It's hard to make any pronouncements on the state of the Steelers after last night's Mud Bowl, no matter what Terrell Davis might have you believe. During the NFL Network's post-game coverage, he tried to make the case that Pittsburgh's offense could be in trouble after only scoring three points against the winless Dolphins. Apparently, playing a football game on a green waterbed shouldn't affect a teams' performance. By the way, you think the next time the Steelers decide to re-sod the field, somebody will actually check the Weather Channel before rolling out 2.5 acres of the new stuff? I understand the time constraints necessitated putting the new sod over the old sod, but I can't imagine a scenario where this could've worked out any worse than it did. When you send 22 fat guys onto a squishy, waterlogged, surface, physics suggests that said fat guys will sink, what with gravity and all that. Add an extra layer of sod, and that means more sinking. Let me say, there's nothing like watching twinkle toes Max Starks trying to plod his way around would-be pass rushers when he looks more like a statue than usual.
Actually, that was a joke; Starks played pretty well, all things considered. Head coach Mike Tomlin mentioned during the post-game press conference that Marvel Smith has been battling back trouble recently, and Starks has taken all the first-team snaps during Wednesday practices. He looked competent and confident against Jason Taylor, but I think, again, much of Starks' success had to do with the elements. Nothing slows down a guy who relies on speed and quickness like making him do it in four inches of water. Should've gone to the swim technique earlier. (Rim shot! Try the meat loaf, tip the waitresses … you know the routine.)
Despite the grounds crew bungling the install, maybe the Steelers have stumbled onto something: everybody agrees the offensive line is a humongous problem. Why not wet the field pregame to slow down opposing pass rushers? And when I say "wet the field" I really mean "dump four-to-six inches of water on the turf and see what happens." Muddy conditions are more a detriment to quick players than to the plodding dudes sent out there to block them. Sure, Starks looked slow last night, but he always looks slow. Taylor looked like he was trying to work the edge completely submersed in chocolate fondue. It's not a wholly insane idea, is it? I mean, baseball teams do it all the time. And it's a hell of a lot cheaper than paying the going rate for high-priced, qualified linemen. There are three issues with this, though: the Steelers are undefeated at home without the aid of swamp-like conditions; it would be impossible to implement this on the road (save some Bull Durham-inspired antics), particularly on FieldTurf; and it's just a Band-Aid masking a much bigger problem (and, yes, it's probably an insane idea too). Still, desperate times, people. Desperate times.
It's like beating a dead horse, I know, but this all goes back to the offensive line woes. If the Steelers had five guys who could hold blocks for four seconds each, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but there aren't many o-lines in the NFL that can claim such success. My problem isn't so much with the lines' inadequacies, however. It's that Arians is seemingly unwilling to adjust the scheme based on what his players are capable of. Or at least that's what I thought I thought after my first viewing of the PIT-MIA game.
Immediately following the game, I had no qualms with the run-pass breakdown -- in fact, I thought Willie Parker had one of his best games of the season, and Roethlisberger's numbers speak for themselves (18 of 21, 165 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT). But what I couldn't wrap my little brain around was this: why does Arians insist on calling for five- and seven-step drops in obvious blitzing situations, with no real pass blockers to speak of? Here's the thing: I don't know what I'm talking about. Shocking, yes, but after re-watching every offensive snap, the film tells a different story. Pittsburgh threw the ball 28 times, including penalties. Here's the breakdown:
Steps AvgYds Front Rush Sacks Freq(A little housecleaning: Steps = number of steps Ben Roethlisberger took when he dropped back to pass; AvgYds = average yard per play; Front = the number of down linemen the Dolphins had pre-snap; Rush = the number of rushers the Dolphins sent on the play; Sacks = sacks allowed (duh); and Freq = how many times Big Ben used an X-step drop.)
1 3.3 3.0 4.3 0 3
3 1.6 3.4 4.1 4 10
5 8.9 3.9 4.2 0 13
7 -0.5 4.0 5.0 0 2
A few thoughts: the one-step drops were slip screens or shovel passes. Also, it looks like Arians does, in fact, understand that the offensive line is a liability. Thirty-six percent of the time, Roethlisberger took a three-step drop, just once did he do it from under center. The Dolphins averaged only four pass rushers on those plays, and still registered four sacks. I know I've preached all season that sacks are more the responsibility of the quarterback than the five guys in front of him, but if four-man rushes routinely create pressure, there's not much you can do about it. Well, other than utilize shorter-step drops … which Arians did. (For the curious, if you take out the four sacks, Roethlisberger's average yard per attempt goes from 1.6 to 5.6 in the table above.)
Big Ben did take five-step drops 46 percent of the time, but didn't get sacked once. So what gives? On six of 13 attempts, the ball was out of Roethlisberger's hand when he planted his back foot on step No. 5. He was 6 for 6 on those plays, by the way. Three other times, Big Ben scrambled out of the pocket, going 2 of 3 (including the Peezy interception). There were two penalties, and one instance where Roethlisberger checked down to Willie Parker for an eight-yard gain.
It's easy to jump down Arians' throat for the play selection, but it looks like he's doing a great job of making chicken salad. Last week, he mentioned he wasn't a big fan of slants, and that still seems to be the case, but there were plenty of quick outs, quick posts and slip screens to equalize a pass rush and negate the lack of pass blockers.
This doesn't mean Arians is infallible -- I'm still trying to figure out why the Steelers kept throwing the ball once they were inside the Dolphins' 10 on the last drive -- but in the scheme of things Pittsburgh's offense performed well. Particularly if you could stomach watching the game again and paying attention to the details.
Final note to no one in particular: Daniel Sepulveda gets my game ball. In case there is still any confusion, this is why you use a fourth-round pick on a punter.