Want Discipline? Run The Ball

The Steelers don't need to be so pass-happy -- and risk so many problems -- with their offensive personnel, says Matt Steel.

I wrote last week in my post-Carolina Panthers game notes the Steelers' top priority on offense should be to get both Le'Veon Bell and LeGarette Blount a combined 30-35 carries a game.

On Sunday afternoon, the Steelers' staff decided to follow up the duo's 265-combined-yard performance by giving them the ball 23 times while trying to chuck it around the yard 46 times (including the five sacks).

So let me get this right: The coaching staff has a week to prepare for its opponent, and the best play they could open with was a bubble screen to the fullback!? If that doesn't tell you how far off the Steelers have fallen physically on offense, then maybe the shotgun sack followed by the shotgun sack/fumble will.

First three plays, all soft. And by coming out soft, they gift-wrapped seven points and likely were still trying to collect themselves on the ensuing three-and-out that quickly led to another three points.

Want to know a major reason why the Steelers have been consistently losing to teams below .500 since the 2012? I believe being pass-happy on offense and not looking to own the line of scrimmage is the primary answer.

But unlike the last couple years when the Steelers struggled to run the ball, this team has a potent run game; potent enough to lead the league in rushing through the first few weeks of the season.

In the past, when the Steelers seemed to be automatic against below .500 teams, they set out to own the line of scrimmage and dominate their opponent physically. Bill Cowher repeatedly told those teams to play physical during his pre-game pep talks. When Mike Tomlin was first hired, the rhetoric was "win by attrition" or "impose your will on this group."

Somewhere along the line, the rhetoric changed. At one point in a press conference, Tomlin referred to what was at the time a potent New England offense as "many ways to skin a cat."

Well, how many Super Bowls has New England won since they started skinning cats with their spread offense?

In the end, the cat-skinning will always begin and end with controlling the line of scrimmage. When the Steelers looked to control the line of scrimmage, they imposed their will and wouldn't leave the door open for inferior teams with three shotgun pass plays right out the shoot. They wouldn't get in the red zone and run two consecutive horizontal plays, including a hand-off to their 173-pound new toy. They would bring in a hammer, impose their will, and either run it or run play-action over it.

Why did they decide to pay Blount over $2 million per season? So he could get four carries? So he could pile up yards in mop-up duty?

After running over Thomas DeCoud inside the 10 last week, I was sure I was going to see Blount enter the game for the first first-down play inside the Tampa Bay 10. And I was sure they'd bring him in on second down, not throw a weak line-of-scrimmage pass to their supposed elite-blocking, third wideout.

The Steelers did power up and let Blount run for 11 yards on their first play of the second quarter. But they went shotgun on 13 of the next 14 snaps. They were eventually helped by the officials who completely ignored or missed the blatant push by Antonio Brown in the back of Alterraun Verner on his first TD catch. But this approach on the other second-quarter possession got them pushed back and Shaun Suisham missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.

There are countless things I like better about Todd Haley's offense in comparison to Bruce Arians'. But like Arians' offense, I can't stand the empty backfield sets, especially when running the ball successfully. They're doing their opponent a favor with a free pass on any run-game threat, or even play-action, or extra protection for Ben Roethlisberger.

Aside from the overuse of the pass, the under-utilization of play-action is my other beef with this offense. I was encouraged to see more use of play-action out of shotgun Sunday, but when Roethlisberger play-actions from under center, with increased or max protection, he's always been at his best.

It's possible that Haley came in, saw the aberration of an injury to Roethlisberger in 2011 against Cleveland on a Thursday night, and decided to limit Ben on play-action. For the last two seasons, the Steelers have been last in the league in percentage of plays in which they use play-action.

Haley should instead limit Ben in the shotgun. They can try to get rid of the ball as quickly as they want, but as we've seen when Roethlisberger doesn't have the short pass available, he reverts to holding the ball. In the shotgun, he doesn't have the escape lanes he does when the cup is formed during max protection, and the sacks pile up.

In 2010, when I tallied Roethlisberger's play-action pass attempts, I found there wasn't a sack the entire season.

During Sunday's game, I told my friend at halftime the Steelers were going to blow this game. You don't hand an inferior team 10 points, give up five sacks, mismanage the clock -- AGAIN -- at the end of the half, commit eight penalties, including three unsportsmanlike conducts, and overcome it in this league.

While the Buccaneers might be one of the worst teams in the NFL, they're still professionals who employ many of the best football players in world. You don't get away with that amount of self-inflicted wounds from the first half, let alone those made throughout the game.

So I sat in the stands, elbow resting on leg, chin resting in hand, and waited for it to unfold. And, of course, it did.

Many fans are upset over the 13 penalties for 125 yards, calling the team undisciplined. Tomlin agreed. He called the penalties "ridiculous."

I contend that the problems with discipline correlate with the lack of toughness on offense.

Physicality used to be the foundation of Steelers football, on both sides of the ball. Being physically tough day after day in practice can make a player more mentally tough, and in turn more mentally disciplined -- disciplined and mentally tough enough to not commit dumb penalties, disciplined and mentally tough enough to close games out on offense or defense.

The Dallas Cowboys are currently 3-1. For years they let Jason Garrett run his pass-happy offense and blow games with bad turnovers. This year, Jerry Jones opted to save Garrett from himself by hiring Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator. Linehan has made the commitment to run the football, to stay balanced. It's not a coincidence that a Cowboys defense that was the worst in the NFL last season, was predicted to be worse this season with the losses of Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence, is eighth in the NFL in points allowed. Sunday, watching the Steelers, I felt like I was watching the second coming of Garrett's give-the-game-away game plan.

The head coach of the Detroit Lions, Jim Caldwell, recently mentioned how he's responsible for EVERYTHING that happens with his players. Well, Tomlin called the penalties ridiculous. Hopefully he's talking about how he's going about preventing the penalties and not passing the blame to his players.

But the players really should take most of the blame. I can't overly criticize the Cameron Heyward and Bell penalties. I didn't hear exactly what was said and I can't give that awful officiating crew the benefit of the doubt. But who doesn't know at this point that you can't go down on your hands during a touchdown celebration? As dumb as a rule that allows somersaulters to touch the ground, it's still a rule.

This isn't the first time I've watched Brown do something stupid on the field and follow it up with his bright smile for the camera. I shook my head watching him on the Jumbotron following his TD, for which he received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I guess he thought it was appropriate to flash his smile to everybody in the stands at that moment. I thought it was more appropriate he give a disappointed "I'm sorry for that" or "My bad." It just told me he still doesn't get what it takes to be a champion.

This, to me, falls on the coaches. If I'm Richard Mann, I'm bringing that video to "the room" and lighting his ass up.

It's not surprising then that this team couldn't close. Mental toughness and discipline go hand in hand. Regardless of the coordinator, this team for years has struggled to close games out when they have to. It nearly cost them Super Bowl XLIII.

There was no excuse for Roethlisberger missing a wide-open Markus Wheaton on the fake bubble screen-and-go that could've easily put the Steelers up 31-17. Match that with AB's dropped bomb and Ben's overthrow of AB in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and the offense had three great opportunities to put the Bucs away and couldn't get it done. I believe those things are more likely to happen when you are not balanced on offense. Things start to get sloppy. Focus wanes.

Look back at the numbers. The Steelers pass the ball much more then they run it against the sub-.500 teams to which they've lost. That's a major reason why the Steelers have lost to teams like the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns in 2009, the Raiders, Titans, Browns, and Chargers in 2012, the Vikings and Raiders in 2013, and now the lowly Buccaneers in 2014.

Of course, we know part of the reason for the Steelers' past success against sub .500 teams was because they had a dominant defense in place. Yet, in 2009, when they decided to become extra pass happy, that defense had a difficult time closing out games and lost to inferior opponents. The physical and mental toughness has only been on the decline since. It's time the coaching staff realizes it.


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