard like a teen playing Madden on his Xbox. Each of those teams is double-trouble on offense, both running and passing the ball with great efficiency. They've achieved consistent balance on offense. The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense is as talented as any of those teams' units, although they're still working to achieve consistency.
But I feel the Steelers' offense has the potential to reach another level not achieved by those other offense -- the identity of a punishing, power offense.
The Steelers presently possess a unique offense that features punishing, power players at three skill positions; James Conner at RB, Vance McDonald at TE, and JuJu Smith-Schuster at WR. These players are among the very best at their positions in the NFL this season. What I feel sets them apart from their colleagues is their ability to run through the opposition, punishing the tacklers along the way. This style of play is rather rare in today's Charmin-soft NFL. The Steelers are starting to utilize a two-tight-end set more often, with FB Rosie Nix leading the way, and they're showing great effectiveness. This will help reintroduce play-action into their arsenal. A little bit of old-school added to this new age of football.
Last season the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to go against the norm around the league and installed a power running attack to go along with a talented defense -- to unexpectedly successful results. Part of their success was the fact that modern NFL defenses are ill-equipped to defend against a power running attack. The Jags protected the football, and focused on time of possession by converting many third and short plays, relying on a surprising mobile game manager at QB. This unconventional offensive concept was so successful that they reached the AFC Championship game before their limitations finally caught up to them.
Conner, McDonald, and JuJu provide the Steelers with a punishing style of play without limiting their offensive creativity and balance. This allows OC Randy Fichtner to utilize his entire playbook.
Power players limit the aggressiveness of defenders. Instead of flying in recklessly to attempt a tackle, a defender will break down and prepare for impact. Better to prepare for impact than get embarrassed by being run over or receiving a stiff -arm heard around the world.
Conner and McDonald are particularly adept at absorbing contact and breaking free from would-be tacklers through maximum effort. This type of power football wears on opposing defenses, as many defenders tend to shy away from the contact as the game progresses. The repeated punishment takes a physical and emotional toll on defenders.
Vontaze Burfict was so perplexed from being abused by both Conner and McDonald last game that he had to be removed from the field to collect his faculties and to receive emotional support. The bully on the block suffered a broken psyche and a bruised ego, and his reprehensible behavior throughout the game should result in a blow to his wallet. Sadly, any punishment still wouldn't fit the crime. He obviously remains one disturbed individual, and the NFL can no longer turn a blind eye to the situation.
The Steelers' offense has displayed steady improvement over the past couple of weeks, and they're searching for improved consistency moving forward. This offense can prosper in any environment as evidenced by their impressive road winning streak. They can function at a high level in adverse weather conditions, a true advantage during late-season games in open-air, AFC stadiums. The power aspect of this offense is a perfect fit for less-than-ideal conditions.
On the other hand, this offense still has plenty of questions that need answers. If and when Bell does join the team, how will the team handle backfield responsibilities? How will that development affect team chemistry? Will Eli Rogers be activated and will his presence help solidify the WR3 position? Can McDonald achieve what has eluded him thus far in his career -- staying healthy, productive, and reliable?
The answers to these questions remain to be seen. Only time will tell. That’s what makes it so much fun.
I said it before the season, and I feel the exact same way now -- this Steelers' offense has a chance to achieve something really special. The best is yet to come.