The Steelers' acquisition of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer in the 2014 offseason gave the Steelers - on paper, at least - a stable of running backs as diversely talented as any in the league. While not exorbitantly costly acquisitions, they nonetheless set the stage for a move toward more handoffs as offensive coordinator Todd Haley
I give the coaching staff credit for realizing that Blount wasn't the short-yardage/red-zone bruiser they wanted and for not trying to hasten Archer's development into what Haley envisioned as a value-sized Jamaal Charles. They didn't force the issue, even though Haley's a Bill Parcells disciple who wants to get to 30 carries a game, and even though it was year five since team president Art Rooney II issued a public edict that the team "get better running the football."
There's really no doubt they're going to try to build on the success Le'Veon Bell had making a huge leap forward in his second season. That's not just what the boss wants; it's sound football.
But while the run game marches forward, I hope it's not at the expense of progress made in the spread passing game. Not only did quarterback Ben Roethlisberger take a huge step forward last season, but as much as Bell is among the best ballcarriers in the league, where he really sets himself apart from his peers is his versatility in spread looks.
Moreover, spread looks were the bane of the division rival that bounced the Steelers from the playoffs.
The Ravens came out of the bye getting torched to the tune of 69-for-90, 76.7 percent 803 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs, and a 116 passer rating the next two weeks, then coasted into the playoffs on matchups against Case Keenum and Connor Shaw, both nobodies making their first starts of the season, and Blake Bortles, a rookie who was the worst-ranked passer in the league.
Six teams beat the Ravens with Haloti Ngata. The Bengals twice, the Colts, the Steelers, the Chargers and the Patriots. Those victorious teams called 276 dropbacks against 106 runs. That's a 72%-28% pass-run split. Winning opponents averaged 2.51 wideouts per play and 1.48 TEs/FBs per play. That's basically spread personnel half the time.
And even then, that number is egregiously misleading, because it counts Coby Fleener, Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski as TEs, and they aren't playing true TE roles much of the time. Also, the Bengals played one of those games without A.J. Green due to a toe injury. Jermaine Gresham was flanked out even more than usual to compensate, if I recall correctly. Everybody who beat the Ravens did so by spreading them out. Including the Steelers.
The other blueprint for beating the Ravens is what the Texans did. They ran a balanced offense, but with Ngata on the bench. And as long as Joe Flacco sets you up with interceptions giving you the ball in the red zone, you're golden.
In week 13, the Chargers, whose tight ends have been known to flex out, averaged 2.94 snaps by wideouts per play. Big-time spread offense. Put up 34 points, averaging 3.78 points per drive despite two turnovers. The Ravens averaged 1.71 points per drive on the season, and the worst defense in the league gave up 2.52 points per drive. . It was the worst beating the Ravens' defense suffered on the season.
The Steelers' first five TDs were all from shotgun-spread formations. All three red-zone scores were empty set. Two of them had five receivers and five blockers. And only one of the five TDs had seven blockers, and even then, Bell didn't have to block anybody. Two TDs were minimum protection, and two were six blockers, with Miller kept in.
Meanwhile, the Ravens played four games against teams that rushed for more than 2,000 yards and gave up 3.06 yards per carry against them.
In 2015, the same plan of attack is likely to be in order against the Ravens. So while the focus is likely to be putting the finishing touches on the half-decade effort to fix the run game, the spread offense probably needs to be in good working order for what might well be a three-game series against a division rival.
The shotgun offense was far from perfect in 2014, but much was promising. On 450 pass plays not under center, league MVP Aaron Rodgers had four interceptions and 24 sacks. On 484 pass plays not under center, Roethlisberger had seven picks and 31 sacks. So Roethlisberger threw one interception every 179 shotgun/pistol pass plays and took a sack every 91 shotgun/pistol pass plays that Rodgers didn't. That's not a big difference at all, especially when you consider that Rodgers retains a lot of mobility that Roethlisberger has lost.
But in any case, the same negative plays are happening at somewhat close to the same rate to Rodgers. And that gap becomes nonexistent if you allow for the fact that probably four or five of Roethlisberger's sacks happened on plays in which the Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver failed to run a hot route.
Both Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant appeared at times competent in the role in question, but at other times totally lost. Rodgers had thirty-some games and 182 pass attempts to Randall Cobb under his belt coming into the season. Roethlisberger had 13 total pass attempts to Wheaton and none to Bryant, a rookie whose assimilation into the offense was slowed by a shoulder injury. The lack of a reliable No. 2 option hobbled the Steelers for much of the season.
That won't be a problem next season, but the spread is predicated on minimum protection. Like Roethlisberger, Rodgers suffers from an dearth of exceptional tackle play. The Steelers might have the chance to address that issue in the draft. The spread also benefits from versatile tight ends and receivers who can lay blocks in space.
The red zone
The team's red zone performance was lackluster again in 2014. This is nothing new. Since Roethlisberger took the reins, only in 2005 and 2007 has the offense ranked in the top 10 in touchdown rate in the red zone.
The 2005 season really offers no basis for comparison. The 2005 team put up 19 red zone rushing TDs, and the 2014 team put up eight. Marvel Smith was a better red-zone tackle than Kelvin Beachum. Alan Faneca was a much better red-zone left guard than Ramon Foster. Jeff Hartings was better in the red zone than Maurkice Pouncey. As much as I like David DeCastro, I think Kendall Simmons was better in the red zone. And Jerome Bettis is headed to Canton for a reason.
Next year, the young guys on the O-line will close that gap. The team wanted Blount to be a red-zone guy. He wasn't. His goal-line display against the Jets showed him to be expendable. Bell's patience looks more like hesitance in the red zone thus far. Whether it's Bell getting better or by some addition to the roster, the team will have a better red zone back.
As for Roethlisberger's red zone performance:
Roethlisberger: 51-of-91 (56%), 322 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.4 passer rating, 4 sacks
Tom Brady: 44-of-74 (59%), 295 yards, 25 TDs, 2 INTs, 96.5 passer rating, 5 sacks
Peyton Manning: 69-of-105 (66%), 458 yards, 25 TDs, 1 INT, 110.6 passer rating, 2 sacks
Rodgers: 51-of-96 (53%), 293 yards, 24 TDs, 1 INT, 94.3 passer rating, 4 sacks
Tony Romo: 32-of-50 (64%), 256 yards, 19 TDs, 1 INT, 108 passer rating, 6 sacks
Matched against his peers among the league's top five in passer rating, he's at the back of the pack in the red zone. Part of it is the pass-run split. Roethlisberger dropped back to throw 63 percent of the time in the red zone, compared to 49 percent for Brady, 63 percent for Manning, 51 percent for Romo and 55 percent for Rodgers.
But a bigger part of it is the fact that defenses probably just weren't worried about the Steelers running the ball in the red zone:
Patriots: 17 red zone rushing TDs
Cowboys: 15 red zone rushing TDs
Broncos: 13 red zone rushing TDs
Packers: 13 red zone rushing TDs
Steelers: 8 red zone rushing TDs
And certainly a part of that is the fact that the Steelers didn't run as much. But they also didn't run as effectively:
Cowboys: 4.467 Att./TD
Broncos: 4.846 Att./TD
Patriots: 6.294 Att./TD
Packers: 6.692 Att./TD
Steelers: 7.375 Att./TD
Here, we can see the most efficient red-zone passers, Manning and Romo, were paired with the most efficient red-zone rushing attacks. Brady's, Rodgers' and Roethlisberger's efficiency also roughly mirror that of their rushing attacks.
Correlation doesn't equal causation, but stacking up Roethlisberger's 2005 red-zone performance:
27-of-41 (66%), 193 yards, 13 TDs, 0 INT, 116.2 passer rating, 0 sacks
... against his 2005 red-zone rushing attack:
19 rushing TDs, 4.947 Att./TD
... reinforces the importance of the run game. Investments that improve the run game in the red-zone pay dividends in the passing game, as well.
The Steelers' inefficient red-zone rushing performance - only seven teams had a worse attempt-to-touchdown ratio - seems to indicate that the run game that often seemed resurgent in 2014 faltered when it counted. Roethlisberger is dismissed by critics as piling up stats between the 20s but not getting the job done in the red zone. The same criticism could be applied to the run game, perhaps even more strongly.
Last year's top five in red-zone conversion rate were Oakland, Dallas, Chicago, Denver and New England. Oakland's probably just there because they had the smallest number of red zone attempts, and opposing D coordinators were surprised to find that they had to game plan for red-zone appearances. We'll call that a statistical outlier.
The Cowboys, Broncos and Patriots all make sense, with their elite passers and effective rushing attacks. The Bears had just 8 rushing TDs, but a respectable 5.5 attempt per touchdown rate. But quarterback Jay Cutler doesn't make as much sense.
His receivers make more sense. Brandon Marshall is the stud, catching 6 TDs on only 15 targets in the red zone. Fellow size mismatches Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett scored 6 and 5 TDs respectively on 21 targets each.
I've always tried to tamp down the importance of size for receivers. Watching Matthew Stafford go from a 97.2 passer rating and 41 TDs for a 10-6 team to a79.8 passer rating and 20 TDs for a 4-12 team even had me considering that having a big receiver might cause a quarterback to put the ball up for grabs too often rather than making smart reads.
But Jay Cutler, Josh McCown and even Jimmy Clausen combine for 47 passing TDs on 107 red zone appearances is a pretty compelling argument. So is the fact that the other top red-zone teams have elite red-zone receivers.
Gronkowski: 16 red-zone targets; 9 TDs
Julius Thomas: 15 red-zone targets; 9 TDs
Dez Bryant: 14 red-zone targets; 8 TDs
Terrance Williams: 12 red-zone targets; 5 TDs
Those are the most efficient. Romo has the best rushing attack, an elite red-zone receiver, a quality No. 2, and Jason Witten. He also has an elite left tackle. Manning, who was hyper-efficient in the red zone, also has an elite left tackle and an elite red-zone target. Brady has a high-drafted tackle and a top red-zone receiver.
Rodgers is the league's best QB, but his team isn't among the top 10 in red-zone scoring. Which might have something to do with the lack of a top red-zone rushing attack, receiver or left tackle.
For the Steelers, Bryant might close the gap with some of those other big names if he makes a Mike Wallace-sized year-two leap. But everything I've heard says Bryant's smarter than Wallace and works twice as hard. He had four TDs on seven targets while just learning the position. So he might be a top red-zone target going forward. But as Romo and Cutler would attest, having more than one doesn't hurt.
The Steelers ran 1,140 plays in 17 games last season. A balanced offense would call for 570 runs. Bell was good for 290 last season before his injury. Even putting a 350-carry workload on his shoulders - which seems ill-advised - still leaves almost 40 percent of the workload. In other words, leaning more on the running game isn't building the offense around Bell; it's building it around his backups.
As such, even premier players such as Melvin Gordon as a round-one target or Jay Ajayi as a round-two target don't seem absurd. The reality, however, is a day-three pick or a "value" signing in free agency, either of whom will pale in comparison to Bell. Sticking with day-three guys, I like Matt Jones out of Florida, who has Eddie George's frame, toughness, and forward lean, but not his athleticism. He's mostly a no-nonsense, between-the-tackles type.
If he's a less-athletic George, Josh Robinson is a rebate Maurice Jones-Drew. Robinson's a compact runner at sub 5-8 and 217 pounds and was tough to bring down in college. His stride frequency looks close to Archer's, which allows him to be relatively shifty, but he looks to have a much shorter stride length, costing him speed but keeping his base solid.
Assuming the Steelers are unwilling to spend another high pick or significant free agent dollars on a ballcarrier, they can improve the effectiveness of their backup runners and Bell as well by bolstering their blocking.
At No. 22, you're probably not sniffing a guy who'll beat out Kelvin Beachum in year one. But Jonathan Ogden played left guard next to Tony Jones for a season, and it worked out very well for him.
Ereck Flowers has the size and strength to help the line get push in the run game right away. He looks at times like a bigger, more powerful version of Miami predecessor Orlando Franklin. Franklin ended up at left guard. Flowers' shortcomings were exposed by Nebraska pass rusher Randy Gregory among others, so maybe that's where he ends up, too. But he's certainly got the frame and the athleticism to play outside. And even if he doesn't develop his technique, he's probably the best pure people-mover in the draft.
La'el Collins will probably have an easier time earning his way outside, and he'd be just fine at guard in the meantime.
In any case, there are six offensive linemen I'd be happy with in round one who fit the immediate need of giving the red-zone rushing attack a boost and have the tools to protect Roethlisberger's blind side for the rest of his career. After the first round, it's unlikely the Steelers would find a significant upgrade over Beachum.
Ideally, a quality tight end will bolster the run-blocking while also providing another big target in the red zone. And if, as Tomlin reminds us, defense these days is about sub-package football, then a logical corollary would be that offense is about personnel who have a mismatch against any personnel. Specifically, tight ends who can maul nickel DBs as run blockers and leave linebackers in the dust on pass patterns against base personnel. Such a tight end could make the Steelers' offense unstoppable.
As such, I looked long and hard at every tight end prospect I came across, and I can't say I found what I was looking for. But a few players have the main ingredients.
Maxx Williams of Minnesota and Clive Walford of Miami are neck-and-neck in my book. I like Walford better because he's the better blocker, plain and simple. Williams falls off his blocks in much the same way Eric Ebron did last season. But he's the surer-handed receiver and has the capacity to make tough catches look routine, like a one-hander on a sideline route past a safety against Michigan that caught my attention.
So while Walford fits the profile of run-game TE who can also move around, Williams has the better long-term prospects. But neither is worth a round-one pick. The Steelers might do well to try to move up into the 40s with a trade if Williams is still available. The Eagles moved from 54 to 42 last year at the cost of a fourth-round pick. Walford might be available if they stand pat.
After those two, there's not much exciting, apart from Jesse James of Penn State, who has a similar build to a young Matt Spaeth. He's not on Spaeth's level as a blocker, but he has athleticism in short bursts that make him an intriguing red zone prospect similar to Martellus Bennett.
It's certainly counterintuitive to say the offense — the most successful in terms of scoring since Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004 — should get the infusion of talent rather than the defense, which allowed the most points of any since LeBeau's return. But the defense has two first-round picks in a row plus a second-rounder and a third-rounder invested in the defense the past two drafts. Add $5 million-a-year free agent Mike Mitchell to the mix, and that's five noteworthy new pieces in two years.
Five additions doesn't equal five stars, but for 2015, with a new defensive coordinator in Keith Butler, all of them should be considered the frontrunners at their positions. It's potentially a young and talented core group for the future, and while the production hasn't matched the investment, you really have to open the cupboard to tell whether it's bare.
So it's not that the defense doesn't need to be fixed. It's just that the handyman just got here, and it's a little early to tell whether he has the parts he needs to fix it.
Drafting offense is by no means an imperative. In fact, most of the offense is so young that they'll likely get better with no additions at all, which makes standing pat a reasonable approach to the offense.
But as John Harbaugh said at halftime on his way to knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs, "Field goals won't beat us."
A top-end tackle and a versatile tight end would address both the Steelers' weakness in the red zone and their top rival's weakness against spread offenses.
Fixing the defense is important, but if the opportunity arises to add assets to turn those field goals into touchdowns, it'd be a mistake to insist on filling needs on the other side of the ball.
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