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Grading the hire of new Steelers OC Arthur Smith

Are things as bad as they seem for Pittsburgh as they move forward with the former Falcons head coach?

Head coach Arthur Smith of the Atlanta Falcons looks on during the first half of the game against the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Inglewood, California. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers made waves Tuesday with the announcement that they’d hired Arthur Smith, former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, as their offensive coordinator. Smith is coming off a three-year tenure as the Falcons’ head coach, having gone 21-30 in that span while also functioning as the team’s offensive playcaller.

The reaction of the Steelers fanbase to the hiring? Not great. After all, Smith failed to rank inside the top-15 in terms of yardage and points with a surrounding cast of some of the top skill position players in recent draft memory, including tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson — all top-10 picks selected in the last three draft classes.

In all fairness, he wasn’t dealing with the best quarterback play during his time as the head coach in Atlanta, having coached an aging Matt Ryan (36 years old that season), washed vet Marcus Mariota and 2022 third-round rookie Desmond Ridder, who was benched at various points this season in favor of career backup Taylor Heinicke. Still... considering the one caveat that some would offer in defense of Smith — AKA, the quarterback situation during his tenure as a head coach — it’s not a situation that would appear to favor the Steelers any better.

After all, the Steelers aren’t set at quarterback either. They’re currently preparing for a quarterback competition this offseason to challenge third-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, a race potentially including Mason Rudolph (set to hit free agency this offseason) and whatever other potential outsider they may bring into the mix. As the old adage goes, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback!” or something like that. Either way, it’s “not great, Bob!”

Grading the hiring of Arthur Smith as the Steelers offensive coordinator is a challenge. On one hand, Smith does check many boxes that Pittsburgh appeared to desire in an offensive coordinator. Play-calling experience? Check! And plenty of it. Mike Tomlin voiced a desire to “keep defenses off balance,” and Smith, in his prime, certainly was able to do just that, having orchestrated one of the league’s most efficient (yet low-volume) pass attacks in the league.

In the 2019 and 2020 NFL seasons, the Titans tied to lead the NFL averaging 8.3 yards per pass attempt, a league-high 12.7 yards per completion and a passer rating of 107.0 with (mostly) Ryan Tannehill and the aforementioned Marcus Mariota under center — neither of whom had been pinnacles of efficiency to that point in their careers. Despite having attempted the second-fewest pass attempts in the league over those two seasons, the Titans offense ranked seventh with 62 passing touchdowns in that span, ranking third in the league with a 6.6% touchdown rate and the fourth-lowest interception rate (1.6%) among NFL teams.

In terms of fit for what the Steelers want to accomplish, the offense he installed during his tenure as an offensive coordinator with the Titans absolutely screams “Pittsburgh Steelers.” Run the rock early and often. Wear down the defense. Utilize play-action. Generate efficiency.

To this point in his career, Pickett has been incredibly limited with his exposure to play action. He’s attempted just 135 total pass attempts under play action, in fact, which ranks 29th among NFL quarterbacks over the past two regular seasons and dead last among quarterbacks to account for 68%+ of their team’s dropbacks in that span. He has, however, shown signs of improved efficiency under play action, as most quarterbacks typically do.

Kenny Pickett: Play action vs. No play action

Kenny Pickett Play action No play action
Kenny Pickett Play action No play action
EPA per dropback -0.14 -0.1
Success% 40.80% 41.10%
Yards per attempt 6.1 6.3
Passer rating 87.5 77.2
Completion% 69.30% 61.30%
Touchdown rate 1.75% 1.84%
Interception rate 0.88% 2.00%

The goal of play action, as the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back to set up a target downfield, is to give the defense a moment of pause. The goal is to give the defender a moment of uncertainty; is this play I’m about to defend a run or a pass play? That short moment of uncertainty can mean all the world to a passer, especially if you can sell that concept well enough with a solid run game. Kenny Pickett could benefit from it tremendously, particularly given his greatest struggle as a passer under offensive coordinator Matt Canada — putting points on the scoreboard.

So. While Arthur Smith may not have been the “sexiest” hire for the Steelers, it does seem possible that given the strength in the run game with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, hopefully set to run behind a much-improved offensive line in 2024, Smith could be just the guy to run Pittsburgh’s offense. His old-school, smash-mouth football style of offense fits what the Steelers love — grit, grind, and physicality. It pairs well with their investment in the defense (should they get back to a previous state of health after a somewhat disastrous season).

This hire, at face value, grades out at around a B to a B-. However, if you’re a Steelers fan in hope of a spark of ingenuity à la Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan, you’re probably banging your head against a wall. While it may not be the type of offense that will elevate Pickett, it could be the type of offense to minimize his flaws... which might just be what Pittsburgh is seeking from their young game manager, until he’s ready to take on something larger.

How are you feeling about the hire of Arthur Smith as the Steelers new offensive coordinator? Vote in the poll below and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Poll

How confident are you that Arthur Smith is the right hire for the Steelers as offensive coordinator?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Very confident - I’m stoked!
    (275 votes)
  • 28%
    Somewhat confident
    (1117 votes)
  • 31%
    Not sure yet
    (1244 votes)
  • 22%
    Not feeling great
    (864 votes)
  • 10%
    Not at all — BAD MOVE!
    (426 votes)
3926 votes total Vote Now