Ever since Mike Tomlin took over the head coaching job in 2007, the Steelers have relied on the same offensive coordinator: Bruce Arians. For pretty much that entire time, I have been a critic of Arians and the offense he ran. So what can Colts fans expect to see with Bruce Arians at the helm of the offense? I'll start with the positives.
First, he is definitely a player's coach. The guys on the team will probably love him. He gives the quarterback a lot of authority in the offense to make decisions, including calling all the plays in the No Huddle offense.
Second, the team will move the ball. Over the last three seasons the Steelers have ranked in the top half of the league in Total Offense every year (ranking 7th, 14th, and 12th) and near the top 10 in Passing Yards (ranking 9th, 14th, and 10th).
Finally, Arians' Offense will produce big plays. For those that have seen the Steelers play, they know Mike Wallace has emerged as one of the premier deep threats in the league and the Steelers continually took shots downfield for Wallace, even as he began to draw more double coverage.
Now, I'll do my best to summarize the negatives as seen by myself and much of Steeler Nation. There are many of them, but they can mostly be grouped into three main categories: Offensive Scheme, Play-Calling, and Situational Football
From the very beginning, Arians drew the ire of Steeler Nation for eliminating the fullback position from the offense. While this might not seem like a big deal to Colts fans, the fullback had been a long-revered position in the Steelers offense with guys like Tim Lester and Dan Kreider plowing the way for the big bruising backs that were synonymous with Steelers football. After Arians took over and moved to more two-tight or three-tight end sets rather than using a fullback the Steeler running game became much less efficient. The backs still racked up a bunch ofyards (finishing 3rd, 23rd, 19th, 11th, and 14th in Rushing Yards) but those yards didn't necessarily translate into points. When you compare the amount of attempts by Steelers backs, you just don't see the results you would expect. In Arians' five seasons, they were in the top 10 in the league in Rushing Attempts 3 times (3rd in 2007, 9th in 2008, and 8th in 2011). But during that time they ranked in the top half of the league in Yards Per Attempt only once (2007). In fact, our worst two seasons in Yards Per Attempt were 2008 when we had the 9th most attempts but were 29th in Yards Per Attempt and 2010 when we were 8th in attempts but 18th in Yards Per Attempt.
You might be wondering - how is this an issue of scheme? With the elimination of the fullback, the Steelers were reliant on multi-tight end sets. This particularly hurt the Steelers in the red zone, where their red zone efficiency numbers were downright awful. For a team that prides itself on running the ball, the Steelers ranked in the top 12 in rushing touchdowns only twice during Arians' tenure. The Steelers were 14th or worse in Red Zone Efficiency in 4 of the 5 years when Arians called the shots. Over his five year career, Arians' offense averaged 53.4% in Red Zone efficiency.
From my perspective, Arians' offense operates on a basic schoolyard principle. The key to success is for the quarterback to have enough time to find someone open. Most of the time this comes from Ben extending the play with his feet and one of the receivers improvising downfield. Arians doesn't have plays that are designed to get specific guys open. If you watch the elite offenses in the league, like New England, New Orleans, Green Bay (and Indy before this season), their offenses all have specific plays that get guys open. Whether that's on something like a rub route or an inside-out crossing combination or some other route patterns, there are plays in the playbook that the quarterback knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could run on 4th and 3 and pick up the first down. To be honest, the Steelers just don't have that play (or plays). This was one of the primary reasons for our red zone failures. As George from Blitzburgh Blog mentioned on a podcast I did recently with them, "The Steelers offense is great at scoring 40, 50, 60 yard touchdowns but not very good from the 20 on in." That quote is a great summary of the Arians offense. Without specific plays to get guys open, the scheme is built on a quarterback and wide receivers that can create big plays rather than big plays being created by the design of the offense. If you look back at almost all of the big plays that the Steelers had on offense over the last 5 seasons, most of them were generated by someone (usually Ben) making some incredible individual effort to create the play. Building an offense off of broken plays is no way to be sustainable in the NFL.
The most infuriating aspect of Arians' offensive scheme is that he doesn't run plays to set up other plays. As Colts fans, I'm sure you're all very familiar with this concept. In essence, you run the ball to set up play-action. You run slant routes and hook routes to set up slant-and-go routes or hook-and-go double-move routes. These are the kind of plays and big-picture game-planning that are simply absent in Arians' offense. It's a predictable offense where you know when he'll be running and know when he'll be passing. The type of offense Colts fans were used to, where you had at a minimum a running back and tight end lined up to protect the QB or chip an end rusher before going out as a safety valve will be gone.
Instead, you'll see 4 and 5-wide receiver sets that will expose the QB to getting smoked by overload blitzes. Not only will Arians spread the field, he will do it in situations where running would be an option (3rd and 3 for instance), which will pretty much draw all the defenders out of the box. Even if it's a passing play, keeping a running back in the backfield forces the defense to honor the run and keep at least one linebacker in the box to watch out for a running play. When Arians just spreads it out with 5-wide (sometimes lining up a running back in the backfield then sending him in motion to be the 5th wideout), there is absolutely no threat of running the ball, which lets the defense key on defending the pass.
In his 5 years as offensive coordinator, Arians has improved as a play-caller. But that's still not to say he is good at it. In the early years of his career, Arians would stick to what he wanted to do to a fault. In 2007, we faced 3 teams that finished in the bottom 5 in the league in run defense. As you'll recall, 2007 was the year when we were 3rd in the league in rushing offense. One would assume we spent these 3 games running roughshod over the shoddy run defenses of our opponents. Guess again. The Steelers went 1-2 against these teams with the only win coming over a Miami Dolphins team that only won 1 game that year, losing to both the Broncos and a downright terrible Jets team in overtime.
Arians worst play-calling came in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. The Steelers had the ball, up by 9, at the start of the 4th quarter. We worked our way into a 3rd and 1. Rather than pounding the rock and picking up the 1 yard we needed to keep the drive alive, Arians went 5-wide and called a pass. It was incomplete, which stopped the clock. We had to punt, and Baltimore took it down the field for a touchdown to pull within 2. On the Steelers next drive, they went run-run-sack, giving Baltimore the ball back with a chance to take the lead. Thankfully, Polamalu snagged an interception and took it to the house, erasing all memories of the terrible 3rd down call that almost cost us a chance at a Super Bowl. For some more history, here's an article I wrote back in 2009 about Arians' playcalling.
The worst game of his career came in 2009 against Cleveland. In a -15 degree wind chill with 40+ mile per hour winds against one of the worst run defenses in the league, Arians game plan was to come out...throwing?! The Steelers ended the night running 32 pass plays and 22 running plays. Let's recap. 40+ mph winds. -15 degrees wind chill. 32 passes. 22 runs. The Steelers lost the game 13-6. That game right there should've been grounds for Arians to get fired on the spot.
One of the biggest points of contention in the fan base was Arians' use of the Wide Receiver screen. The play had its defenders, including some bloggers and some members of the media. Others in the fanbase simply hated it. The best explanation I heard was from Steelers Radio Analyst Tunch Ilkin who called it a "Run Option" play that is designed to take the place of a running play on first or second down and get you 5 or 6 yards to get you on the positive side of down and distance. I don't have a problem with that, but watching it run, it was so predictable when the Steelers would run it, that teams would jump it, coming up with two interceptions this season on WR screens. To reiterate an earlier problem, I wouldn't have as much of an issue with this play if Arians had used it to set up another play, such as a pump-and-go. But he never did.
The facet of Arians' playcalling that was the most infuriating for us was the route distribution based on down-and-distance. For instance, in a 3rd and 5 situation, he would spread the field with 5-wide and have the receivers either running 12-yard routes down the field or 2-yard crossing routes. If the other team brought pressure, Ben didn't have enough time for the downfield routes to develop and the short routes left it in the hands of a receiver to try to break a tackle just to move the chains. For the life of me, I could never understand why it was so difficult to call a play with at least 1 or 2 6-yard routes on 3rd and 5. But that gets back to not having plays designed to get guys open. In a schoolyard offense, Arians just has to call a play and hope a receiver gets open before the quarterback gets smoked, because the QB isn't getting any help from tight ends or backs to pick up any blitzes.
3rd and 2. For most teams, this is an option down where you can either run or pass. 3rd and 3 tends to see more passing than rushing and upwards of 4 yards to go will usually yield almost entirely passes. However, for Bruce Arians, 3rd and 2 is a passing down, plain and simple. In fact, he has gone 5-wide on 3rd and 1 more often than I'd like to admit. The Steelers struggled in 3rd and short situations until the emergence of Isaac Redman as a complementary back to Rashard Mendenhall. But on 3rd and 2, that's a passing down. In 2009, the Steelers only ran twice on 16 3rd and 2 situations. Both of these were in the Kansas City game, and both failed.
The second call was one of the worst situational football calls I have ever seen. With a 3rd and 2 on the edge of field goal range in overtime at Kansas City with Ben Roethlisberger out of the game due to injury, Arians decided to run a toss play to Mewelde Moore. Moore got blown up in the backfield, knocking us out of field goal range. After the punt, Kansas City hit a big pass to set up an eventual game-winning field goal.
Arians' situational play-calling was for the most part, terrible. The Tomlin/Arians era in Pittsburgh has been marked by poor clock management (more Tomlin's fault than Bruce's) and an ineffective 4-minute offense. Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers power running game could take over with 4 minutes on the clock, grind out a few first downs, and put the game on ice. Due to the ineffectiveness of Arians' rushing attack, the Steelers 4-minute offense suffered. They weren't able to pick up key first downs as the clock wound down in the 4th quarter, often resulting in punts back to the other team that gave them a chance to win the game and put the onus on our defense to preserve the victory.
Here are a few examples, just from this season:
- Against Jacksonville: the Steelers faced a 3rd and 4 with 2 minutes left and the Jags out of timeouts. Ben rolls out and gets sacked, allowing the clock to burn 40 seconds off. The Jaguars get the ball back with a minute to go and drive to midfield. A hail mary is overthrown at the end of the game. Steelers win 17-13.
- Against New England, Arians blows a chance to ice the game. Here's what I wrote in my Game Recap -- "Two minutes left and already in field goal range so theoretically a football team would run the ball twice and kick the field goal. But Arians has other ideas. He tries a play-action pass and Ben gets sacked, which knocks us out of field goal range. On 3rd and long, Arians spreads it out again and Ben gets sacked again. In the broader perspective, a sack is better than an incompletion which stops the clock. That said, a field goal would've put us up by 9 and ended the game. Why not run the ball 2 more times? As the guy sitting in front of me said, "EVEN HIGH SCHOOL TEAMS DON'T MAKE THAT MISTAKE!" In what was a great offensive game that Arians put together, it had to be marred by this absolutely asinine decision." Brady got the ball back down by 6 with 20 seconds left. Brett Keisel swatted the ball out of Brady's hands and the Steelers picked up a safety on the play to seal the victory. Steelers win 25-17
- Against the Ravens the Steelers had the ball up by 4 with 4 minutes to play. On 3rd and 4 from the 29, Ben can't hit Moore on an out-route and a delay of game knocks us out of field goal range. The Steelers punt and Flacco leads the Ravens on a 92-yard drive in 2:16 to win the game and the tiebreaker that gave them the division title and the #2 seed.
- Against the Bengals the Steelers carried a 7-point lead into the fourth quarter but posted 3 consecutive 3-and-outs (including one with 6 and a half to go, giving the Bengals an opportunity to drive down the field in the last 4 minutes to tie the game. Thankfully, an interception ended that threat and the Steelers were able to pick up a first down and preserve the win.
- Kansas City drew within 4 with 7 minutes to play against the Steelers, and the offense stalled out with 4 minutes left on the clock, giving Tyler Palko a chance to lead the Chiefs on a game-winning drive. Thankfully, Dwayne Bowe didn't even try on a deep ball and we got a game-clinching interception.
- In the season finale against Cleveland the Steelers opted to throw on 3rd and 2 with 2 minutes to go and the Browns out of timeouts while clinging to a 13-9 lead. An incompletion leaves the Browns with the full 2 minutes to come back down the field, and they get a hail mary shot at the end that is broken up. Steelers hang on to win 13-9.
- Finally, the Steelers had the ball at midfield at the end of both halves of the playoff game against Denver. But a bad snap in the first half and a sack in the second half prevented the Steelers from getting into field goal range and having a shot at putting points on the board. Yeah, we lost that game in overtime. To Tim Tebow. Puke.
Of course, these are only my thoughts and observations from the five years that Arians has been in Pittsburgh. Obviously Indianapolis has a different set of players and different group of talent. It is possible that their offense will succeed with Arians at the helm. Arians offense is one that will put up a lot of yards between the 20s, but more often than not you'll probably find yourself settling for field goals rather than punching it in the end zone for touchdowns. Chances are, your quarterbacks and receivers will love Arians and his passing offense and Arians will give the quarterback input as to the plays that are called and the gameplan that is developed.
What I will always remember Arians situational play calling was a play against the Browns.
Cold night in Cleveland with 40-50mph winds. Steelers have two solid runs by Mendenhall. Then 3rd and 1, the Steelers line up 5 wide, Ben in the shotgun. Again, 40-50mph winds! Steelers actually showing a decent running game. 5 wide, shot gun formation on 3RD and FREAKING 1. He left his QB and any hope of getting that first down out to dry. Yes it's one play but it clearly illustrates the type of situational play calling that always left us scratching our head.
Just like this blog says, at least make them think you want to run. But Arians doesn't.
Steeler fans understand the short comings of Ben. We understand the short comings of our offensive line (though way overblown by the masses). But that doesn't give Arians a free pass for trying to square peg, round hole'ing it.
If Ben has poor vision and the offensive line can't block (which is what most claim), then why do you continually call slow developing deep passing plays? Why is one of your favorite plays with 5 receivers at the LOS leaving Ben back there all by himself?
In a nutshell what you'll get with Arians is simple. A great players coach, but extremely arrogant. When he was told our run game could use some improvement by the Rooneys, it pissed him off and he pretty much called dive plays to get his numbers up. (as stated in this post, the reps increased but the quality never did)
I wasn't as critical of Arains as most Steeler fans were. I liked him as an OC but there were certain things I wanted to see him improve over his stretch that he never did. This blog post covered both of them perfectly. Redzone efficiency, and Situational Play calling. Arians never improved on either of those aspects during his entire tenure. And that is why I believe Rooney felt it was time for a change. Our struggles in the Redzone has been such a headache, and with all that talent we had on offense, it was just mind boggling why he struggled so much.In my opinion, I think Arians might be a great fit for the Colts. Steeler fans could tell he was a Colt minded like OC, and was trying to mold the Steelers offense into that. However Hines Field is no climate controlled dome, and the Steelers (when he told over) we not built to be a high flying offense. I think he will continue to bring you guys what you enjoy and the numbers you're accustomed to.
I'm on the fence. Situational awareness was a big fault of Caldwell also, but then again when was the last time the Colts could convert 3rd and 2 on the ground? I think a lot of us would not only not be surprised, but might welcome a 5-wide set in that situation.
A lot of this seems to split between who do you blame Arians or Ben? Steelers fans believe that Big Ben is an elite QB; a view few other NFL fans share. So, it stands to reason that they fault Arians for the offenses shortcomings. While there may be some truth to that, part of me questions what that offense would look like with someone else behind center. I'm lukewarm on the hiring, but cautiously optimistic.
This sounds like somebody who was just upset that Arians didn't stick with "Steelers Football" of the 1970s. I understand that was effective in the past, but the best offenses now use tight ends a lot (Pats? Saints? Packers?) and the fullback has, to a certain extent, become outdated. Arians has helped take the Steelers to the Super Bowl twice as the offensive coordinator, and this is probably the first time in my lifetime that I'd ever regarded Pittsburgh as an offensive team nearly as much as a defensive team. You can have your backfield full of running backs, Steelers. And we'll take the NFL of the future -- one that relies on passing. By the way, thanks for Butler, too.
Well, I hope I´m wrong, but I´m not a fan of this hire. I agree that the playcalling issues might be explained by Roethlisberger´s numerous shortcomings. On the other hand, the situational stuff is particularly concerning, and unlike people who think Roethlisberger is probably more to blame, I think Arians´ inability to adapt to his QB´s tendency to hold on to the ball is is very telling. If you know your QB extends plays forever, and you´re in field goal range, in some of the situations described above, you reduce the risk of coming away empty by calling for a run. As for the stats, I agree the ones used in this post are flawed, but I especially dislike the issue with red zone efficiency. The reason the Colts O has been incredibly excellent and consistent throughout the years despite the myriad problems with the running game and the OL is due to outstanding red zone efficiency and 3rd down conversion. Those two areas don´t seem at all to be Arians´ system forte, so frankly, I´m not too enthusiastic. Thanks to Ian McBlogger for writing such a detailed review.
I haven't followed the Steelers closely, but it seems to me their o line is not a strength. I know they have some good interior linemen but are their tackles any good? Perhaps he was calling plays that we're dictated by their talent. The Steelers have had to invest in Big Ben and it seems to me in their defense. How much talent do they really have on the offensive side of the ball.
One note: the one game I did watch them play this year was he Colts and we were all over them. Just saying lets see what he can do with some different personnel.
Perhaps the "no designed plays" has something to do with Ben's vision. He seems to be unwilling/unable to run a quick throw offense. Maybe Arians is less the problem, Ben more so?
A lot of these concerns seem to be clinging to the notion of what 'Steelers football' should be. Just because the team has a legacy of using a fullback doesn't mean its still appropriate in today's game.
Many of the complaints are anecdotal as well. Looking at total points from Wisenhunt to Arians doesn't reveal much of a difference.
Frankly, watching from afar, I'm impressed that he was able to convert a run-heavy offense to a passing offense to fit his personnel.
How much of this 'schoolyard offense' complaint can be laid at the feet of Roethlisberger?
This goes both ways--maybe Arians didn't want to do that but (frustrating to him) Ben always did anyway, OR, maybe Arians built his offense to suit his QB.
Quick stats check:
The PIT O ranked in the top ten of DVOA for every year of Arians's tenure except 2008, when they were average, with stronger passing games.
Their drive stats show in some years their yards/drive rankings were higher, and others points/drive were higher, generally hovering in the above league average range. It's not what Colts fans are used to, namely some combination of IND/NE being 1 and 2 in drive stats about every single year, but it's pretty good and consistently so.
Well, it doesn't sound very encouraging. Perhaps, though, there is another view. Clearly, Pagano had to face Ariens' offense at least twice a year in recent years as a coordinator and DB coach. He must have seen something he liked about the steelers offensive design or I doubt Ariens would have been hired.
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@18to88 thanks man...I may have gone a little overboard with details haha
My first thought was that a pass-first OC would blunt some of the fan-concerns caused by Pagano's run the ball, and stop the run comments. On 3rd and 2 Manning went to the line with run/pass options and audibled into favorable matchups based on what the defense presented. My hope is that some of those situational calls will be up to Luck at the line and not so dependent on a single play radioed from the sideline. If Arians is one to give his qb a lot of freedom, and Luck turns out o be the talent everyone thinks he will be, this could be a good fit. So, Steelers fans think WR screens are a poor substitute for a power run-game... so what. I say there are many ways to the top of the mountain
@OttoKnowBetter They were having O-line trouble against us, with a big part of that being due to injury. They actually have one of the best WR corps in the league, maybe a little behind GB, NYG, and DAL, but up with NO.
@mattshedd Not easy to accomplish when your route tree is martz-like, with 15 yard ins and such. He could never wrangle his golfing buddy Ben in, and it cost him his job. They never ran running plays in practice, and never utilized a predominantly run-blocking line. He spent 5 years shoving square pegs into round holes and refused to change.
@mattshedd Unwillingness, possibly, but it's the responsibility of the coach to exercise his authority over the player. Inability, certainly not. Against both the Titans and the Patriots this past season, Roethlisberger proved that he's perfectly capable of executing a timing/precision offense. He threw five TD passes against the Titans, and he attempted 50 passes against the Patriots, basically playing a ball-control passing game to keep Tom Brady of the field. The onus was on Arians, the coach, to see how well those game plans worked, and create similar game plans more often, or at least include what worked in his standard offense to make it less predictable. Apparently that was too much to ask, though, which is why the Steelers chose not to renew his contract.
Roethlisberger has all the skills necessary to be an all-time great at the position, but Arians never helped him reach his full potential. If anything, he arrested Roethlisberger's development. (And if you don't believe that coaching matters, then take a look at the career arc of Drew Brees, who went from being an also-ran in San Diego to a star in New Orleans.) Sometimes it really is the teacher's fault, and this is one of those instances. Unfortunately, non-Steeler fans have largely misdiagnosed the problem and started underrating Roethlisberger's football intelligence. Pair an elite talent with a guru of offense, and you get Aaron Rodgers and contemporary Drew Brees. Pair an elite talent with a hack of offense, and you get Roethlisberger and early Brees.
Thankfully, guys like John Elway, Randall Cunningham, Rich Gannon and Drew Brees have all proved that it's possible for a QB to improve even in his 30's. Roethlisberger turns 30 in March. Hopefully the next offensive coordinator for the Steelers can help him improve as he enters his 30's.
@mattshedd Right, I was thinking the same thing. If Arians really gives the QB freedom to call/change plays, I'd be more apt to putting *some* of the failure on Ben. He strikes me as being ego-driven, so I can see him looking to make the hero pass play vs. the smart, safe run play.
@mattshedd I hope that's true; good point.
@talkingplayoffs Wait, what? The "Steelers football" complaint didn't jump out to me at all. What horrifies me is a lack of pattern recognition, lack of thoughtful planning, and a lack of attention given to numbers. I HATE seeing those things from a coach. Why is Carmichael considered great in NO? Great playcalling. What about Belichick? He adjusts meticulously to his opponents. Peyton Manning? Studies and adjusts to his opponents. The Indy O, as noted above, has used many specifically designed plays with great success--that type of playcalling is why Collie was such a statistical monster at the start of '10--he's very precise and good at it.
This guy sounds like an OC for, well, a Big Ben or a Tebow. For a Luck? I guess I don't know, but I would have a hernia if he were the OC for Manning, based on this review. I guess it's better to be prepared for it and thus potentially pleasantly surprised...
That and using traditional stats, which are all but useless for any serious analysis.
Total yards, passing yards, yards per attempt, red zone efficiency. Fail, fail, fail fail.
How about DVOA, drive stats, ANPY/A?
@Pied Yeah, I wondered that myself. A lot of the complaints in the article seem to be around the fact that they have a QB that isn't good at traditional routes and prefers to hold the ball for several minutes and create out of the pocket. However, what I do find to be of great concern is the lack of situational play calls. Again, maybe this is just adjusting to the style of offense, but it could prove frustrating if these trends continue with a QB like Manning or Luck.
@Pied For the Steelers offense to be consistently in the top 10 in DVOA and consistently outside the top 10 in points per drive perfectly illustrates the frustration that Steelers fans like myself felt. A team as efficient as the Steelers should not be settling for FGs or end up with 0 after sacks move you back and Reed or Suisham misses a FG. Some of that is on Ben, some on the o-line, and some on play calling.
The fact that the Steelers offense was so efficient with interchanging parts on the line is a credit to Arians, but it often felt like he didn't adjust enough. For example, in the 2010 regular season game against the Jets, Jonathan Scott was in at LT due to injuries. On their own 3, a play was called requiring Scott, a backup in his first year with Arians' offense, to pull block. Jason Taylor came through unblocked and tackled Mewelde Moore for a safety. If the play works, Moore gains 5 or 6 yards, but it's less likely to work with a third-stringer at LT. The last few weeks of this season, it was clear Ben wasn't 100%, but the same scheme was used. An elite offense finds players that can fit the system right away, or in dire injury circumstances can adjust to the abilities of the players on the field. Sure, they had a Charlie Batch playbook, but other than that it was assumed Ben would make the plays. Whether that's Ben's doing or Arians', I guess we'll find out next year.
@TrueBlue that's the #1 most encouraging thing to me.
@thesteelersnat There is no such thing as overboard with details. It's the internet. There's no character limit.
Also, don't forget this dude was Manning's first NFL QBs coach.
ComPletwly agree. It very much seems that the author took a romantic vision of what Steeler Football should be and then tailored stats and commentary to fit it.
Also, it seems that instead of blaming Arians for play calls much blame for situational and dotes needs to go to big Ben instead.
@gwjones7 @Pied More importantly, who calls a wrap-around draw on their own 3? Jason Taylor said he knew what was coming because we ran it earlier. Horrible call
@18to88 excellent point