Wexell: Bruce Arians must protect this house

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-3 but facing an uncertain future because of its soft running game.

In the wildly entertaining new book Steeler Nation, Bruce Arians took the time to explain how former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl with the youngest quarterback ever to do so.

"The thing Kenny did well," Arians said, "he simplified things for the young quarterback, but he made it look complicated. To do that, he had to put a lot on the offensive line, with the calls and all, and to tell you the truth, that's when we'd run into problems at times getting everyone on the same page."

That was then. And this is now:

Arians, the offensive coordinator, has simplified things for the young offensive line. To do that, he had to put a lot on the quarterback, with the calls and all, and to tell you the truth, they're running into problems getting everyone on the same page.

Those, of course, are my words. While Arians is a good man, he's putting too much on Ben Roethlisberger, and not just with Roethlisberger's input into game plans, his check-offs at the line, or the playcalling load that's all Roethlisberger's while he's running the no-huddle offense.

Arians, whether he realizes it or not, put the entire load on Roethlisberger's shoulders a few years ago when he came in and effectively eradicated the fullback – a real fullback – from the Steelers' offense.

Not that one player makes that much of a difference, but it signaled a philosophical shift that's just now resonating in the Steelers' front office.

Yes, the Steelers are 26th in the NFL in offense, but that doesn't matter to the hierarchy. They've been there before. The problem instead is this: Their $102 million investment is playing hurt and is threatened with further injury every time he drops back to pass.

Sure, the front office must share the blame for the young and shaky offensive line that's putting Roethlisberger at risk. But the offensive coordinator doesn't need to call 41 pass plays behind that offensive line in a game in which his team is tied or leading all the way up until the final 3:04.

The infamous third-and-2 call just before the half with a 10-point lead? The one that was intercepted? Run the thing. Seriously. Run the thing, and, pass or fail, let your defense do its job. The defense, after all, is the most fearsome in the league. It's the best defense the city of Pittsburgh has seen in 30 years. Lean on it. Run the ball.

"But when you get paid that kind of contract, your plate's going to have a lot of food on it," said Hines Ward. "The expectation level's going to change."

Oh, really? The Steelers paid Max Starks $7 million and put him on the bench. His plate had no food on it, so it's absurd to believe that Roethlisberger's role must change just because he's in a new tax bracket.

Roethlisberger came out of college a big, strong-armed quarterback who's forte was dropping back five or seven steps out of play action and scrambling long enough for a receiver to come open deep. This worked for him in Pittsburgh when he had a running game good enough to force defenses to respect the play-action. But the running game is gone now. Willie Parker may revive it a bit this week, but not enough for defenses to fear it, because the attitude is gone; it went the way of the fullback.

The big and rugged offensive line is not athletic enough to pass block 40 times a game, but it could grow some wings under a playcaller who's patient enough to let their road-grading skills develop. And if they never develop into the run blockers their size and shape say they should, the Steelers still have that wonderful defense to fall back upon, not to mention a quarterback who'll still be standing.

It's imperative that Arians understand this because the front office is watching its investment closely. Chuck Noll was once forced to fire assistant coaches, and he had four rings. Mike Tomlin's certainly not in Noll's position. Tomlin realizes what a soft offense, a soft identity, heck, a crippled quarterback, would do to his job security. So should Bruce Arians.

(Jim Wexell's new book, Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon, is available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.)


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