Apologies in advance, but this week’s Steelers Hangover is rated NC-17.
Pardon us, but after watching the Steelers lose 17-14 in Chicago, Pulling No Punches has its mind in the gutter…because the Steelers’ backfield looked a bit naked and exposed.
One loss and suddenly every talk radio caller is wondering where their beloved hard-nosed, bare-knuckle, Smash Mouth Football has gone. Most of the consternation is aimed in the direction of Willie Parker, who, in the first two games, has pranced and danced apprehensively behind his blockers like Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance.
Hit the hole, Willie.
But anxious Steelers fans need to see the forest from the trees. Let’s not look at what is there (Parker and his backfield buddies), but rather what’s missing.
In 2007, newly arrived coach Mike Tomlin brought a fresh perspective to the Steel City. Most of his changes helped to modernize an offensive philosophy that was stuck in the Cold War era, but bringing over the “single back” offense from his former employer, the Minnesota Vikings, Tomlin tossed out the staple of Pittsburgh Smash Mouth Football – the fullback.
Remember the fullback? Squat, stocky, built like a weeble wobble. From Rocky Bleier to Merrill Hoge to Dan Kreider, the Steelers had always employed an obstinate, ill-humored fullback, or “blocking back,” since the 1970s glory days. That all changed when Tomlin brought offensive coordinator Bruce Arians into the fold. Arians hates fullbacks like I hate parking in the South Side.
Duquesne University needs to start offering a class called Park Like a Human Being 101
In principle, the move was made to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger an additional downfield receiving threat by swapping out a slow, fumble-fingered fullback for a more versatile tight end or wide receiver.
But you can’t smash mouths without a proper battering ram, and since the fullback was phased out in 2007, the Steelers’ ground game has lost its consistency – its oomph, especially in crucial short yardage situations.
This is what you look like when the Steelers have a 3rd and short.
Proponents of the single back offense argue that the extra tight end on the line of scrimmage aids pass protection and guards Roethlisberger’s ever-vulnerable blind side. However, the statistics from last season show an insignificant increase in protection.
Roethlisberger was sacked only two more times out of single tight end sets (15) than double tight end sets (13). In fact, his completion percentage was better in 2008 out of single tight end formations compared to double tight end formations: 61% versus 56%. His yards per pass average was also slightly better with only one tight end.
More importantly, by playing without a blocking back to catch the leaks that seep through the offensive line, not to mention open up holes that aren’t there initially (like Kreider used to), the Steelers have been flaccid and predictable when they need just another yard or two to extend drives.
Forget a yellow pill, the best medicine for the Steelers’ impotence on third and short is to bring out the fullback in key situations.
Sunday’s loss to the Bears is a prime example. The game turned not on kicker Jeff Reed’s two field goal misses, but on failed third down conversions in crunch time. While the Steelers had to respect the Bears’ running game on third down, Chicago was able to sick the dogs on Roethlisberger without worrying about a quick handoff burning them up the middle.
Two third downs failures came back to haunt the Steelers.
The first missed opportunity came early in the second half on a 3rd and short near midfield. With just a single yard to gain, Roethlisberger lined up in the Shotgun like he was playing touch football in Lawrenceville. Shockingly, he was sacked, which ended a nice drive and let the Bears hang around a little too long, like an annoying friend.
Hey dude, mind if I crash on your couch until I decide whether I want to play Frisbee or kick around a beach ball? Oh, and I ate some of your chips. Hope it’s cool.
Yet again, on the Steelers’ last possession of the game, Arians wasn’t confident that his running game could get him six feet – enough to salt away the game and get Reed some much needed cushion on a wet, muddy field. Pick up a few steps, and it’s game over.
But on 3rd and 2 from the Chicago 25, Roethlisberger again dropped back to pass, failing to connect downfield with Santonio Holmes, leading to Reed’s missed 43-yarder and an all-inclusive trip to the Heartbreak Hotel.
In 2008, the Steelers made something out of nothing time and time again. They were Copperfield. But in 2009, they’re Criss Angel. The illusion of Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust, Pittsburgh Steeler Football with a capital F, is waning.
In order to win close games, the Steelers don’t necessarily need to grind out every third down between the tackles, but they need to make their opponents at least think they can. Right now, no defense in the NFL is buying a Steelers play-action fake on third and short. Pittsburgh’s blue collar football identity has gone the way of the fullback, and well, the blue collar itself. It’s becoming extinct. Even for an incredibly deep and talented team like the Steelers, that is a legitimate concern.
Mark it down: rookie fullback Frank “The Tank” Summers will see more of the field in the coming weeks, and the Steelers will have more success on the ground.
Let me hear you, Pittsburgh: “Frank the Tank! Frank the Tank!”