The 2007 season was Mike Tomlin’s first as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was also the first time in years that the offensive line was a glaring weakness as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times (second in the NFL to only the 51 times Jon Kitna was sacked) and knocked on his ass countless more. The image of him running for his life every week and on seemingly every drop back had Steelers fans screaming for offensive line help in the following draft.
After watching eight offensive tackles disappear before their pick, the Steelers went in the complete opposite direction at No. 23, shunning the opportunity to pick for need (offensive line) and grabbed a skill position player — running back Rashard Mendenhall — that wasn’t expected to be available with their pick. In the second round they again went away from the offensive line and took another skill player, wide receiver Limas Sweed.
The offensive line remained in shambles and Roethlisberger would spend the following season playing behind a unit that included Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, and Willie Colon.
How did the Steelers justify the pick?
“There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback,” Tomlin told the media following the selection of Mendenhall. “You can get linemen, or you can get him weapons – people that people have to account for. Obviously with this pick, we’ve gotten a weapon. So what he is able to do on a football field will help our quarterback and our football team.”
If you look back at the past decade of Steelers football, the team won Super Bowls with both types of rosters.
The 2005 team was thin on skill position players, particularly at wide receiver, but had a dominating offensive line led by Marvell Smith, future Hall of Famer Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, and Max Starks at right tackle. They gave Roethlisberger enough time while receivers found holes in the defense and were able to create enough creases in the defense to allow Willie Parker to break off some big runs.
Over the next couple of years that line would start to break apart. Smith’s career was pretty much derailed by injuries, shifting Starks over to the left side of the line. Faneca left as a free agent following the 2007 season. Hartings retired.
It was around that time that the Steelers — and the rest of the NFL — started to radically drift toward the pass.
In terms of “protection” the Steelers didn’t exactly succeed as Roethlisberger was once again a sitting duck for opposing defenses in 2008 and the years that followed. The team was however able to win a lot of football games with a bad offensive line and have an offense that was at least somewhat respectable. They were never the 1999 St. Louis Rams or 1980s San Francisco 49ers, but they were good enough.
The Steelers no longer had a good offensive line, but they had wide receivers and running backs that could make big plays and were always a threat to score on any given snap, no matter where they were on the field. Backs like Parker and Mendenhall. Receivers like Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington, and Mike Wallace. Heath Miller at tight end was in the prime of his career and not coming off a major knee injury like he is this season.
They won 12 games three times over a four-year stretch and won their sixth Super Bowl (and went to another that they were one drive away from winning) with an offensive line that was more often than not lousy because they had the capability to hit a 60-yard play at any moment. They weren’t going to grind out 15-play, 80-yard drives, and they had more than their fair share of three-and-outs sprinkled in, but they could score at any moment or make the big play that could, at the very least, flip field position.
Let’s now fast forward to 2013 where the Steelers currently have the same bad offensive line they’ve had over the past six years (and, quite shockingly, it might even be worse) and no explosive skill position players.
The result is a team that is 2-5 after seven games, is 28th in points per game, and has scored more than one touchdown in a game just two times.
They don’t have the line to grind out long scoring drives and protect their quarterback (their drives tend to get near the red zone or actually in the end zone before fizzling out into a field goal attempt), and they don’t have the big play ability they had when guys like Holmes, Washington (an underrated downfield threat with the Steelers), and Wallace were lining up on the outside. And under Todd Haley, they don’t seem all that inclined to take the chances.
Is that due to the offensive game plan? The lack of talent? Or the combination of the two?
It’s not a stretch to say the Steelers are lacking a vertical passing threat in their offense. And no matter what you think of Mike Wallace right now, or how well he is or isn’t playing, or whether or not he’s worth the huge contract Miami gave him, you can’t deny that when he was in Pittsburgh and on top of his game he was a unique weapon and a huge part of the offense. Before him, it was guys like Holmes (a different type of player, but still capable of going 50 yards on any play) and Washington (probably a tier below the other two, but still dangerous down field). Whether any of those players would still be useful for the Steelers this season isn’t necessarily the point (because they probably wouldn’t be). The point is they had a certain type of player on their roster that could fulfill a certain type of role and help them win football games.
They lost those players, and to this point have not replaced them.
The best receiver on this team is Antonio Brown, and he’s having a fine season. He enters Sunday’s game at New England leading the league with 56 catches and is in the top-10 in yards. But while he’s racking up a ton of catches, there really isn’t much coming from those catches. Just two touchdowns, only 57 percent have turned into a first down, and 11.3 yards per catch ties him for 84th in the league with Charles Clay and Heath Miller.
That’s hardly a game-breaking presence. And if it’s not coming from him, it’s not coming from anybody because the other receivers on the team are either best suited to be a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver (Sanders, Cotchery) or can’t get on the field for one reason or another (Markus Wheaton).
The signature play of the Todd Haley offense is without question the bubble screen. They love that play and will run it until the wheels fall off no matter how successful or unsuccessful it is. Of Brown’s 56 catches this season 18 of them have come behind the line of scrimmage. Another 24 were without 10 yards of the line. Only 14 of his catches have been more than 10 yards downfield. And when those short passes are caught, that’s pretty much where they end. They’re basically long handoffs at this point. Brown’s average yards after catch per catch is 3.8, which ranks 86th out of the 120 players that have caught at least 20 passes this season. Sanders averages 3.9 yards after the catch per catch.
Again, how much of this is due to the offense, and how much of it is due to the player?
It’s probably a little of both.
They don’t have the offensive line to sustain any sort of running game or give their quarterback an opportunity to throw down field, and they don’t have the type of game breaking talent to make opposing defenses fear them downfield or make people miss and turn all of their short passes into long gains.
It’s a brutal combination.
You need at least one of those aspects to have an adequate NFL offense. And when the Steelers had one of them their offense was never among the NFL’s elite, but it was always better than this.
Todd Haley doesn’t appear to be the answer as offensive coordinator, and the Steelers would be wise to move in a different direction this offseason.
But the biggest problem with this team remains a lack of talent.