It has the potential to be the story of the year. A much-maligned Steelers offense, bursting at the seams with playmakers, plods along through the first half of the season grossly under-performing to expectations. The offensive coordinator, already a controversial figure prior to the season's start, comes under increasingly heavier fire.
The Steelers' offense comes to life in a magical 3-minute explosion against the Texans and proceeds to demolish two respectable defenses in back-to-back weeks. Led by a hall of fame quarterback and a bevy of talent, the Steelers' offense comes to life in a historic splurge of touchdowns which shows no signs of slowing down in the coming weeks against two appetizing opponents in the Jets and Titans.
It's the stuff Super Bowl runs are made of. No, seriously it is.
So what's changed? What's the catalyst behind the awakening of this slumbering giant?
Anyone who has followed the Steelers this season knows it hasn't been a seismic shift; they've not gone from three yards and a cloud of dust to an Air-Coryell scheme.
The one true change in philosophy has been a shift in attention from the horizontal passing game to attacking opposing defenses with a distinctly more vertical approach. In addition to this focus on vertical passing, Big Ben has enjoyed some of the best pass protection in his entire career, allowing him to stand secure in the pocket and pick apart opposing defenses like, dare I say it, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and their elite brethren.
The truth is, apart from this, the changes are relatively minor. The Steelers have just built upon what already was there and stripped away little details that haven't led to much success. These tweaks are really the natural evolution any offense should go through during the course of the season.
There really is no silver bullet, the Steelers are just executing the plays called for them to a higher level. The good news about that is there's no silver bullet for stopping it either.
Greg Bedard of the MMQB conducted a study of the Steelers' offense during both their matches against the Baltimore Ravens this season. While far from a perfect sample size, the results support the notion that the Steelers have found success not by completely reinventing themselves, but by tweaking their strategy in key areas.
In Week 2, when the Steelers were thoroughly humiliated on both sides of the ball in Baltimore, the Steelers ran deception on thirteen of their 49 snaps, or 26%. Bedard describes "deception" as a variety of screens, jet sweeps, end arounds, rollouts and option motions. In Week 9 against the Ravens, the Steelers used deception on just 5 of their 67 snaps, or 7%.
Perhaps the most striking difference during the offesnive resurgence has been the diminishing role of the no-huddle.
In Week 2, the Steelers went no-huddle in 32.7% of their snaps. In Week 9, they didn't use it at all.
The Steelers increased their use of two-tight-end sets from Week 2 by 25% in Week 9.
In addition, Roethlisberger took 45% of his snaps from under center in Week 9, as opposed to 26% in Week 2.
Finally, the Steelers used a great deal more motion pre-snap in Week 9 than they did in Week 2, increasing it from 18.4% to 43.3%.
Here's what Bedard said about his findings:
"It’s not as if those deceptive plays and the no-huddle didn’t work, and they certainly were achieving their purpose of keeping the defense off-balance. But it also seemed to have a negative effect on the Steelers and Roethlisberger in terms of rhythm. They were getting too cute for their own good."
"Now the Steelers have stripped it down and simplified everything for everybody, including Roethlisberger...letting Ben be Ben and not trying to trick the defense as often has allowed the Steelers be much more workmanlike in their approach, and it’s working very well."
It's possible that the Week 8 and 9 Steelers' offense is an amazing aberration, a mirage that will vanish as the season progresses and reality comes crashing down. This however seems very unlikely.
They haven't reinvented the wheel here, they have simply begun to properly execute the plays put in front of them with a few tweaks here and there to the gameplan. When any offense does that, it will likely find success. When an offense that is chock-full of All-Pro talent does this, you get to see the well-oiled juggernaut Steelers fans have been treated to for the last two weeks.
What the Steelers have now is a blueprint that should find success in November, December and well into January.