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Did Bruce Arians cost the Steelers a Super Bowl win in 2010?

Max Starks’ comments spark new discussion on Super Bowl XLV.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Max Starks sparked controversy with an interview on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan radio when a follow-up question to comments about the Steelers getting away from the run game in Super Bowl XLV as to why he thinks the Steelers didn’t run more after, according to Starks, they had identified Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji as a weakness in run defense. The clip most people are hearing is his theory as to why it happened, but far more interesting is his original statement that led to the follow-up question, made when asked if the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XLV still bothers him.

It still sucks, like Rashard fumbles the ball once, gets hit perfectly by Clay Matthews and we abandon the run game which is what we needed in that game to win because B.J. Raji was just, he was an open door, a swinging gate and we should have ran it a lot more, especially between the tackles and we didn’t do that, we tried to pass our way into it. And, you know, throwing against the #1 secondary in the league is not the best way to get at it. So I think, when we look back on it there’s a lot of things that could have changed but it still hurts me because we got a watch out of the deal instead of a ring.

Starks had hurt his neck and been on Injured Reserve since after Week 7, and was involved in preparation work and on the sideline for the Super Bowl. When they asked if being on the sideline made it harder to read the momentum shifts in the game, he responded that he felt it the same, both when the Steelers were on a roll and when Green Bay took over momentum:

But then I also felt it when Green Bay took it over and I was like “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to end well if we don’t change this,” and we never did.

And that’s the point where they ask Starks what his theory is on why the Steelers didn’t focus on the run if they had that scouting report on the Packers NT, and that’s where you get the infamous clip where Starks postulates that the game plan was to get certain players a better shot at bigger trophies at the end.

Mike Florio went on The Fan the next day and was asked about Starks’ comments and backed up Starks’ claim, saying that players on the team had told him the same thing.

I’ve heard that before, from players on the team, that after Super Bowl XLIII, when it should have been Ben instead of Santonio Holmes, as the argument goes, this was the opportunity for Ben to be Super Bowl MVP, and him and his good friend, who was retired one year later, who would go on to win a Super Bowl with another quarterback a couple of years ago, they constructed a game plan aimed at making Ben the MVP of the game, to the detriment of the team.

Now before we get into evaluating this story for plausibility, I think it is important to step back and establish the setting for this story. In 2010 Ben Roethlisberger missed the first 4 games of the season due to a suspension. The events that led to that suspension happened in Georgia, where Ben Roethlisberger had bought a house, and the reason he bought a house there was because Bruce Arians had bought a house there. Also it’s important to note that Ben Roethlisberger was still single, he would marry in the offseason, and started to be more of a team leader that summer, he has given credit to his wife for telling him he needed to invite players to train with him and work with him.

This story takes place while Roethlisberger is transitioning from the young arrogant player who was criticized by his teammates for lack of leadership into the player he would be for the rest of his career. It is important to remember that while he was a winner and respected by his teammates for his talent, he wasn’t the most popular of Steelers among the players on the team. The idea that Ben Roethlisberger was a selfish jerk wasn’t the most unwarranted of ideas, and the idea that his “buddy” Bruce Arians was a part of the problem was common outside of the team, so that idea being common inside the team would not be a stretch.

I personally think that is the origin of the apparent rumor that Arians and Roethlisberger were more focused on getting him a Super Bowl MVP than they were on a strategy that might have been more successful. The idea that the problem of abandoning the run to throw the ball even when the run game was working and the passing game wasn’t is somehow tied to trying to achieve a Super Bowl MVP for Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t hold up when you look at the rest of Arians’ career in Pittsburgh.

Throwing games

Starks mentions in his interview that it makes sense to rely on your star quarterback to lead you in any game, but qualifies that with:

I think if it was anybody else but the Packers that came out of the NFC that year, yes. But the Packers had the number one secondary.

He would also state:

If you take one pick away from that game, we’re talking about seven-time Super Bowl Champions instead of just six-time.

And that is where his issues with the game plan make sense. The Steelers first quarter in that Super Bowl saw Rashard Mendenhall run the ball five times and gain 33 yards (6.6 YPC). It also saw the Steelers call eight pass plays that resulted in 16 passing yards and a pick-6. The best result on any pass play in the first quarter was Ben Roethlisberger running for 18 yards. That run was far better than any result when he threw the ball.

If you look at that game up to the point Charles Woodson exited with injury, the Steelers really should have been running the ball more and passing less. At the point Woodson left the game late in the first half, here are the pass v run stats for the Steelers.

9/16, 103 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, one for a defensive TD.

14 runs for 68 yards.

And to back it up further, when the Steelers got the ball in the second half, their first drive consisted of five straight runs for 50 yards and a touchdown. From that point on the Steelers would run 5 times for 15 yards, with zero runs coming after Mendenhall’s fumble.

Up to the fumble play, the Steelers had run the ball 22 times for 131 yards, right around 6 yards per rush. And Mendenhall wasn’t the only runner having success, Isaac Redman had 19 yards on his two carries and Mewelde Moore had 3 carries for 13 yards. You can see how an offensive lineman might argue that the Steelers should have run the ball early and often, and set up the passing game for success, instead of throwing at the number one secondary in the NFL.

That makes sense to me. The idea that it was a game plan geared to get Ben Roethlisberger a Super Bowl MVP is far less plausible, but makes sense as a player reaction to the reality of the game and the locker room view of their quarterback and offensive coordinator.

I also want to deal with the idea that Arians was “retired” after the 2011 season in part because of this idea that he tried to get Roethlisberger MVP instead of focusing on winning. Because the 2011 playoffs give an even better example of the Super Bowl XLV problem.

In the 2011 Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos, the Steelers had injuries that led to Isaac Redman starting the game at running back. Redman ran the ball eight times for 39 yards in the first quarter as the Steelers built a 6-0 lead.

In the second quarter the Steelers came out throwing the ball, and the Broncos had three scoring drives over a timespan Isaac Redman collected all of one carry. The stats at halftime again show negligence of a run game that was working while the passing game wasn’t.

25 plays, 11 completions, 125 net yards, 0 TDs, 1 INTs. (another INT was called back for offsides)

12 rushes for 45 yards.

That’s a 31% run rate while getting solid results, while the passing game turned the ball over.

In the second half Redman would gain 77 yards on 6 rushes, and the Steelers would come back to send the game to overtime where they would lose to an 80-yard TD from Demaryius Thomas. The Steelers in back-to-back seasons got away from a functioning run game in the first half of a playoff game, threw interceptions, and then mounted a comeback that fell short.

The common story of those two losses are Mendenhall’s fumble and the Steelers getting Tebow’d, but perhaps more accurate is Bruce Arians putting the entire weight of the offense on Ben Roethlisberger and ignoring the run game early in both games, even as they were running the ball well. In my opinion, that’s the real story of the 2010 Super Bowl and 2011 Wild Card game losses. The Steelers defense was getting older, and it needed more help from the offense. The old game plan of the defense dominating enough that Roethlisberger could pull out a win pretty much on his own had worked in 2008, and with the injuries to the offensive line it had to that season. That script didn’t work well enough in 2010, and it didn’t work in 2011. Heck, it didn’t work for Peyton Manning in 2005 when the most talented of those great Colts teams lost to the Steelers in large part because they made their offense one-dimensional.

Does this even matter?

Here I am debating stuff over a decade old, and yet I think it is very relevant to the Steelers today. Ben Roethlisberger with a very good group of wide receivers wasn’t going to pass his way to a Super Bowl without a superhuman defense backing him up. That still holds true today, even as passing games are legislated to the forefront of the NFL. We see with Kenny Pickett’s rookie season how the run game carrying the weight of the offensive burden helped Pickett drastically cut down on his interceptions, and helped put him in position to mount late game heroics that won games.

Obviously I’m comparing regular season games against middle-tier teams when the 2010 and 2011 Steelers were contenders for the championship, but the path to victory doesn’t change that much, just the level of talent and execution. In this season’s playoffs the team that ran for more yards has won every game. The one game the rushing yards was tied saw the Jacksonville Jaguars fall to the Chiefs by one score.

As important as great quarterback play is to success in the NFL, running the ball well puts that quarterback in a much better position to win a game, and putting the entire success of the offense on your quarterback’s shoulders most often leads to that quarterback forcing throws that often turn into turnovers that force a team to make a late comeback bid.

This was discussed on one of the recent Steelers Update podcasts, and you can hear the 5 minute podcast in the player below: