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The offense and the Steelers’ draft (part 1)

April 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 12, 2009
By Donald Starver

Special thanks to reader Keith, who suggested that I follow up the series “The 3-4 and the Steelers draft” with a similar series on the Steelers’ offense.  I don’t know if I will have enough time to finish this series before the draft, but I am going to give it a try.

I almost called this series “Arians’ offense and the Steelers’ draft”.  But after thinking about it, I realized that I couldn’t write a series with that title.  Using that title would imply that I actually understand Bruce Arians’ offense.  But the truth is that I don’t.

I’ve watched Bruce Arians’ work as Steelers 0ffensive coordinator for 2 years now, and I still am not quite sure what he is trying to do.  His offense is definitely not a traditional Steelers power running game.    The Steelers have struggled to get the tough yards, particularly on the ground.  The Steelers ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards, so I’m not sure if they have much of a rushing attack, “power” or otherwise.

The Steelers’ don’t run a power passing attack.  Ben Roethlisberger ranked 14th in the league in passing yards, and had almost 2,000 fewer passing yards than league leader Drew Brees. 

They don’t run a classic West Coast offense.  In fact, I struggle to place Bruce Arians’ offense into any particular category.  The most accurate description that I can give it is probably the “gain as few yards as possible and then depend of the defense” offense.

To be fair, Bruce Arians’ offense did win the Super Bowl, so I guess I have no right to question him.  But still……

With that in mind, I plan to look at the offensive positions generically, rather than specifically in the context of the Steelers’ offense (since I don’t understand it).  I hope the readers won’t mind that approach.

I’ll start with the area of greatest need on the Steelers offense, the offensive line.  Specifically, I will start with the most important position on the offensive line; the offensive tackle.

To illustrate just how important offensive tackles are, we need look no further than the 2008 draft.  The first overall pick in 2008 was an offensive tackle, Jake Long.  In addition to Long, 7 other offensive tackles were taken in the first round; more than any other position.  Contrarily, no centers or guards were taken in the first round, nor were there any wide receivers selected.

Offensive tackles are usually the biggest linemen on the team.  They are also typically the most athletic.  Left tackles are valued more highly than right tackles, since most quarterbacks are right-handed, and many of the top pass rushers in the league (e.g. DeMarcus Ware, Joey Porter, James Harrison, etc.) play on the right side of the defense.  The left tackle must protect the quarterback’s blind side. 

Because of the greater importance of the position, left tackles are typically drafted earlier than right tackles, and they are paid significantly more.

Left tackles must have the speed and agility to handle speed rushers coming off the edge.  They must also have the strength and base to anchor against bull rushers. 

Contrarily, the right tackle doesn’t need to be quite as fast as the left tackle.  Instead, right tackles must have tremendous leg strength to get an effective push in the running game.  They need to be an “earth mover” who can successfully push back their defensive opponent.  Most running backs are right handed and prefer to run to the right side, so having a mauler in front of them is important to the success of the running game.

Long arms are considered a highly desirable trait for an offensive tackle.  This allows them to extend into defenders.  Extension is important for two reasons.  First, it allows them to get their hands on the defender from farther away, thus controlling the defender and preventing them from gaining momentum.  Secondly, long arms allow the offensive tackle to protect a wider area.  So an offensive tackle with short arms is going to be down-graded by scouts, regardless of how massive he may be.

Looking at this year’s draft class, there are a number of good offensive tackles available.  Most projection have at least 4 offensive tackles being taken in the first round.

Offensive Tackles:

Eugene Monroe (6’5″, 311 lbs.), Virginia.  Monroe is equally adept at run blocking and pass protection.  He uses excellent technique, and is extremely consistent.

Andre Smith (6’5″, 340 lbs.), Alabama.  A hugely talented player with great size.  In college, he was always a man among boys, so he didn’t develop great technique.  He will have to do so at the next level.  Smith’s decision making and mental attitude have raised some questions.

Jason Smith (6’4″, 305 lbs.), Baylor.  A converted tight end who probably won’t be ready to start on day one.  However, he has great athleticism, and should prove to be a good investment for a team that is willing to put in the development time.

Michael Oher (6’5″, 309 lbs.), Mississippi.  Probably the biggest risk among the top-rated offensive tackle.  He had 3 different position coaches in 4 years, and will need coaching at the next level.  He won the Outland Trophy in 2008.

Eben Britton (6’6″, 310 lbs.), Arizona.  Not a great athlete, and he can be beaten by edge rushers.  However, he is a scrappy player who has good size and solid technique.  He will get the job done, although he may not look good doing so. 

William Beatty (6’6″, 291 lbs.), Connecticut.  Outstanding athlete who has questionable toughness.  Doesn’t play with passion.  Didn’t play against the best talent.  May be taken in the first round, but it will be more due to potential than to actual performance. 

The Steelers’ can use an upgrade on both sides of the offensive line.  Willie Colon, in particular may be vulnerable to rookie competition.  He has the longest tenure at his position on the Steelers starting offensive line, yet he continues to fail to impress.  Max Starks played surprisingly well last year, but the Steelers still don’t seem to be convinced that he is their long-term solution at left tackle.

Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, and Jason Smith will be long gone before the Steelers make their first pick.  However, it is likely that Eben Britton and/or William Beatty will be available when the Steelers select at #32.

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8 Comments to “The offense and the Steelers’ draft (part 1)”

  1. Could the substandard performance of Arians’s offense be due to the substandard performance of the O-Line in general? Ben holds the ball a lot, yes, but he also gets pressure very early after the snap and sometimes gets hit before finishing his drop-back. Fast Willie gets slammed at the line of scrimmage quite often too.

    In SB42, we all saw how average Brady and the powerful Patriot Offense looked, when the Giant D was blowing right through the Patriot O-Line. That’s been Ben’s and Arians’s problem for the past 2 years (make that 3 for Ben).

    Can you imagine if Ben had protection on the level of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady (other than SB42)?

  2. Mark,
    I can’t disagree that the Steelers’ O-line needs work. They definitely do. The problem that I have with Arians’ offense is more in trying to fully grasp what he is trying to do.

    He seems to place little value on the fullback position, and chooses to use a tight end as his primary fullback. He has a fetish for tight ends, and can’t seem to have enough of those (even though he seldom throws to his tight end). He continues to support Willie Colon as a starting right tackle, even though everyone can see that he doesn’t excel at that position. And finally, he allows Ben to hold the ball waaaaaayyyyy too long. Sure, Ben occasionally makes a great play. But he seems to get sacked far more often.

    Holding the ball too long would be a problem with a good o-line. With a bad o-line, it is a prescription for death.

  3. Let me start by saying “Man, I hate the Steelers”

    Good, thats out of the way. Nice article and very informative. However, I think after watching to much of Ben shredding our team that if you give Ben too much time he is not as good of a QB.

    Ben usually makes his best plays when the pocket breaks down and he is on the move. I am not suggesting that you forget the line and let Ben get blasted all day long. But, I do wonder if he would be as good of a Qb with strong O Line protection.

  4. Don & Mark:
    The point regarding Arians’ offense is a good one. It is incredible when a Steeler offense can’t get 1 yard for a first down or a touchdown - nothing is more infuriating. The question remains is it the ‘system’ or was Arians limited by the personnel he had on the O-line? (It still amazes/impresses/perplexes me that we won the Super Bowl with these ‘over-achievers!’) All that being said, it would seem of the tackles that are listed in your article, only Briton and/or Beatty have a chance to be there at #32. Hard to spend a #1 on either of those guys IMO.

  5. WhoDeyFans.
    Glad to see a Bengals fan here in Steelers Country. Thanks for the compliment on the article.

    I also wonder what type of quarterback Ben would be with a solid o-line. He does seem to be better when he’s outside of the pocket. If we tried to make him into a Peyton Manning-like pure pocket passer, would we be taking away his greatest weapon?

    It’s interesting to note that a Bengals fan observes some of the same things about Big Ben that I do.

  6. John,
    It absolutely drives me crazy when the Steelers can’t gain 1 yard on a third and one. Everytime that happens, I almost throw a potted plant through my television set (fortunately, I removed all of the potted plants from my home).

    I don’t know if the o-line is to blame, of if it is the running backs. But one thing is for certain; the Steelers don’t excel in short yardage situations.

    Lastly, I agree with you that Beatty and Britton are not worth a first round pick.

  7. Here are some “Random Thoughts” on the Stiller offense:

    1) I don’t mind Bruce’s approach or his scheme. I think he does a reasonably good job of adjusting from week to week (not necessarily from 1H to 2H). I think the inability to fully comprehend it is a good thing because there are defensive coordinators around the league trying to determine if they should defend the run or the pass, and while Bruce has not dominated either area, he seems to get it done when necessary. Short yardage and goal line situations are still an issue. But that leads to my biggest problem with Bruce. (See #2). Overall I think we are witnessing an evolution. It is early in Ben and Bruce’s relationship. Where Wisenhunt owned everything and told Ben not to screw it up, Bruce wants to include Ben and give him more ownership. At times we see a clash between what Bruce sends in, and what Ben audibles to. That creates some of the conflicts in direction. But, as was mentioned, it works (so far). And kudos to Tomlin for not trying ot direct it as Ben and Bruce gel.

    2) Bruce’s play calling sucks. I-formation on 3 and short? Run. 3rd and long? Shotgun with a single back and throw. I could go on. He got a little better in the playoffs finally going play-action pass on the goaline at one point. (I’ll be brief here but I could share past articles to backup up my claims). But Bruce is very predictable in some situations and to me, that in addition to the injuries in the backfield are the biggest issues in the running game.

    3) But Bruce has made the most of what he has to work with. When Mend and Fast-Willie went down, Bruce showed faith in Moore who stepped in admirably. When Heath went down Bruce went to Spaeth who did very well. And Big Ben is Big Ben. He is not gonna change. He holds the ball. So be it. The OLine understands and the fans need to accept it. The sacks are going to come and the line is gonna catch some hell in the press. But when Ben connects on 3rd and long after running around like a chicken with his head cut off, leading to a game winning drive, no one should care.

    4) I love big and slow Max Starks. Hey, he starts, we win a Super Bowl. Well, it is not that simple, but the transition to from right to left is not an easy one and I think Max has done well. We overcomes what he lacks in speed with decent technique and I think he has room to grow. (I’d still rather seem him on the right side drive blocking.) Colon sucks and should be replaced immediately. Kemoeatu is all upside. Stapleton stepped in and was fantastic. My grandmother would have been an improvement over Mahan (another kudos to Tomlin for recognizing his mistake and bringing in Hartwig who also learned quickly and did well overall). So I think the line goes into this year more confident, more experienced, and with a chance to really gel. Depth is a potential issue now that Marvell and Simmons are gone so I agree this is a draft area. But I am confident that the current crew (accept for Colon) with healthy running backs, can get it done.

    Good work Donald. I hope to have time to read more and share more of my “Random Thoughts”

  8. Bob,
    Great thoughts!!! I enjoyed reading them. Please feel free to stop by anytime to discuss the Stillers.

    A couple or responses to your thoughts:

    1) I am not as confident in Arians’ adjustments as you are. I just see the offense struggling from week-to-week, and they don’t seem to get any better. I know that injuries and new players on the o-line contributed, but I still don’t see brilliant scheming from week to week. I don’t even want to discuss his adjustments (or lack thereof) from first half to second half). Do you remember the Philadelphia Eagles game? Did you see any adjustments in the second half? Me neither.

    2) I agree 100%. Bruce is WAAAYYYY to predictable.

    3) Once again, I agree. Both Mewelde Moore and Matt Spaeth are very good football players. I’m glad Arians gave them an opportunity to step up and show what they had. I do wish Spaeth would try a little harder on his blocking, but that is a discussion for another time.

    As far as Ben goes, you are right. Ben is going to be Ben. We just have to live with it.

    4) I’m not as sold on Max Starks as you are, but I can live with him. I do wish he were playing RT instead of LT though. I don’t think Kemoeatu will ever realize his “potential” if he doesn’t stop making mental mistakes. Watching him false start is maddening. I commend Darnell Stapleton on a job well done, but I’d like to see him upgraded nevertheless. Colon needs to go to the bench. He is a backup. I don’t think I can stand to see him start one more season at RT. If I ever commit suicide, it will probably be due to watching Willie Colon false start, hold, and get beat by every pass rusher who lines up against him.


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