Offense Makes Least Of Most Opportunities

Marty Flaherty's breakdown of the Steelers' loss in Cleveland begins and ends with the players.

Gary Barnidge is a fifth-rounder in his seventh season who just turned 29. He's been targeted 61 times in 84 games, producing about 8.2 yards per target. He's a journeyman tight end.

And on Sunday, he neutralized two NFL defensive players of the year on a touchdown pass that gave the Browns a two-score lead in the second quarter.

It was Barnidge whom Troy Polamalu appeared to be tracking when Cortez Allen leveraged tight end Jordan Cameron inside, where safety help wasn't waiting. And it was Barnidge who blocked pass rusher James Harrison, giving quarterback Brian Hoyer time to get off the pass.

For what it's worth, Harrison pulled up and tried to finesse his way around Barnidge, when going straight through him probably would've resulted in Hoyer throwing a wounded duck, if he got a pass off at all. I don't think anybody expects Harrison to get past Joe Thomas at this point, but a tight end is a different story.

As for Polamalu, I'm not saying it was his job to help Allen, but he certainly was the one in position to help, if he saw the play coming. And he probably didn't see it coming because he was watching the tight end headed for the back side. Polamalu likely froze because he got burned on the previous drive when he peeled off of coverage Cameron, allowing a big play that set up the Browns' first touchdown.

And that's how an offensive coordinator can neutralize two big names with one little one.

Kyle Shanahan's Browns offense is similar to what the Steelers want to do. You draw focus one way and try to exploit the uncovered back side for big plays. Once you hit a big play, opposing defenders are forced to respect the back side.

Losing their edge

The Steelers probably don't have the tackles to allow bootlegs for misdirection like the Browns use. But they do have one of the most complete running backs in the league.

On the first third-down play of the game, the Steelers had a yard to go. Antonio Brown was lined up to the right, with strong safety Donte Whitner outside the hash marks on that side. A misdirection toss play should've left Le'Veon Bell in open space, with only Whitner, coming across most of the width of the field, able to keep Bell out of the end zone.

I know what offensive coordinator Todd Haley was thinking when he installed that play. I have no idea what tight end Heath Miller was thinking when he went inside on free safety Tashaun Gipson, letting him run easily away from the block to snuff out the run behind the line. Maybe he was unclear on where the ball was going. Maybe he was unclear on whom he was supposed to block. But if he did lay a block on Gipson, that's an easy first down for Bell, and quite possibly a lot more. It was the big play on the back side that never happened.

Instead, it was a forced punt. And it's easy to say Haley got "too cute."

A safety doesn't get rattled when an opponent punches the ball up the gut for a 3rd-and-1 conversion. It takes getting burned by big plays to sow confusion. Haley dialed up a great play that gave one of the best backs in the game a chance to break a big play. The blocking just wasn't there, even though it shouldn't have been a hard block to land.

On the next drive, on second-and-goal from the six, fullback Will Johnson neutralized Barkevious Mingo on the back-side edge, setting up a similar scenario. Bell had two holes, each with a single DB to beat. Inside the block, was two-time Pro Bowler strong Whitner; cornerback Buster Skrine was alone on the outside. The play call produced the desired result - Bell one-on-one with a DB. He chose the worse matchup.

And the fact that he chose to stay inside and take the $7-million-a-year, No. 8-overall-pick safety head-on is indicative of a key personnel issue. Bell has the speed to gain the edge, but he stays between the tackles the vast majority of the time. Neither he, nor the coaches, expect that he'll find space outside. The Steelers' tackles and tight ends simply don't perform on the Browns' level in terms of controlling the edge in the run game.

The Steelers' interest in top left tackles and tight ends in the draft was about a lot more than giving Ben Roethlisberger more time to throw and a big target to hit. But that draft is done, and the next draft offers no help for this season.

I do think there's a player on the roster who could help. Johnson, the fullback, doesn't have a tight end's frame. But he's faster and more athletic than Miller and a better matchup blocking DBs and quicker linebackers - the types of players Bell can't outrun to the edge.

Moreover, many of the quick-hit passes Miller catches would be more productive if they put the ball in the hands of a better athlete. Giving Johnson a bigger role could open up more space outside the tackles. Making big plays outside the hashes on misdirection plays to the back side causes hesitation by defenders, and safeties in particular.

Shanahan has dialed up some masterful game plans. It's easy to put him side-by-side with Haley and laugh at the comparison. But Haley's not getting the blocking on the edge that allows for misdirection running plays. And if you're comfortable with the Steelers running boot action plays behind the tackles they have, I'm not sure what to tell you. Shanahan calls a better game, but the lion's share of that is that he has a better line.

Stalled drives

The Steelers ran the ball effectively, with 4.6 yards per carry by RBs. But failed conversions on manageable third downs killed the game plan.

On the Steelers' third drive, Markus Wheaton dropped an opportunity for first-and-goal when he was late turning around for the ball. The fourth drive was a three-and-out that ended, again, on an incompletion to Wheaton, though this time, the officials let Skrine get away with interference. The fifth lasted four plays and ended — you guessed it — on an incompletion to Wheaton on third-and-one. The offense took a shot about 20 yards downfield, and Wheaton had a step on Skrine. The throw was off.

It's not outlandish to think that the score could have been 21-0 after the Steelers' third drive. Instead, Cleveland scored three straight TDs to take a 21-3 lead.

So what's wrong with Wheaton?

Well, probably nothing that wasn't wrong with Mike Wallace, a 1,200-yard receiver in another offense whose production dipped in 2012. Or with Emmanuel Sanders, a lackluster performer in 2013 who everyone just knew was going to be a 100-catch, 1,200- or 1,300-yard guy with the Broncos, and who is, in fact, on pace for 112 catches and 1,514 yards.

Since his days as a passing game coordinator with the Cowboys, Haley has had big receivers at every stop. Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald and Dwayne Bowe played the same role in Haley's offense as Wheaton, Sanders and Wallace. And over eight seasons, they produced (with Bowe's injury-shortened 2009 campaign prorated to 16 games) a per-16-game average of 82 catches, 1,151 yards and 9 TDs.

Obviously having superstars such as Larry Fitzgerald on the list is going to skew those numbers upward, but Johnson was on the wrong end of 30 under Haley, and Bowe hasn't sniffed 1,000 yards since Haley left Kansas City.

Haley didn't "make" any of those players. But his offensive game plan undoubtedly evolved with a big receiver in mind. Wheaton, Sanders and Wallace aren't the same type of player. They aren't like the X receivers Haley has had before joining the Steelers.

Wheaton has made some spectacular catches, but some costly mental errors, as well. And since that type of inconsistency is the argument for why Martavis Bryant can't see the field, there's no longer any reason for Bryant not to see the field.

That third-and-one incompletion downfield to Wheaton was open, and it wasn't a much tougher throw than the third-and-one downfield completion from Hoyer to Cameron that scored a touchdown four plays earlier. But a taller receiver makes that window even larger.

With the running game commanding safety attention for the first time in a while, the receiver opposite Antonio Brown is going to have a lot of opportunities. For the past 38 games, those opportunities haven't been seized, despite having some talented receivers in the role.

Expecting Bryant to contribute in a big way anytime soon is probably foolhardy. But at the same time, the job he's got a chance to win was kind of made for him.

Should he earn a bigger role, Wheaton should be a weapon out of the slot.

No cause to scapegoat ... yet

If all of this sounds like an excuse for why Haley should keep his job, let me just say that there's no way I'd criticize Dick LeBeau (as I did in my last column) and give Haley a free pass. LeBeau is a legend and, by all accounts a great guy. The same can't be said of Haley. So I have no reason or desire to make excuses.

There's a lot that goes into an offensive coordinator's job besides the playbook and play calls. And maybe Haley will never reach his players on an emotional level, will never get their best effort or their best focus. And if that's the case, sure, he should get the ax.

But I'm not in a position to judge that. All I can judge is the ideas. And the ideas are producing opportunities.

A new offensive coordinator doesn't make the blocks Miller failed to execute any easier. The same goes for the passes Roethlisberger overthrew, or the on-the-money throws Wheaton and Lance Moore dropped. The missed opportunities didn't require spectacular feats of athleticism. They were routine.

Just like the Ravens game, both teams brought the same broad-strokes game plan to the field. One team executed better.

And it's easy to blame the coordinator for that. But Miller and Roethlisberger have been in the league for a decade. Hard to suggest that missed blocks and throws on their part can be fixed by a coordinator. Wheaton's route-running? They brought in a wide receivers coach with 30 years of NFL coaching experience.

I don't really care whether Haley is fired. I don't think he's a special mind who's indispensable. At the same time, I don't see what it would fix. These guys are in position to make plays. They haven't. Play calls that were not just good, but great, have died on the field because of drops, overthrows and missed blocks.

And after Antonio Brown, this year's receiving corps had caught a total of six passes from Roethlisberger coming into the season. Even the old guys are new. The only real veteran, Lance Moore, was sidelined with injury. The huge turnover on the depth chart at the position has come, not at the expense of talent, but of chemistry.

The same problems that are killing drives in the red zone are appearing all over the field: blocking on the edges and missed connections with receivers not named Antonio or Heath. It's just that in the red zone, where defenders have less ground to cover, these problems prove consistently fatal.

I think both problems are fixable, with time. I think they get fixed faster with a radical approach: Any time the offense gets a first down inside the 10, give them all four downs to score a touchdown. Either they'll figure it out sooner, or they'll get a new coordinator sooner.

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