It has been my contention and season-long frustration that the Steelers are overly reliant on the shotgun and passing game. For several years now I've watched a quarterback who holds the ball, extends plays, takes sacks, and commits the majority of his turnovers out of the shotgun formation.
Against Tampa Bay in Week 4, all five of the Bucs' sacks occurred when the Steelers were in the shotgun. The second sack on the third play of the game led to a fumble and 7-0 deficit from the get-go.
Against the Jets, both sacks, as well as both of Ben Roethlisberger's interceptions, came out of the shotgun formation.
The back-to-back-to-back sacks the Ravens registered came out of the shotgun following a questionable holding call on Maurkice Pouncey.
Last week, the Steelers had to squeak out a three-point win on a great second-half comeback against a two-win Titans team, despite having a pick six (which leads teams to winning over 80% of the time) and a 200-yard rusher. With those two occurrences, a win usually shouldn't be that difficult, especially against a two-win team.
The talk among fans and media has been that the Steelers have been flat or unprepared for those games. To me, that type of reporting and opinion-making has been irresponsible and shortsighted. Yes, the Steelers have been average on defense due to youth and injury. But, with All-Pro caliber players at wide receiver, center, running back, and quarterback, combined with a steady veteran presence like Heath Miller, a Pro Bowl-caliber right guard, and an offensive line coached by Mike Munchak that's been relatively healthy and constant for the majority of the season, there should be no excuse for this much offensive inconsistency.
The Steelers did play a more consistent brand of offense against the Colts and Ravens when they ran far more plays under center than they had in previous weeks. The running game wasn't dominant, but there was enough of a threat to set up play-action and make the overall passing game much more successful.
Against, the Jets, the Steelers backed down from Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. After a couple of unsuccessful run plays early, they gave up on it, and therein lies the biggest problem. I believe Todd Haley wants to run an offense that is capable of doing anything and looks to attack the opponent's defensive weaknesses on a week-to-week basis. The problem with that is ignoring your own weaknesses. They should be looking to maximize their own strengths first, and from there look to expose the opponent's defensive weaknesses. That means first playing to Roethlisberger's strengths and minimizing his weaknesses.
It's simple: Too much shotgun for a quarterback who likes to extend plays makes for a roller coaster of inconsistencies. It opens the door for more sacks, fumbles, and interceptions, which opens the door for teams like the Bucs and Jets to beat you.
Ben has always been at his best when the shotgun was limited to third downs and two-minute drills. When the offense was called as such, Ben was much more effective early in his career at third-down conversion rates and fourth-quarter comebacks. Roethlisberger early in his career consistently finished among the top five in third-down conversions. Since Haley has become offensive coordinator. and the Steelers have relied more heavily on the shotgun, the Steelers have consistently finished in the middle of pack in league third-down conversion rate.
That doesn't mean I dislike Haley. There is much more diversity in this offense than there ever was under Bruce Arians. One example would be the use of the pistol on first or second down. If the pistol allows the Steelers to be more successful with the stretch zone running plays, as it appeared on Monday night, then I'm in favor of more pistol on said downs.
The thing about being under center or in the pistol is that it holds the threat of the run just a little longer. Anytime you can create indecision, you should use it to your advantage. Even if there's a back in the backfield when in shotgun, the moment the quarterback receives the snap and takes his second step back, it is known that the play is a pass.
Now, Roethlisberger has always pushed for more shotgun. I believe he feels that because he was so successful with it in high school in college, it's where he should be primarily operating at the pro level. Ben, in my opinion, based off what I've observed, is a stubborn person who sees things the way he wants to see them. That can lead a person to being extremely short-sighted.
I was reminded of that when quotes resurfaced that Roethlisberger had made regarding Ken Whisenhunt during Super Bowl week of 2009:
"We were so predictable. We'd run on first down, run on second down, and throw on third and long, and that killed us.
"If we took a shot downfield and it was incomplete -- or heaven forbid intercepted -- we wouldn't throw long again for a long time."
Roethlisberger spoke of the Whisenhunt years as if the team finished below .500, not 27-4 with a Super Bowl victory and an AFC Championship Game appearance. Ben's first two seasons still mark his best years in terms of yards per attempt at 8.9. So I'm still trying to figure out what he was talking about when he said they stopped throwing deep. And, sorry Ben, but I can't count the year with the motorcycle accident and appendectomy among the years with Whisenhunt statistically.
In one way I agree with Roethlisberger. I thought it was a horrible game plan in the 2004 AFC Championship Game. Everyone knew Bill Belichick was going to look to take away what teams want to do offensively. And he had the talent to do that on defense, too. Yet, the Steelers came out with seven runs and one pass on first down, six runs and one pass on second down, and one run and five passes on 3rd down. I remember wanting them to come out with balance on all three downs. Run it on 3rd down initially, even if it led to a punt. That was my thinking. But let them know you would call run or pass on any down early. They did the exact opposite and it was 24-3 before you could blink.
I also think you want a quarterback who wants the ball in his hands and wants control. Who wants a guy back there who would rather hand it off? But a great coach once said, "Your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness." With Ben, that is the case. He wants so much control that he seems to refuse to acknowledge his weaknesses. And that is dangerous to the winning cause.
On the road, especially against inferior opponents, a run game travels. It brings more consistency. It allows you to win when the weather is awful. Teams that are already demoralized from their poor season are much more likely to quit early when they are consistently getting punched in the mouth. It prevents taking losses like they did against the one-win Browns in 2009.
So I found it ironic that when Whisenhunt was the opposing head coach on the other sideline, the Steelers came out running the ball, Whisenhunt-like, on their first drive. They followed that with a balanced second drive. Only an underthrown pass by Roethlisberger, and an inexperienced effort by Martavis Bryant, coupled with three weak playcalls from the six-yard line, led to a 13-7 lead instead of 17-7. From there, the Steelers became pass-happy out of the shotgun and fell behind 24-13. But instead of getting pass-happy as they did in New York, the Steelers smartly turned to their running game to bring them back. One touchdown was set up by a play-action pass, the second scored off a play-action pass to Antonio Brown.
The final drive had 2004/2005 written all over it. Though the drive nearly ended before it began, when the Steelers for some illogical reason went into shotgun on second-and-4 after the initial six-yard run by Bell. Roethlisberger was nearly sacked and injured on a play that was dicey enough for Whisenhunt to review for a possible fumble (thanks, coach). Following that short scare and a very nice conversion by Markus Wheaton, the Steelers returned back to their Whisenhunt-like roots and ran to win.
During the last three drives of the game, Roethlisberger checked to a run play on several occasions. The Steelers ran more plays from under center Monday night than they have all season.
The hope here is that Ben is continuing to grow. Hopefully he's starting to learn his own limitations and understand the importance of a more physical style of running and how it helps make him more successful. For this offense to become more consistent and reach its potential, he has to fully learn to get out of his own way.