It's a copycat league. It gets said every year when a team wins a championship and much of the league begins deploying similar schemes or personnel the following season.
Last season, the Seattle Seahawks were the model some teams wanted to emulate. As a result of the Seahawks' success, more emphasis was placed on running the ball and using big, physical corners on the outside.
For the past couple of seasons, I had hoped that Mike Tomlin would be watching the playoffs and taking things that he could apply to his team.
For instance, in 2012 the Baltimore Ravens looked like a pass-happy disaster on the verge of missing the playoffs. Then they fired Cam Cameron, went with a 50/50 split run/pass ratio the rest of the season, and won the Super Bowl.
I thought there was a lot to be gained by their championship run. For all the talk about it being a passing league, the Ravens proved championships can still be won with a less-than-dominant defense by committing to running the football. That run commitment allowed the Ravens to protect Joe Flacco and put him in the most opportune situations to make big plays. Flacco averaged over 9 yards a pass attempt to go along with 11 TD passes and 0 interceptions during the 2012 playoffs.
In 2013, no team ran more physically and more often than the Seahawks. All throughout last years playoff run, match-ups in which teams that had the more physical identity beat their playoff opponent. Granted, the Seahawks has the league's most dominant defense. But like Steelers teams of the past, their physicality on offense likely helped sharpen the iron for a championship run.
Armed with the knowledge of the past two playoff seasons, I was able to pick 4-0 against the spread last weekend. I had hoped Tomlin would have learned some of the things I observed over the last couple years. I don't think he did. With that, there's always this year. Here's hoping the coach was able to take away these things from last weekends games:
Baltimore vs. New England
There's been so much talk about the Steelers' dynamic and explosive offense, but a dynamic offense is not one in which players put up big numbers and the team has a lot of yards at the end of the game. Heck, Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards in a season. But it's an offense that can put the ball in the end zone early and often and force teams to get one-dimensional and chase. It's one of the reasons why the turnover ratio favors teams that win. Teams that get down early start to chase, get one-dimensional, and turn the ball over.
Well if you take away the Indianapolis Colts game, the Steelers scored two touchdowns total in the opening three offensive possessions of each game this season, 48 possessions total. That's beyond putrid. What do you think of this so-called No. 2 offense now?
I say this here because Baltimore scored three touchdowns on those same initial three possessions of their two playoff games. The reasons the Ravens come out scoring touchdowns early are obvious to me: 1.) The Ravens come out and run their offense while the Steelers always appear to be testing various formations rather than attacking; and 2.) They have an offense that fits their quarterback, while the Steelers keep trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by having their "hold the ball for bigger plays" quarterback morph into the consistently quick decision-making/elite passers such as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. I find it similar to asking running quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Vince Young to be pocket passers. It's not what's ingrained in them.
Ben Roethlisberger is much more Flacco and Tony Romo than he is Rodgers or Brady. He's just better than Flacco and doesn't throw boneheaded interceptions like Romo. But like Romo throws bad interceptions, Ben takes bad sacks.
I look at the Ravens' offense with envy. I can't imagine how dominant Le'Veon Bell would be in Gary Kubiak's stretch zone/fullback offense. Justin Forsett had 24 carries for 129 yards while patiently setting up blocks Saturday. But there were plays in which he went down easily that had me thinking Bell would either break the tackle for a big gain or carry the tackler for another three or four yards.
Some of you may remember me projecting James Hurst and John Urschel as players I liked for the Steelers to target late in some of my mock drafts last offseason. Regardless, the Steelers should revisit trying to develop the stretch zone run game they had hoped to deploy more this season. I believe it would make the difference in a run game that was too hit or miss.
Ramon Foster might have done a very solid job, but he's not a good fit for the undersized-but-mobile Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. Those guys would clean up in the stretch zone. And maybe more stretch zone would allow for the Steelers to use their superstar running back -- who knows how to avoid the big hit in the backfield -- more instead of exposing his big body out over the middle on routes underneath safeties.
There really are a lot of parallels to basketball and football if you've spent a lot of time with both sports. The floor and field spacing are extremely similar, so is personnel that fit each other. The Detroit Pistons started this season 5-23. They then released arguably one of their more talented players in Josh Smith. Since then, they are 9-1.
Releasing Smith spaced out or opened up the floor. A more mobile left guard could allow for dominant stretch zone and pull blocks from either guard to make the run game more consistent and far less predictable.
Most basketball teams prefer to have an inside-out offense. Three-point shooters are more successful with a good pick-and-roll game and a low-post scoring threat. The Steelers abandoning the run is like passing the ball all around the perimeter without trying to work it inside. It's tough to get a good look.
Speaking of looks, hopefully Tomlin got a good look at the difference between Brady running a spread offense and Roethlisberger. I once listened to Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien rave about seeing Brady make six adjustments to a play at the line of scrimmage -- based on what the defense had shown -- in less than 20 seconds to create a touchdown. It's that knowledge that allowed Brady to negate the Ravens' great pass-rushers and pick apart their weak secondary. Again, that's not Ben's game. So we saw the difference in player fits in the results of both Ravens playoff games.
The Ravens didn't need to out-throw the Patriots to beat them. If they had recovered a Patriots second-half kick-return fumble, not get beat on a trick play/WR pass, or have a legitimate backup to Forsett, than the Ravens likely would've won that game. I thought the Ravens being forced to turn to Fitz Toussaint with a tired Forsett on the sideline eliminated the threat of the run and helped greatly in forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal and late 31-28 lead. That should be a lesson to not having at least three reliable running backs on the roster.
Carolina vs. Seattle
There's talk about how the Steelers' lack of sacks and pass rush, but the Seahawks had only four more sacks this season. Switch secondaries and I think the Steelers get a lot more than 37 sacks. The defense is still dominant, but the Seahawks miss the depth provided by Chris Clemons on the outside. That's why a pass-rusher in the first 2 rounds would be smart, even if the Steelers do re-sign Jason Worilds.
The Seahawks also looked a similar notch below their former self in the secondary with Byron Maxwell out of the game due to breathing issues. Considering the big/physical corners that the Seahawks, Colts, and Patriots deploy on the outside, having that dimension on defense might be the difference next season. If there was a time to make a Jeff Hartings-like signing, now might be the time. Maxwell might be that guy.
Dallas vs. Green Bay
The Cowboys should have beat the great volume passer that is Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. And Romo needed only 19 passes to do it. Three reasons for the Cowboys demise: 1.) DeMarco Murray fumbled on what appeared to be a play that was going to be a long touchdown run; 2.) Dez Bryant's catch was reversed by a horribly written rule. If a player establishes possession and makes a football move, it should be a catch. The media often refers to the Calvin Johnson play in Chicago as the reference point. They should refer to the play Santonio Holmes made in the 2008 AFC championship against the Ravens. Holmes even reached over the goal line on his catch. On a handoff, the play is dead the moment the goal line is crossed, yet not with this silly complete-the-process rule. But the Cowboys had it coming to them because 3.) The decision to go into the shotgun on third-and-1 from the Packers' 27 with 40 seconds left in the half was dumb, to put it as nicely as I can. It was a decision that had this Cowboys hater throwing his hands up in the air and saying "Why?!" in mid-Sunday cleaning.
Even if the Cowboys ran it and were stopped, the Packers likely let the clock run to avoid having the Cowboys go for it on fourth down. With their running game, they likely get a first down and are able to still have enough time to get a touchdown with one timeout remaining.
It was similar poor clock management I've seen for several years now with the Steelers. It arguably cost the Steelers games in 2009 in Cincinnati and 2010 in New Orleans. It could have cost them three points in their last two games of this season. The coach must manage both sides of the clock. It cost the Cowboys at least a six-point swing and likely the game.
Indianapolis vs. Denver
Add Andrew Luck to the list of elite spread-offense passers. He made a couple of throws in this game that I'm not sure even Rodgers could make. The touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks in the red zone while scrambling to his right was sick. There are only a couple quarterbacks in the league with the vision, velocity, and instincts to make that throw, and Roethlisberger is not one of them. Luck can get away with those smaller windows on red-zone shotgun plays.
Peyton Manning's offense has never been built for the playoffs. The lack of either motion or bunch formations makes it a bad matchup against teams that use physical/press corners.
I'm sure there are fans who think Manning was ripe for the taking. He was, if you have press corners. The Steelers do not. The attempt at tighter coverage this year helped the cause in the Steelers giving up a lot of big plays. Those big plays were reduced when the Steelers returned to their soft cushions the last quarter of the season. But those soft cushions likely would have allowed Manning to pick them apart. Having the versatility to play both press and off-coverage is going to be vital to the progress of the Steelers' defense next season.