Pittsburgh Steelers Set Up For More Offensive Success in Todd Haley’s Second Year
For the first time in the whole game, the Denver Broncos didn’t run the ball on first down. Instead, Tim Tebow faked the ball to Willis McGahee before throwing a dart over the head of Ryan Mundy into the hands of Demaryius Thomas. Thomas sprinted away from Ike Taylor and into the endzone, the lowest point of the Steelers’ 2011 season was also the point at which their season came to a close.
Not only did that play bring down the curtain on the Steelers’ season, but it also would stand in history as the last play of Bruce Arians’ career as the team’s offensive coordinator. Arians, Hines Ward, James Farrior and William Gay would all be elsewhere soon after, but it was Arians’ loss that would cause ripple effects throughout the following season.
As soon as Arians was let go, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made his displeasure known. Roethlisberger had grown very close to Arians, some might say too close, likely because he had always allowed him to play the game his way and not tried to force him into any particular scheme. In short, Arians let Roethlisberger be Roethlisberger.
For that reason, it was a surprise to many when the Steelers brought in Todd Haley to succeed Arians. Not only was Haley seen as a completely different coach to Arians, but he also brought a very fiery, passionate character to Pittsburgh that would potentially be destructive when juxtaposed next to Roethlisberger’s.
This was something that the national media zoned in on during the quieter parts of the off-season, as the duo not speaking initially was blown completely out of proportion. Even though the idea of a rift between the two before they even spoke was outlandish, a semblance of truth to the rumors appeared to surface during the regular season. Roethlisberger never looked comfortable in Haley’s scheme and his body language was significantly worse than it had been over the previous few seasons.
Of course, reading into body language is always a dangerous and often inaccurate process, but when combined with the production and individual performance on the field, a stronger case could be made.
Haley was entering a scenario when he was faced with adversity from every single part of his offense. Feature back Rashard Mendenhall would miss the start of the season, as he recovered from a torn ACL. Left tackle Max Starks recovered from his torn ACL in time for the start of the season, but rookie right guard David DeCastro suffered the same injury during a preseason game in Buffalo. DeCastro would go from starting as a rookie to being the team’s first addition to the newly designed Injured Reserve list. Backup tight-end Weslye Saunders, who had been a prominent player on offense the season before, was dealing with a four-game suspension entering the season, while Mike Wallace held out into pre-season and never looked fully focused on the field because of his contract situation.
A theme of Mike Tomlin’s press conferences since he took over as head coach in Pittsburgh has been overcoming adversity, therefore, Haley was going to be afforded no excuses.
Those difficult circumstances severely impacted the Steelers’ production. The unit didn’t drastically drop off from the previous season, but that production was what got Arians fired. The Steelers finished the year averaging just 21 points per game, good enough for 22nd in the league, and 332.8 total yards per game. Combining that offense with a top six ranked defense equated to just an 8-8 regular season record that wasn’t enough for a playoff berth.
Entering his second season in charge, Haley has more adversity to overcome, but nowhere near the same levels that welcomed him to Pittsburgh.
Theoretically, he and Roethlisberger should have a better relationship and have a better understanding of how to work together. At least, it’s more likely to get better rather than worse. Even as good as Roethlisberger can be, success in Haley’s offense is predicated on running a balanced offense. Complaints about Arians’ reign largely circled around the limited running game he had created. That running game wasn’t much better last year, but this year it will be revamped in the image of it’s offensive coordinator.
Not only is Rashard Mendenhall gone to be replaced by rookie second-round-pick LeVeon Bell, but DeCastro is expected to be fully healthy and the offensive line has a number of new starters. Only Maurkice Pouncey carries over from last season to start in his same spot. Ramon Foster was re-signed to be a starting guard, but he is expected to switch over to the left side. Marcus Gilbert is moving from right tackle to left tackle, while Mike Adams will slot into his open spot at right tackle.
That gives Haley the style of offensive line that he desires, a mobile unit of players who can play in space or move together in a zone-blocking scheme. Furthermore, the Steelers will be hoping to keep that line healthy and develop the chemistry needed to be successful during the pre-season.
What will hurt however, is the status of Heath Miller. Miller is not expected to be ready for training camp and his status moving forward is unclear after tearing his ACL last year. Without Miller, the Steelers will move forward with David Paulson as their receiving option and Matt Spaeth/Leonard Pope as blocking specialists. Even though Miller is an integral part of the offense when healthy, his early departure means that the team can prepare to function without him instead of having to react to a loss closer to the season.
Health will be key at the receiver positions also. Mike Wallace was a disruptive force for the Steelers last year on the field. Although he was obviously committed to playing for the team and never once spoke about his contract or disrupted the locker-room during the season, his commitment to making plays on the field left fans wanting more. Wallace dropped too many passes and gave up on too many routes for the offense to be comfortable incorporating him.
With Wallace gone, the Steelers retained Emmanuel Sanders and Plaxico Burress, before drafting Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown. Wheaton is the intriguing fit because he appears to be a perfect replacement for Wallace. He doesn’t have the same speed as Wallace, but he has legitimate 4.4 speed and it shows on the field. If anything, Wheaton is a more well-rounded receiver than Wallace who should be better for the offense as a rookie than Wallace was last year.
That’s not to say that Wheaton is a better receiver than Wallace, but his commitment and focus will make Haley’s life easier.
An understated aspect of the Steelers’ off-season was the re-signing of Emmanuel Sanders. Not the fact that he was re-signed, but rather the fact that he was re-signed to be a starter on the outside. Sanders played inside last year in Haley’s base three wide receiver formations, but now he will move to the outside across from Antonio Brown. That will free Jerricho Cotchery and Wheaton to compete for the slot position. Wheaton’s impact will all be dependent on how he translates to the NFL, while Cotchery is a proven possession receiver who has always shown a good rapport with Roethlisberger.
If Haley can create a balanced offense with Bell running the ball and Roethlisberger throwing to his re-tooled receiving corps, the offense as a whole should benefit and be good enough to complement a strong defense. Whether the Steelers have a strong defense or not is another discussion altogether, but at the very least the pieces are in place for the offense to succeed this year. It’s all down to execution and installation from here on out.
Any adversity should be an after-thought.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf