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If Blue-collar Identity Means Running More, I Am Not Buying It

The recent report by ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen suggest that Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II did not retain offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for 2012 because Rooney wants the team to shift the offense back toward its blue-collar identity of years past. Well, what exactly does he mean by blue-collar identity? That could mean several things, run more, work ethic, etc. I know what Mortensen is likely implying here and of course the media and fan base will jump right to the idea of running more as he hints in his report.

First, there remains a ton of speculation to the real reason why Arians will not be back next year. We have heard everything from Arians was just not well liked in the organization to Arians himself just wanting to retire, to this current rumor about Rooney wanting to change the style of the offense. The answer lies somewhere within that range of course, but to believe 100% any of the reasons thrown out there by both the local or national media at this point is just foolish. In reality only Rooney, Arians and head coach Mike Tomlin know the real story and in typical Steeler fashion Rooney and Tomlin will remain tight lipped. Will Arians talk about it soon? Who knows. The only thing we now is truth right now is that Arians will not return.

ETA: Arians side of the story just came out minutes after this post was published.

The above can be debated for weeks, but let us look at the notion, if indeed it is true, that Rooney does want to move back to an “old school”, “blue-collar” type of offense defined by running more. The Steelers ran the football 43% of the time in 2011 and that is based on total number of runs versus total number of drop backs. The drop backs include sacks and passing attempts and allows scrambles to be counted as runs, which there were not enough of those to really sway the percentages. The league average when using the same basis of stat criteria was 43%.

The Steelers running game produced a 4.4 yards per attempt which ranked the Steelers 4th best out of the teams that made the playoffs with only the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans finishing with a better yards per attempt number. Now those are raw stats, which are nowhere close to telling the same story as DVOA, which ranks the Steelers rushing offense 7th this past season. If you are not up on DVOA, you should rectify that. The Steelers were not the best running team in the league no matter how you look at statically, but they were not bad either. Could they run the ball better? Every team can run the ball better and that goes without saying.

What about running on first down? To hear most talk, all the Steelers did was throw on first down, but the facts and stats show that they ran 55% on first down and gained 4.61 yards per carry doing it, which was 7th best in the league. The league average on first down was 50.4%, and there were only 9 teams that ran more on first down percentage wise. As a comparison, the New England Patriots ran 45% of the time on first down and the New York Giants ran 43.5% on first down and I need not tell you that both will be playing in the Super Bowl.

What about red zone running balance? The Steelers ran 50.8% of the time inside the red zone, good for 11th most in the league. The 2.8 yards per carry was also 11th best in the league. It should be noted that down & distance play a big role in those stats as a rush from the 2 yard line can only net you 2 yards rushing. Just pointing out the raw stats flaws for you. For comparison though, the Green Bay Packers ran it just 38% of the time in the red zone and also had a 2.8 yards per carry. The Patriots ran it 48% of the time inside the red zone for a 3.0 yards per carry average.

What about time of possession? The Steelers average time of possession last season was 32:33, good for second best in the league. They finished behind only the Texans who ran 52% of the time. The Broncos led the league of course with 52% runs using the criteria I mentioned previously. Looking back at 2010 the Steelers average time of possession was 31:53, fifth best in the league and in 2009 it was 32:13, good for 4th best in the league. They finished no worse than 6th in time of possession since Arians took over as offensive coordinator. So basically the need to possess the football longer is not a huge need as they have possessed it fine underneath Arians.

The problem with the offense was not the amount of running versus passing, it was the scoring. Hurray for the obvious! The Steelers scored 27 touchdowns on 53 trips inside the red zone in 2011 for a 50.94% red zone percentage. For comparison sakes, the Giants had a 57.14% red zone percentage and the Patriots had a 65.28% percentage on 72 trips. The goal to go scoring percentage for the Steelers was 63.33% on 30 trips, while the Patriots put up a 75.61% rate and the Giants put up a 71.88% conversion percentage.

Let\’s now throw the entire stats listed above out and shift focus instead to the obvious offensive coordinator candidates now like Randy Fichtner, Tom Clements and Jim Caldwell. Clements is even a stretch to have on this list now as most signs point to the Packers promoting him to their open offensive coordinator position. All three of these coaches are spread offense type of offensive coordinators. Would it make sense to hire any of these three and force them to run a “heavy run” based offense, or at least a more run based one that Arians ran? I don\’t think so. Could there be a dark horse candidate? Absolutely, but the reality is that this is a passing league now and a league that you must put points up in. Lots of them.

When you look at the young talent the Steelers have at wide receiver with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and throw in tight ends Heath Miller and Weslye Saunders for good measure, why would you run more? The answer is you wouldn\’t. Run better perhaps, but a healthy and bit more talented offensive line than the one the Steelers fielded last season certainly is a must for that to happen. The Steelers squeezed every bit of juice they could out of the offensive lines the past few seasons and who can forget all of those injuries and line juggling? Not excuses mind you, just facts.

In closing, the Rooney family is a smart football family and they know that this is a passing league now. I would be totally shocked if the offense is switched to a run heavy offense of yesteryear as the report by Mortensen would have you believe. I am not buying it. The Steelers next offensive coordinator simply needs to fix the red zone and scoring problems along with “tweaking” the play and decision making of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ever so slightly. No huge overhaul is needed. Rooney knows this.

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