The Good Ol’ Days
I was a teenager in the fall of 1995. I remember coming home from church on Sunday in eager anticipation to watch every second of the Steelers game each week. I couldn’t wait to go to school the next day to talk about what we witnessed the day before. The rookie season of Kordell Stewart, where the Steelers began using him in unprecedented ways, kept me glued to the TV for the duration of each game. I didn’t want to miss whatever crazy thing they were going to do next.
Fast forward a decade to the time when the Steelers were using Antwon Randel El to boost the creativity of their offensive attack. This not only made for exciting football to watch, but it gave opposing teams something difficult to game-plan against. The gadget plays weren’t something that had to happen all the time — just enough to keep opponents on their toes. And it even played a role in a Super Bowl win.
As Neapolitan those last two examples are, the Steelers’ current offense and defense have become extremely vanilla. Coupled with poor execution, it’s become so bland that it’s hardly watchable. The philosophy of “we’re going to do what we do and do it better than you” has worked in the past, but not in 2018. One of the biggest reasons, of course, is that we’re not doing anything better than anyone else these days. Passes are inaccurate — routes are sometimes sloppy — it just isn’t working yet.
And the defense is no better. Joe Flacco stated this was the easiest Steelers’ defense he’s ever gone against. Yes, the Steelers would crowd a bunch of players on the line to try to mask who was coming on the blitz. But when you do this over and over but don’t blitz anyone, it doesn’t serve the intended purpose.
Both offensive and defensive units have become predictable, and predictability is not going to cut it in the NFL of 2018.
Painting the Barn with a Broad Brush
It’s interesting how Steelers Nation feels about “Tomlinisms.” When the Steelers are succeeding, these quips are bearable, sometimes even comical. But when things aren’t going well, they’re annoying and off-putting. Two phrases heard far too often this season are “when you have red paint, you paint the barn red,” and “I’m not going to paint with a broad brush.”
Although “painting the barn red” is actually attributed to former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, it has a lot of merit. When I used to coach high-school football, I had a team one season with four large, skilled offensive linemen and a fantastic running back. We would line up in “I” formation and run the ball down the throats of our opponents. Another season, I had undersized linemen, a great quarterback and a large number of receivers. For this particular season, we ran a spread offense based on quick passes. A coach must adapt to the personnel they have and do what’s going to give them the best chance to succeed.
So painting the barn red makes sense, but how they paint the barn is a different question. The problem with the Steelers is they’re only willing to paint their barn with a broad brush. They don’t even want to use a ladder. Maybe sometimes you need to bust out a paint roller, or even a sprayer. But instead, the “broad brush” is all they’re willing to use. It’s time to get creative.
Randy Fichtner is in his first season as offensive coordinator. Other than actually being able to run the quarterback sneak and finally using play-action passes a time or two, there really isn’t much difference in this year’s offense. In fact, I’d argue it’s much less creative.
Keith Butler has been around the Steelers long enough to know what needs to be done. I don’t know if it’s a lack of skill at each position (attributable to poor draft evaluations), or if he’s being overly cautious, afraid to make mistakes. But it seems like the Steelers are lining up and not fooling anyone with what they’re doing on defense. If the defense is easy to read, it’s very easy to exploit. And the numbers show this defense is getting exploited up and down the field.
Maybe I’m alone, but I feel the game plan on both sides of the ball has been one of “living in our fears.” The Steelers have replaced surprise and creativity with the concept of making sure they don’t screw up. It’s important to note that, during the Kansas City game, the defense was more confused by what they were going to do than what the Chiefs were doing. I’m not sure if that’s from poor game-planning or shortcomings in football IQ by the players on the field. If it’s the former, then Coach Butler has 12 games left with the Steelers at most. If it’s the latter, it’ll be a long-term effect until either the defensive personnel can be improved or the younger players gain more experience.
What To Do? What To Do?
First and foremost, the Steelers have to play better. The players and coaches are the first ones to admit this. But playing better isn’t the only thing necessary to claw their way out of the hole they’ve put themselves in. Coach Fichtner needs to start throwing things at opposing defenses which they might not have seen from the Steelers before. Strange formations or the occasional gadget play — something to change up the vanilla. Even if it’s just cookies and cream — or even sprinkles.
Sprinkles would be a good start. Sprinkle in something a little unusual on offense. Try it on defense as well. Yes, the defense could give up a big play trying to do something creative. But they could also make a splash play that could really make a difference. I, for one, am willing to forgive the defense if they give up the big play because they’re trying something unique. Just don’t keep screwing it up.
Neapolitan, cookies and cream, or even sprinkles — I’m ready for something different. And if the Steelers don’t soon figure out something innovative to do, the only option left will be Rocky Road.