The Pittsburgh Steelers offense last season was one of the least explosive and most predictable units in the entire NFL. Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner was rightly relieved of his duties, but he wasn’t the only reason the offense sputtered at the end of the season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was clearly uncomfortable playing under-center and running play-action last season, which had negative ripple effects across the entire offense.
The first half of the season was mostly positive, with rookie receiver Chase Claypool showing out as an athletic playmaker and the rest of the receiver group playing well. As the season wore on, cracks began to form in the offense. An over emphasis on the quick passing game, a complete lack of rushing offense and a beaten and bruised offensive line led to the team’s 1-5 finish to the season.
Instead of looking outside of the organization, the Steelers chose to promote QB Coach Matt Canada to the role of OC. Considering the effectiveness of some of the wrinkles he added to the offense early last season (pre-snap motion, jet sweeps, etc.) and his track record with improving rushing offenses in college, the hire made a lot of sense.
The problem though, and Canada even said so himself, is that he wants to continue letting Ben have influence over the offensive gameplan. I would usually praise an offensive coach for including his QB in that regard, but not in Ben’s case. If Canada lets Ben have his way, we will only see more of the things that frustrated the fan base last season.
The question Canada needs to ask himself is simple: do you defer to what the franchise QB is comfortable with, or do you do what you think is best for the offense? To me the answer falls somewhere in the middle, but that balance will ultimately be what determines how good this offense can be.
I don’t expect Roethlisberger to want to compromise despite his positive comments about the new offense this season, but he has to realize that what we were doing last year isn’t going to cut it. Canada will need to be creative with how he tries to run more play-action and create big plays, and there are a few ways he can try to do so while still keeping Ben comfortable.
The pistol formation
Other outlets have talked about it as well, but increasing the usage of the pistol formation is the simplest solution to Ben’s concern about running play-action. If you aren’t familiar with the pistol offense, here is a quick example of how it works. Running the offense out of pistol will allow for more traditional running plays and will remove the need for Ben to play significant snaps under-center. It would also create play-action opportunities without Ben needing to turn his back to the defense for as long as he needs to when playing under-center, something he was concerned about last season. I still think Ben will need to get under-center occasionally, but limiting it is still the right move.
Run Najee, run.
As bad as the offensive line, Ben, the play-calling and the receivers hands looked last season, the Steeler’s rushing attack was the ugliest aspect of the offense. After rushing for over 100 yards in each of their first 5 games, they only reached that mark once over the next 12 weeks including the playoffs. Part of it was injuries to starting back James Conner, but it was more about lack of efficiency. Their team 3.6 yards per carry average was worst in the league, and they seemed to just give up on the run entirely late in the season.
Enter Najee Harris, the teams #1 pick and expected savior of Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. While I did like the pick, those who were critical of the move have a strong argument. With several impact offensive lineman available and question marks at nearly every spot, it would have made sense to improve the run game that way. However, Harris has the skill-set required to excel despite question marks across the line. His power, vision and surprising quickness should help him maximize whatever space he can get from the big guys, and he can split out wide and create better spacing for the passing game. Overall, Harris may be the key to extending Ben’s career and make Canada’s job much simpler. If he can be a legit threat as a runner in year one, it will open up so many more opportunities for the offense.
As frustrating as it was to watch him at times last season, I am glad Ben was able to make his contract situation work for the team so that he could return. I want to see if a new offensive philosophy can rejuvenate him and give him a chance to end his career on a high note. Matt Canada will be tasked with working with Ben to maximize what he has left in the tank, and I hope they both are able to work out a solution to the offensive woes of last season. All signs so far point to them being committed to doing just that, but only time will tell.