By Christina Rivers
When the Steelers announced that Todd Haley, considered volatile and at times hostile, was coming to Pittsburgh to be the new offensive coordinator there was concern throughout Steeler Nation. Rumors of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s unhappiness about the news, his friendship with Bruce Arians and how the new Pittsburgh Steelers offense would look once it was translated on the field added fuel to the fire that the move may have been a poor decision. With Week 10 of the 2012 National Football League beginning, Haley’s offense has become less of a mystery and the team seems to be finding success using it.
Haley has had to adapt during his time in the NFL. While he was with Arizona, he worked with Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner to set up a more dynamic passing game. In his stint as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Haley worked with what he had – Jamaal Charles and the running game. With the Steelers wanting to go back to using a fullback and return to a ground and pound style rushing game that had been absent over much of the 2000s, Haley was an enigma. Would he hamper Roethlisberger’s style of being able to scamper out of the pocket and make plays? Would the speedy receivers the Steelers had picked up be eliminated from the equation in favor of the run? The questions loomed, especially as the Steelers got off to a slow start in the season. His adaptability has never been more evident than in the last few weeks with the Steelers.
Plagued by injuries to offensive players, especially running backs, it seemed that the Steelers would have to go back to an aerial assault against their opponents. Instead, Haley has been calling plays that work to the Steelers’ strengths. If ‘next man up’ truly is a mantra in the Steelers locker room, Haley himself has climbed up a couple steps to aid the Steelers in securing three consecutive wins.
Deemed by some as the ‘dink and dunk’, Haley has adjusted some of the play calling in response to what opponents are throwing at his offense. He has also had to adjust based on personnel. After the running game seemed inefficient in the first part of the season, he gave Roethlisberger some leverage to call plays from the huddle while remaining patient on the sideline. The results: the Steelers have two running backs who have rushed for more than 100 yards per game in the past three weeks and the receivers are still getting catches. Haley said, “I’ve said – and it hasn’t been just hot air – we have made progress each and every week.” His bottom line is that the Steelers have to keep up the momentum and get better.
As opposed to one player being the star of the season, Haley’s offense has shared and distributed the load. The balance has proven to be successful. If an opponent’s defense is particularly stingy against the ground game, Haley has provided plays that allow Roethlisberger the ability to get rid of the ball quicker to outlet players, even when his primary targets are covered. This has led to tight end Heath Miller getting involved in some key plays this season and six touchdowns. It has also led to more individuals being responsible for their own position, taking pressure off of the quarterback to carry the offense.
Opponents can double-team receiver Mike Wallace because he’s elusive and quick, but the Steelers have the keys to using those decisions to their advantage. Against the Redskins, the Steelers ran many of their offensive plays based off of a bubble screen. It kept Washington guessing and allowed Jonathan Dwyer to punch the ball down the field as needed. Understanding that the New York Giants would be prepared to stop the rush, Roethlisberger was happy to take shorter passes if necessary to keep the offense marching down the field. It opened up the running game and Redman was able to scamper for a career-high 147 yards, scoring the game winning touchdown. It also allowed Wallace and eight other targets to catch receptions.
After the game, Redman said, “We knew that if we just kept playing our ball that everything would come along for us.” His sentiment is that the Steelers can only beat themselves at this point. Redman ran like he hadn’t missed two weeks off due to injury, lowering his shoulders, and adding a 28-yard blast on the Steelers’ last possession that sealed the win.
Part of the success has to be given to an offensive line that has bought into Haley’s system as well. Coach Mike Tomlin said, “It starts up front. I like the personality that’s developing within that group, led by guys like Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon. They set the pace for us.” In the game against the Giants, Ramon Foster looked like he was pushing a blocking sled at times. And the offensive line has been fired up, at times getting into small scrums of emotion. The line has been able to support whomever is set up in the offensive backfield. Max Starks says that the team is finding their identity and once they do, they “start creating more ways to get those plays into the offense and into the game plans.”
However Todd Haley has managed it, his offense is working. Roethlisberger is taking less sacks, staying on his feet and being allowed to set up one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the NFL. In the first nine weeks of the season, the Steelers have rushed 217 times for 839 yards and four touchdowns. Their yards-per-game percentage is 104.9. Pittsburgh has completed 200 catches out of 299 targets for 2,203 yards and 16 scores. Their passing yards-per-game percentage is 275.4. They have outrun and outgunned their opponents.
Head coach Mike Tomlin says that the team is at a fork in the road. If they continue to improve on what has become a well-oiled machine, the Steelers may have just started their season as a unified unit. The potential is enough to make any Steelers fan drool.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.