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For the Steelers offense to improve in Green Bay, they must be willing to get creative

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a tough test ahead of them in Week 4, and if they want to move the ball they have to be willing to get creative.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who has watched the Steelers’ offense over the first three games of the 2021 season doesn’t need a slew of numbers to explain how bad they’ve been. The eye test has spoken volumes. Still, the numbers are instructive. Here are a few:

  • The Steelers have scored just 50 points this season for an average of 16.7 points per game, third worst in the AFC.
  • Discounting a stretch in the second half of the Buffalo game where the offense got hot and scored on four consecutive possessions, the Steelers have produced points on just 5 of 29 drives (17%).
  • The notorious slow starts that plagued the Randy Fichtner era have continued. The Steelers have scored no points on 9 first quarter possessions. They have more penalties (6) than first downs (4), have thrown two interceptions and allowed two sacks.
  • Ben Roethlisberger ranks 28th in the league in QBR, 25th in completion percentage and 25th in yards per attempt. He has been sacked 8 times, tied for 6th most in the league.
  • Finally, the rushing attack, which the Steelers tried so hard this off-season to rebuild, has actually regressed. Rookie Najee Harris has been a warrior but has found little room to run. Harris has been contacted by opposing defenses at or behind the line of scrimmage on an astounding 70% of his carries and the Steelers rank dead last at just 53 rushing yards per game.

The numbers are what they are. We can complain about the coaching, the quarterback, kick, scream, assign blame or cry into our Terrible Towels. It’s all futile. The only thing that matters now is what the Steelers do to resurrect the situation. Teams get better or they get worse; they never stay the same. So it will be in Pittsburgh. The best we can do is hope there’s a plan to improve.

What might that plan consist of? Given the fact there are no new players arriving, the Steelers must work with what they have. Here are three things the coaching staff should consider, then, that could make a difference when they take the field on Sunday in Green Bay.

RUN MORE NO-HUDDLE

There has been some clamoring for more no-huddle around BTSC, and for good reason. Two of Pittsburgh’s best possessions this season — the 15 play, 86 yard drive that produced their lone touchdown last week against Cincinnati and the 7 play, 75 yard touchdown drive the week before against Vegas — both incorporated a no-huddle tempo. Because defenses couldn’t substitute and had to get their calls in quickly, each of those drives forced the opponent into fairly vanilla looks that simplified things for Roethlisberger and the line. Roethlisberger went an astounding 13-13 for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns on those drives while Harris ran the ball 6 times for 40 yards.

Why haven’t the Steelers used more of it? The simple answer is because, while the no-huddle limits what a defense can do, it restricts the offense as well. Because NFL offenses tend to be multiple in their use of groups and formations, coordinators prefer no-huddle packages over no-huddle playbooks. This means they have a set number of plays they practice each week, predominantly from a single personnel group to minimize substitutions (thus allowing the defense to substitute, too). Maybe it’s 8 plays. Or 12. Or 20. The size of the package varies depending on how much a team practices and plans to use the no-huddle. Because both of Pittsburgh’s no-huddle drives the past two weeks were long, it’s likely the Steelers ran most, if not all, of their package on each drive. Chances are they did not feel comfortable doing it again at a later point in the game knowing they’d be running the same (or similar) plays.

A counter argument to this would be, “The regular offense hasn’t worked, so why not expand the no-huddle, even if it’s limiting?” That’s a pretty good counter, actually. The Steelers could do this. Or they could run more on-the-ball tempo that isn’t exactly hurry-up. We’ve seen this before, where Roethlisberger simply directs things from the line of scrimmage. This was used to great effect in the comeback win over Indianapolis late last season, when he appeared to commandeer the play-calling from Fichtner.

The Steelers have four rookies plus free agent signee Trai Turner in the starting lineup, so it’s possible they could be limited in their ability to execute everything from the line. Still, it’s hard to argue with the success they’ve have had with the no-huddle so far, just as it’s hard to ignore the futility of their base offense. Matt Canada hinted before the Cincinnati game the Steelers may use more no-huddle as the season progresses. It’s time to make good on that hint.

RUN MORE “MATT CANADA STUFF”

The two drives mentioned above had another element in common. They were both “Matt Canada drives.” I put that in quotes because when we think of Canada’s offense, we think of shifts, motions, jet sweeps, multiple tight end groupings, constraint plays, etc. There hasn’t been a lot of Canada in the Canada offense so far. Why not?

The primary reason is likely Roethlisberger. All of the pre-snap movement and ball-handling in Canada’s preferred scheme demands that Roethlisberger adjust his style of play. One of the biggest reasons I advocated moving on from him when it was announced that Canada had been promoted to OC was that I didn’t believe the two styles meshed. The quarterbacks Canada had at his various college stops had a few things in common. While they were not exactly “running quarterbacks” in the Lamar Jackson/Kyler Murray mold, they were all mobile. They were also well-versed in read-option schemes and handled the ball well on play-action. Simply put, they had learned the position differently than Roethlisberger.

The young Roethlisberger could scramble and extend plays, but he had been classically trained. He had to learned to play from the pocket, read coverages and use his Howitzer of an arm to beat them. The new generation worked more up-tempo and outside the pocket. They ran the ball more. They were more comfortable with spread schemes and pre-snap movement. I just didn’t think Roethlisberger, at age 39, would take to being re-trained so that Canada could implement the scheme he desired.

Fast forward to the present. While there doesn’t appear to be any sort of power struggle between Canada and Roethlisberger, it’s clear Canada has structured the offense around things with which Roethlisberger is comfortable. However, when Canada does dip into his preferred repertoire, the results have been promising. Roethlisberger is not a great play-action quarterback, but when the Steelers have used it they’ve been effective. The RPOs they incorporated into the Buffalo game-plan worked wonderfully. Those largely disappeared the last two weeks as the Steelers saw more zone defense, but the Bills game demonstrated Roethlisberger can run them. There hasn’t been much jet sweep, and when the Steelers have used long motion from their receivers they’ve run the football exclusively. This is a tendency Canada must break to prevent defenses from teeing off against the run whenever they see it. But if he does recognize his own tendency, and he game-plans to break it, big plays await.

Given how bad the Steelers have been when they’ve used their traditional approach, Canada should push the envelope and incorporate more of what he prefers. If Roethlisberger resists, shame on him. He’s not playing well enough to protest. Past performance won’t help the Steelers now. They need to get more creative to find success. Creativity is why Canada was hired in the first place. It’s time to get on with it.

RE-IMAGINE THE OPENING DRIVE

Finally, a need for a new approach on opening drives is paramount. The Steelers have not scored a single point on their last 11 openers. Seeing them move the football early would be refreshing and would likely lift the team’s spirits (you can’t tell me a sense of “here-we-go-again” doesn’t creep in when they start each game with a quick punt on offense).

In three opening drives this season, they’ve run 14 plays for 40 yards and earned 2 first downs. Najee Harris has carried 6 times for 13 yards, with runs of 4, 2, -1, 2, 4 and 2 yards. Roethlisberger has connected on 5-8 passes for 32 yards with completions of 5, 6, 5, 14 and 2 yards. They’ve thrown one pass more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Clearly, the opening plan is to run the football, complete short passes and set up manageable down and distances. The Steelers are very worried about their ability to protect Roethlisberger, thus the short passes. However, with defenses primed to stop the run on early downs, and with safeties creeping into the box, there is little room near the line of scrimmage to operate. For this reason, some early play-action could be effective. One example would be a 21 personnel formation with fullback Derek Watt on the field, which would hint strongly at a run play. This could create an opportunity to get a receiver over the top on play-action while providing extra blockers (Watt and Harris) in pass protection.

Another idea would be to go to the no-huddle immediately. Why not, if they find themselves in 2nd and short or medium, get right on the ball and go? It would force the defense to play on its heels, and because it’s the opening drive the Steelers could prepare for it so they’d know what to anticipate. A few quick first downs might create some confidence while forcing the defense to make an early adjustment.

In the end, for the offense to improve against Green Bay, they will have to re-think their approach. They can keep doing what they’ve been doing and wait for the young line to improve. In the process, they’re likely to pile up losses. The Steelers brought Roethlisberger back for another season to make a Super Bowl run, not so he could oversee a developmental project. For the offense to improve now, they must be willing to get creative.