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.