Doesn't Iron Sharpen Iron Anymore?

Matt Steel's not making a call for three-yard clouds of dust, just for the Steelers to add balance and toughness to their offense.

I've articulated in the past the importance for balance in the run-to-pass ratio. I have often used statistical analysis to back my position. But I haven't really gone into the life experiences that have led me to come to that strong conclusion.

Since early childhood, I have been playing, watching, and/or coaching baseball, basketball, and football. I grew up a son of a coach. My father was the head coach of our championship federation baseball team. A team which at one point was considered the best team in the Midwest.

What's funny looking back at those teams is we always seemed to be the smallest team on the field. But we played with great fundamentals: fielding our positions, hitting cut-offs, hitting behind base runners, throwing strikes, executing timely bunts, etc.

My dad was always quiet and even-keeled. I only saw him lose it on a player once: when his catcher ignored his sign for a curve that went far over the left field fence for a grand slam.

My dad has a great feel for the game. It wasn't until 1997 when I was already playing in college did I truly understand his talent. It was my first and only visit to Wrigley field. Watching my dad get a feel for that game from the stands that day left me in awe. The Chicago Cubs were up 3-0 in the 6th inning when the San Diego Padres hit consecutive line drives before coming up empty. Discreetly, my dad said "They need to get somebody up in the pen. He's starting to get hit hard." Back-to-back hits by the Padres to start the 7th had my dad calling for the hook. But that relief didn't come until Rickey Henderson hit a sacrifice fly that had the Cubs' left fielder pinned against the ivy to make the score 3-2.

With the score 3-3 in the top of the 9th inning Greg Vaughn stepped to the plate for the Padres. I think it was the first and only prediction I've ever heard my dad make. Subtly, he turned to me and said, "He's hitting it out."

I laughed and said "Maybe a couple years ago pop!" But Vaughn proceeded to hit a bomb onto Waveland Avenue. I couldn't believe it. My dad just turned and said "When you make bad decisions, bad things happen." The quote stuck with me.

Even though I always felt football was the sport I was most talented in and meant to play, I chose to pursue baseball at the college level due to my at that time thin frame. It enabled me to carry what I learned from dad's coaching into my college career. I remember the pitching coach on one of my college teams telling me how much he couldn't stand hitters like me who would work him deep into the count. Growing up, whenever the count was 0-0 or in my favor, dad would always say "your pitch, your zone". In those counts, I looked for a particular pitch on a particular half of the plate. If I didn't get it, I wasn't afraid to take a strike or even swing and miss late on a fastball to set up the pitcher for the next pitch.

I played baseball at the junior college and Division II levels, I played for 3 head coaches. I had my best season under my best head coach. He understood the role I brought to the team and didn't try to change it. He was a catcher on the major league level for 15 seasons, so his knowledge of the game was deep. Unfortunately for me, I only got to play for him one season. At the end of the season individual exit meetings (he was the only coach of the 3 that had an exit meeting) coach said "Matt, in the games you played in, we mostly won. And the games you didn't play in, we mostly lost. And I don't think that was a coincidence." I was surprised he noticed the correlation. But I always felt my approach at the plate made teammates more successful. I did most of my damage deep into counts. At two strikes, I was looking fastball on the outside half of the plate. Fastball inside, I would still be able to turn on it. If it was off speed, I could adjust because I was looking to hit a fastball to the opposite field anyway. Two strike hitting became my comfort zone. It took the guess work out. But I felt the guesswork benefited my teammates by driving up a pitcher's pitch count and allowing teammates to see more pitches. Along with getting on base, I felt that was the most important job to do as a lead off hitter.

I had a hit in every league game I started in that year. But I don't remember many, if any multiple hit games. The vast majority were 1 for 2 with 2 walks or 1 for 3 with a walk. The approach was consistent. I struck out 8 times that season. All in the first at bat while learning a pitcher and putting him to work. I did things that didn't drastically stand out on the stat sheet.

One at-bat I had I think stands out at defines me as a player. It was an at-bat where I fouled off several pitches before drawing a two out walk to load the bases. And the next hitter came up and hit a 3 run double. The approach I had didn't necessarily produce eye popping statistics. But that experience at college really started getting me to explore the things that don't show up on a typical stat sheet and learn that those things that don't show up are the things that matter most to winning.

When I became a coach on the high school level, I taught my hitters the BALANCED approach. "Patient aggressive" and "aggressively patient" were the words I used to describe the approach. I made sure to change the order so that one didn't seem to have priority over another.

Teams usually have certain statistical numbers they use as goals to achieve what they think will help them reach the ultimate goal of winning. Usually the focus would be on statistics such as batting average, on base percentage, and earned run average in order to score more runs and give up less. I focused on the number zero. The closer to zero we could get to walks given up, errors, and strikeouts on offense, the better we would be as a team.

I constantly reinforced throwing strikes to my pitchers. Hitting their spots, keeping the ball down in the zone. I told them I'd rather see a home run than a walk. It took the pressure off of allowing the opponent to get hits and instead made spot hitting the primary focus.

On defense, the emphasis was to always keep the ball front of you. We practiced throwing accuracy continuously. But I never taught "don't make an error" which can create pressure.

On offense, players were taught to embrace and enjoy 2 strike hitting. We worked on shortening our swing, hitting behind the ball, and putting the ball in play.

The growth we would make from the beginning of the season to the end was drastic. In one season, we lost our second game 18-10 and made 15 errors, 12 at shortstop alone.

We played that same opponent the last game of the season and won 11-0 in a 5 inning mercy. We were a catchers interference away from our pitcher throwing perfect game. The combination of walks, strikeouts, and errors was a perfect zero. The scoreboard took care of itself from there.

I used the same formula as the head coach of a Junior Varsity team at a high school that won a combined 4 games in two seasons at the varsity level. With 11 players on our squad, we were able to finish the one season I coached in the program at 7-7. The formula is really the same mantra I saw Jim Harbaugh use with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. Take everything and give away nothing. Make them work harder and longer. Eventually they will break mentally.

I've coached at various high school levels in baseball, basketball, football and track. Never have I coached teams where we don't improve the most in what was emphasized the most. Observing both college and professional programs, I have noticed much of the same. Teams become what is emphasized by the staff. It helps forge the team's identity.

There are two constants I've learned in my time playing, coaching or observing championship teams:

1. Championship teams are the best at things that are most difficult to do.

2. Championship teams are great at the things that don't show up on the typical newspaper or website stat sheet.

In baseball, most fans love the home run. They often will look to batting average, home runs and RBIs as the gauge for a player's batting success. Though championships are often won by pitching, defense and smart hitting. The San Francisco Giants, for example, swept my Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series. This was a Giants team that had the least amount of home runs in all of baseball that year. The Tigers meanwhile, have been falling short in the postseason since 2006. Correctly, they have prioritized starting pitching. Incorrectly, they have prioritized a lineup of slow designated hitter types. Most of the lineup had power hitters who hit near .300. But as the pitching improved and the weather gets cold, so do the bats. And what they have been left with is a team with poor defensive range that gives teams extra at-bats and a bullpen that blows games that ultimately cost them playoff series. Starting pitching, lockdown bullpens, defense, and smart hitters and baserunners that can manufacture runs will more often win championships in October. All things being equal defensively, I'd much rather have a .260 hitter with a .350 on base percentage than a .300 hitter with a .320 OBP. The patient hitter will pay off in October against tougher pitching.

I heard a couple guys on sports talk radio saying that Jordan Spieth is boring because he doesn't overpower the ball. But it's his brilliant putting/short game that won him the Masters and U.S. Open and a brilliant but inconsistent short game that left him one stroke behind British Open Champion Zach Johnson. Zach happens to be one of the shortest hitters on tour. The only player better than Spieth this year at making putts between 20-25 feet has been PGA championship winner Jason Day. Dustin Johnson hits the ball a country mile. It is known that Dustin Johnson practices by playing a lot of golf. I heard analysts recently suggest that he needs to put in more work around the greens as he is still searching for his first major. Tiger Woods had the greatest stretch in golf history when he also happened to have a short game that was best in the game's history. A professional golfer will spend 73% of their practice time on their short game. Yet go to a practice facility, and the vast majority of amateurs are banging balls on the driving range. Everybody loves the long ball. The driver is the most important club in the bag to score consistently, but it is the players with the best short games that most often win majors. And that short game is the grind of golf.

I've been a Detroit Pistons fan ever since I was a kid. I sobbed uncontrollably for about a half hour when Larry Bird stole the inbound pass from Isaiah Thomas to also steel the win in Game 5 of the Easter Conference Finals in 1987. At 11 years old, I still knew the Pistons had no shot at winning a Game 7 in Boston. With the Pistons, I've been fortunate to watch two championship eras. Both eras hung their hats on defense and toughness. Larry Brown reinforced defense, rebounding, and "playing the right way". It lead to one championship in 2004 and several incredibly bad ticky-tack calls in the 3rd quarter of the Finals in Game 7 during the David Stern era away from a second title in 2005 against the San Antonio Spurs.

In 2006, Flip Saunders replaced the neurotic and nomadic Brown. And suddenly the emphasis shifted from defense and rebounding to assist to turnover ratio. At that time, I remember thinking it was soft approach. Still, the Pistons went 66-16 in 2006. But were no longer built for the playoffs. It was the same 6 primary players, but a different defensive team. They never would return to the finals.

The Detroit Bad Boys of the late 80's sought to destroy their opponents physically and mentally. They would play with relentless energy and defense. In an era having to go up against Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, there was no other way to reach achieve their goal of winning championships.

Having played basketball, I can tell you there is nothing more demanding in the game physically and mentally then defending and rebounding. Then once that is over, running hard to the other side of the floor. There is nothing fun about getting in the condition required to be at your best in those aspects of the game. Shootings and scoring is the fun part for players in practice. Those willing to defend, fight for rebounds, run the floor, put in they time required to be a good ball handler, and move without the ball on offense are the players who have prepared to win championships.

Golden State Warrior Clay Thompson had a tremendous regular season that led to an all-star selection. But that team doesn't win a championship this year without the tough defense supplied by Andre Igoudala, who was far more valuable to the Warriors by the time they reached the Finals than Thompson.

I recently watched a round table show on NBA TV called Open Court. It was an episode called "Choose Your Topic". Isiah Thomas was on the panel. At one point, Thomas' eyes nearly popped out of his head when he said "The Pistons killed me when they said they were going to change the culture!". Thomas was referring to the time period following his retirement. On the show he said your culture consists of 4 things: "your habits, traditions, beliefs, and the things that we celebrate."

That led me to think about Steelers in relation to those four areas of culture. I believe there has been a cultural shift on offense since the 2008 season. Comparing the Steelers to the four aspects of culture Thomas described, I believe the habits are the same. With the exception of 2012, the belief in drafting coachable football players with not a lot of off-field baggage has remained (though even that has slipped in recent years). But other beliefs have died. In any of their NFL-leading 6 Super Bowl championships, never did the Steelers run the ball less than 50% of the time. Granted, comparing the 70's era of football to today is like comparing apples and asparagus. But it's the mentality is what was important. Running the ball was of equal or more priority to passing it. Since 2009, that has no longer been the case. That's despite teams like the Seahawks, Ravens, and 49ers having championship or deep playoff success with a balanced slightly run-heavy approach. The Steelers have broken away from their own championship culture to chase what they believe is the better approach of the New England Patriots.

Running the ball 41% of the time is not enough for your offensive line to establish a physical and mental edge over its opponent. I have asked everyone I know who played or plays defensive line what they prefer to do. To a man, they all prefer to rush the passer. Every offensive lineman I asked prefers to run block. So it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to do what the opposing line of scrimmage wants to do 59% of the time and my offensive front prefers only 41% of the time.

No matter the championship era, the Steelers first and foremost looked to control the line of scrimmage. They were going to run the ball and stop the run. They were going to do it enough times so that they were successful at it. They'd be successful because they prioritized it. They understood moving the line of scrimmage one or two yards one way or the other was what wins championships.

This staff has slowly eroded that identity. It's not surprising to see a defense that struggles to stop the run or be consistent at tackling when they face a much more finesse offensive system throughout training camp. I don't see teams that are primarily pass-oriented fielding top 5 defenses. And I don't believe that to be a coincidence.

The other issue I have with the change of offensive culture is in "the things that we celebrate." In 2009, Bruce Arians talked about having a 4000-yard passer, two 1000-yard receivers, and a 1000-yard rusher. Arians and Ben Roethlisberger talked about scoring a point per minute of possession (which makes no rational sense). Recently, Ben talked about the possibility of averaging over 30 points per game. None of these numerical values necessarily correlate with being a championship offense.

"THE THINGS THAT WE CELEBRATE": I would have loved to saw the look on Chuck Noll's face if someone ran across to him the idea of trying to get Antonio Brown another catch when all they had to do to win last season's game against Jacksonville was take a few kneeldowns. It was baffling to me why the team would value Brown's fantasy football created streak of scoring 10 or per game in PPR leagues (why else would 5 catches for 50 yards become such a valued statistic?). The sole objective should be winning. Any other message to the contrary is disappointing and a break from a championship culture.

But if Ben and the staff want to emphasize a statistic to reach the only things that do matter: wins and championships, here's my suggestion: focus on zero, just like I prioritized zero with walks, errors, and offensive strikeouts for the baseball teams I coached. On offense in football, the closer you can be zero with turnovers, negative runs, sacks, dropped passes, and inaccurate throws to open receivers -- all while committing to balance -- the point totals you seek will take care of themselves. By being predictably unpredictable and limiting negative plays, I think we would see improvement both in red-zone touchdowns and third-down conversions. I think from there the 30 points per game they seek will take care of itself. But I also believe they'd be more likely to give up 17 or 18 points per game instead of 23 or 24.

I like everything about Todd Haley's offensive design. It's so much more diverse than when Arians was the offensive coordinator. But in 2008, when the Steelers struggled on offense, they often came up big at the end of games. I believe that was a product of not over exposing their shotgun offense. Roethlisberger hasn't been near what seemed to be automatic at the end of games like he was earlier in career when his shotgun roll was limited to 2 and 4 minute drills. I equate that to what my coach said to me back in college about winning the games I played in. It's something you can't see unless you're paying close attention. Roethlisberger not being Mr. Automatic at last-minute game-winning drives like he was in the first half of his career is not a coincidence. There isn't much that hasn't already been exposed when shotgun spread formations have been used on first and second down throughout the game.

When you lead with toughness, you won't lose to mentally fragile teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, and New Orleans Saints. Running the ball is the dirty work. It's the defense and rebounding of basketball. It's short game work in golf. It's pitching, defense, base running, and grind it out at-bats in baseball. It's something that likely isn't as much fun for tight ends (unless you are the beast that is Heath Miller) and wide receivers. Running the ball requires a lot of physical and mental resolve. Iron sharpens iron as Mike Tomlin USED to say.

I don't doubt the Steelers go 12-4 or 13-3 last season with a more physical approach on offense. The media keeps bringing up the issue of underperforming against lesser opponents the last few seasons, but they can't make the connection as to why. They blame youth ignoring the fact that most championship teams usually have a similar amount of youth, including Steelers teams of the past. The Steelers didn't lose to bad teams when they were more committed to running the ball. Bad teams are easier to break mentally when you're hitting them in the mouth. It's easier to let them upset you when you let teams off the ropes with finesse. I've been on bad teams. It doesn't take much for doubt to creep in. Especially if the opponent is going out of its way to manhandle you. The Steelers don't believe in that anymore. It's why Anthony Collins can run off field after last season's Tampa Bay Buccaneers debacle saying "I told you they were soft!". We used to never hear any opponent say that about a Steelers team, let alone any that were at Heinz field playing on the worst team in the league.

Both the national and the majority of the Pittsburgh media only offer basic statistical information. They're not fans with emotional attachment. They're not coaches with a deeper understanding of the game. The Steelers offense is receiving a lot of praise for the numbers they accumulated last season. The Steelers, however, did score 28 points off interception returns, and another 30 off garbage touchdowns late in blowout losses to the Browns, Jets, and Saints in which the offensive performances were awful. Take away those points, and the offense averaged a mediocre 23.4 points per game. The back-to-back six-touchdown performances by Roethlisberger were largely aided by both the Colts and Ravens missing their number one cornerback.

Those who understand they game on a deep level know that jumping out to an early lead is often the most important factor in a team winning the turnover battle and therefore the game. In 2014, the Steelers offense was dead last in scoring touchdowns on their opening 3 possessions. Take away the game against the Indianapolis Colts in which the Steelers came out with a balanced play action approach (11 passes and 10 runs) to score touchdowns on their opening 3 possessions, and the Steelers scored a measly 2 touchdowns in their other 48 opening possessions. I understand the Steelers had the third worst starting field position in the NFL. But in analyzing other teams in their opening 3 possessions, most of the time teams would score on longer drives early and forced turnovers later on when teams became more one dimensional.

When I think of the current Steelers offense, I think of Dwight White talking about the Cowboys shifting-motion offense they faced in Super Bowl X: "That's all smoke and mirrors! Eventually you're going have to get set an line up, and we're going to be here starting right at you." The Steelers can win all the regular season games they want and put up dazzling fantasy numbers. But when it comes to playoff time, you still have to win the line of scrimmage.

It took Tom Brady 10 years to win another Super Bowl since the days of their balanced Corey Dillon approach. I believe last year's Super Bowl would have been one-sided if not for the Seahawks losing their best pass rusher to injury by the third quarter, and 80% of their top 5 defensive backs either out of the game with injury or needing surgeries after the game. Despite all of that, only the worst play call in football history prevented the Patriots from losing that game.

Rex Ryan said it best about his philosophy of ground and pound when he said that unless you have Brady or Peyton Manning, that's the way to win championships. I only half agree. I'll swap out Manning for Aaron Rodgers at this point. I believe without balance, the defenses of the Patriots and Packers have been compromised and it makes winning the Super Bowl extremely difficult for those quarterbacks as well.

I look at a "healthy" Steelers offensive potential as a mix between the 1998 Denver Broncos and '98 Minnesota Vikings. Both of those teams averaged over 30 points per game that season. The '98 Broncos averaged over 30 PPG running that ball slightly more than passing it. The Steelers have what I believe to be one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the history of the game. Martavis Bryant is the closest thing I've seen to Randy Moss since Randy Moss. Bryant's ability to stretch the field should leave plenty of room for run after the catch opportunities for the shifty Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. Designed delayed screens to Le'Veon Bell should create big plays on the side of the field Bryant stretches much like when Moss stretched the field for Robert Smith screens. I also see Roethlisberger getting back to and even exceeding the 8.9 YPA he averaged his first two years in the league.

There are about 1000 plays per team a season. That's about 64 plays per game. I think Ben would average about 290 passing yards per game with the full offense in tact with 32 passes a game. I also believe his touchdown passes would increase and interceptions and fumbles would likely drop. So this isn't a call to old school 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football. It's simply understanding the physicality that's required to prepare for January football against tough physical opponents while also maximizing the strengths of the talent on offense. Only then can I see this team averaging over 30 per game. When I see this team waste plays like the line-of-scrimmage pass to Will Johnson and another to Brown on 2nd-and-8 that goes nowhere and leads to a punt in the second possession of the Steelers preseason game against the Packers, it just tells me this coaching staff is dead set on calling plays that will continue to have this team underachieving and averaging closer to 23 points instead.

Look at the preseason. All of the big plays by Michael Vick and Landry Jones to Bryant and Sammie Coates were done under center. It's simple really. Less defensive backs equals more space down the field. The spread invited 5 or 6 defensive backs on the field while decreasing protection. So the quarterback is forced to get rid of the ball quickly. Not horrible if you can consistently make the quick read like Tom Brady. Doing it with a quarterback who's instinct is to hold the ball for bigger plays makes for a roller coaster offense. There's a big difference in consistency between the Patriots system of completing the balls 5-7 yards downfield and the drive killing zero yard gains that too often stall with the overused line-of-scrimmage passes in Haley's system.

Fan and media focus will be on the highly suspect defense. But regardless of coverage scheme or alignment, the defense's preparation is reliant upon what they line up against in practice. A friend of mine texted me an article he recently read about Kevin Colbert not admitting to his draft mistakes. My response to that friend was that Colbert seemed to have a lot more draft success when Bill Cowher was developing that talent with a clear philosophy and direction on what was necessary to win championships. We saw a good number of occasions in which Cowher's players moved on to other teams and they drastically underachieved.

Don't mistake the mention of Cowher as an inference to getting back to that exact brand of play. But sometimes I think the linebacker who probably had to make tackles in the cold at the end of a game down 10-14 points while fighting through the aches and pains associated with playing football understood the importance of running the ball more than the ex-college wide receiver and a golfer.

Other teams in the league are reverting back to a more balanced approach this season. The New Orleans Saints are one of those teams; the Denver Broncos another. I will be interested to watch their commitment, success, or lack thereof.

The Dallas Cowboys made the commitment I have been starving to see the Steelers make for quite some time now. Not surprisingly, their defense which was projected to be the worst in the NFL overachieved last season. They finished second in the NFL in both red-zone offense and third-down conversion percentage. Dallas used to have the reputation for being able to move the ball but settling for field goals when Jason Garrett was overly reliant on the pass. The Cowboys, for example, finished 20th or worse in red-zone offense in both 2011-12. I look at these recent Steelers offenses just like I did those underachieving Cowboys teams.

The signs of lack of physical identity are obvious. Markus Wheaton getting drafted over the run-stuffing Brandon Williams; the drafting of Coates and his suspect hands. But no 3rd round pick illustrates the point than the drafting of 170-pound Dri Archer. It's not surprising the Steelers are struggling to find depth along both the offensive and defensive lines. It's also not surprising I don't hear iron sharpens iron, impose your will, and win by attrition from the head coach anymore.

So this will be the last time I talk about this numbers-producing regular-season built offense this year. I mentioned it several times last season. Before we entered this season, I thought I'd give the readers the full understanding of why I believe in the balanced, under-center approach. This is the first time I can ever remember in my life that I'm not looking forward to watching Steelers football. I will still provide post- game commentary, but it will be more on individual player performances. I plan to provide a couple quick statistics in each game to show how this offense continues to stop themselves. More importantly, I believe this offense no longer adequately prepares the defense. With loss of championship identity comes loss of the ability to win championships.


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