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.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I have said it over and over, it is about the pass/run ratio, it is about what you do with it.

    I still think the phrase that got him canned/not resigned was that he only runs the ball so he can throw it deep. It is one thing to believe it, it is another to prove it by the way you call a game.

    You watch GB, NO, and NE offenses, they design their offense to work…period. They take the short stuff, the long stuff, and the in-between stuff. They mix in the run with the pass and they use whatever weapons they have…all of them. Each of these offenses had a TD scoring percentage over 59%….we were at 50.91, good enough for 18th in the league.

    Arians called a great game against NE earlier this year, and then we never saw it again.

    Do I think we will run more? No, but I do think we will run more when up 14 in the 4th quarter. We won’t “stay aggressive” rather we will take the air out of the ball only passing when needed and shorten the game. Do I think we need to run the ball more? No, but we need to run in such a way that the D respects the play action.

  • Johnnysins

    we dont need to run or throw more we just need to be much more creative

  • The Steelers do need to feature the run game more. The Texans and 49’ers are two teams that are built under the old Steelers model, by playing stout defense and featuring the run game. If either of these teams had Ben Roethlisberger at QB, they would absolutely be playing in the Super Bowl, and would be the favorite to win.

  • RonW

    With Arians, it was more of a qualitative observation by fans (like myself) that led to his demise. What we really didn’t like wasn’t the run/pass ratio – it was the play calling at pivotal times of the game. The Browns game a couple years back is exhibit A: with the game on the line and on 3rd and 1, Arians has Ben drop back in the shotgun and actually throw the ball (for an incompletion, of course). This was in the rain, at night, on the road. There are really a number of other examples that we can point to, but my patience for listing such things is thin given that he’s not coming back.

    What we’d all like to see is running out of one TE, one FB sets. It’d be interesting to see the YPC statistics when we run out of shotgun vs. two TE vs. one FB sets. My guess is that there aren’t really enough plays with a FB to make an accurate comparison. I’d also like to see how we ran the ball vs. playoff teams (or even teams with winning records/top 10 defenses) and the run/pass ratio in those games. I think those statistics are more telling. I also think a more physical running game (i.e. more running between the tackles) is something we’d all like to see as well (I honestly can’t stand when they run that delayed draw out of the shotgun).

    Hopefully, the new offensive coordinator utilizes our weapons in the passing game as effectively as Arians did – I just hope he’s smart enough to call the right plays at the right time. I know this is totally subjective and qualitative, but it needed to be mentioned here because Steelers fans aren’t clueless when it comes to football – we know what the statistics tell us, but we know what our gut tells us as well, and that’s that this guy couldn’t call a great game with any consistency whatsoever.

  • Steelers4ever

    I would like to see the brusing running back back in Pittsburgh, right now they are a finesse running team. Why did they give up the gadget plays that also used to keep defenses guessing. How many huge plays did Cowher put away with gadget plays. Tomlin is a little too conservative on offense. Running more is not the answer running better and not being a predictable offense can also help the offense

  • PA2AK

    Creativity, run/pass ratio, time of possession, bla bla bla. I think Dave has it right. Doesn’t matter what you do. Utilize the team correctly (strength and weaknesses), game plan, make good situational calls…at the end of the day…that’s what converts on 3rd downs and in the redzone. THAT’s what the Steelers offense needs. 3 points is cute, but it won’t put teams away.

  • Shaver

    Thoughts on Greg Knapp? He’s proven his running game is better than decent in Oakland, Atlanta, and San Fran. He also can feature the tight end within the offense. Also, he likes to carry a fullback.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    You make a good point about the playcalling. I would like someone to name me the team this year that actually believed we were going to run the ball on play action. There is more than one way to throw the ball. You don’t have to be in the shotgun every play with an empty backfield. You can throw and throw deep just like Arians wanted to do out of every formation and do it effectively, but you can’t do it with 5 guys all running fly patterns, no pocket to throw from, and no extra help left in to block.

    One last complaint and then I think I will move on from BA. Every team knew we had a poor Oline, but we never saw any designed roll outs. I am glad the guy is gone, I thought he sucked.

  • Smittyflash24

    mind you!….sports writers…rooney made the right choose in allowing B.A. to walk,but in todays N.F.L. you must score and try to balance your defense as so…but running the ball is great if you have a great defense,that not being the case in pittsburgh…..my wish was hoping that Dick LaBeau would walk…and walk fast! we need to get younger and faster(period) there’s no point in trying to bring back or fit under the cap…players like..HOKE,HAMPTON,SMITH,FARRIOR,FOOTE,KEMO,STARKS,GAY…THESE PLAYERS HAVE SERVED THERE TIME WELL,PLEASE MOVE ON….reconstructed contracts…wow!where do we start….harrison,timmons,ward,kriesel…and yes even you troy,all these players need to take one for the team! ben will be 30yrs of age…..the time is now to re-load and fast!

  • RonW

    Absolutely – your mention of the poor route designs, particularly on downs with 5 or less yards to go, is not to be missed. This was something that not only stalled drives, but contributed greatly to the sacks that Ben took. At the same time, Ben’s development as a QB has suffered as a result because his first progression has so often been the deep ball.

    I also completely agree with your point about fooling teams on play action. Some might point to the fact that, later in the season, Ben was hampered and couldn’t move around as well, but this has been a persistent problem over the last 5 years. We really do need to run to set up the pass – not the other way around. In fact, this is what makes Peyton so effective (and what made Elway, Ben’s idol, so great); Peyton (and Elway) ran single back sets (though I’d still prefer a fullback) and ran the play action masterfully.

    Nicely said – it puts my mind at ease that he’s gone now.

  • Dave

    Has there ever been an OC that Steelers fans didn’t criticize for his playcalling? I can remember as far back as Ron Earhart getting ripped on talk radio after the 1994 AFC Championship game loss to the Chargers…Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Gilbride, Mularkey, Whiz….(probably forgetting some in there) all had their turn.

    I’m not necessarily defending BA here, but I would bet my house I could come to a Steelers message board 10 years from now and people will be complaining about the playcalling of whoever is the OC…..it’s as predictable as death and taxes.

    I do agree with the orginal point of the article above – I think it would be a huge mistake to try to go back to a “smashmouth” offense in this modern era, especially while we still have Big Ben, and the “young money” WRs, and I really can’t see the Rooneys being that dumb…