PITTSBURGH – When Bruce Arians woke up Wednesday morning, the zealotry of Pittsburgh Steelers nation was still pounding away like a ball-peen hammer on an iron rivet. It was inescapable – screaming from the radio, bundled between the pages of the local newspapers, etched across the dissatisfied faces of the faithful.
"There are articles on firing me today," the Steelers offensive coordinator said with a subdued chuckle. "That's just part of the territory. It goes with quarterbacks and offensive coordinators."
Certainly, you can feel Arians and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger married in this latest Pittsburgh furor: Steelers fans grumbling that their team has once again lost its way on offense. It's an anxiety that reaches back to 2003, when then-offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterback Tommy Maddox rode a pass-heavy offense to a 6-10 season. The fallout from that season – which fans saw as a perversion of Pittsburgh's trademark smash-mouth running game – left a scar that still lingers. And despite sitting at 6-3 this season and controlling their destiny in the AFC North, many fans are looking at Pittsburgh's struggling offense and thinking it's Mularkey and Maddox all over again.
But push aside Pittsburgh's back-to-back losses at Heinz Field and put a microscope on the realities of the Steelers' roster, and it smacks of the worst run of injuries to any offensive unit in the NFL. Injuries that have parlayed into a team that is 18th in the league in scoring offense, 26th in yardage per game, and 24th in rushing yardage. Those are numbers that have fans up in arms over Arians' offensive system, which is often designed to spread the line of scrimmage for the passing game, then use space and vertical seams for the running game.
That scheme has struggled at times this season, with critics trotting out every imaginable bullet point to back up their complaints. Roethlisberger has thrown 11 interceptions in nine games, matching all of last season. There is no "heavy package" of running backs, with no hulking short-yardage specialist in consistent use. The Steelers' brute-force rushing attempts? They've failed on eight of 12 third-and-one attempts this season.
Those are just a few of the more popular pieces of evidence, each pointing to a "finesse" offense that simply isn't getting it done. And head coach Mike Tomlin has fueled the criticism by admitting he thinks the Steelers are a team without an offensive identity. And while coaches loathe the basic excuse of injuries as a reason for ineffectiveness, Arians has some strong evidence backing up why the offense has sputtered this season. Consider:
• Pittsburgh has been making do with a third-string running back in Mewelde Moore, who has both average speed and size and had never carved out a consistent starting role in his previous four seasons in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Pro Bowler Willie Parker has been dealing with knee and shoulder injuries, playing in only one of the Steelers' past six games. His backup, first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, was lost for the season in Week 4.
• The offensive line has been undermanned and in turn lacked continuity since Week 4 of the season. Put aside the fact that Pittsburgh lost a quality guard in Alan Faneca in the offseason (and yes, that is important). Right guard Kendall Simmons, who had been a fixture on the line for the previous three seasons, was lost for the season against the Ravens. Pro Bowl left tackle Marvel Smith hasn't played since Pittsburgh's 4-1 start.
• Tight end Heath Miller hasn't played in the past two games.
• And then you have Roethlisberger, who injured his right shoulder in the season opener against Houston, then reinjured it again in the win over Washington in Week 9. Meanwhile, he has missed an assortment of practices since the start of the season, which has in turn hurt his timing and decision-making at various points.
Even in the league's "no excuse" era, that's a staggering amount of circumstance: A hobbled quarterback, two missing running backs, three different offensive-line starters in comparison to 2007, and a dual-responsibility tight end sidelined, too. And yet, it's Arians who is shouldering much of the blame after Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Colts – a game ultimately scuttled by a pair of bad interceptions (three overall) by Roethlisberger.
"Going into the game, everyone was comparing us to Tennessee as the best team in the AFC," said Steelers wideout Hines Ward. "It came down to the wire, we made a couple mistakes and now all the sudden we're a bad team? We're a team that could easily be 8-1 right now. Considering all the injuries that we've had and considering the teams that we've played, to be 6-3 right now, we're very fortunate. We're not complaining."
That's not to say Pittsburgh hasn't identified the problems and figured how they will be fixed. Arians and Tomlin have fixated on three changes that they believe can transform Pittsburgh from a 6-3 team battling for wins into the AFC beast that many believed was emerging one week ago.
Tomlin has been extremely vocal about his starting quarterback taking part in practice from this point forward. Roethlisberger missed all but Friday's practice last week, and barring another significant setback with his shoulder, it's clearly something the coaching staff wants to avoid going forward.
"(Not practicing) is only a short-term solution," Tomlin said. "The longer that process goes on, you see issues turn up in terms of timing and cohesion. I think that that's really the spot that we're at, at this point. He was able to play (against the Colts) because, quite frankly, Indianapolis is a very simple team to be prepared for schematically. They don't try to trick you. What they do is what they do. If there is a game you can go in and play on a limited number of reps, it's a team like that.
"The reality is, as we go on, we recognize the value of practice and what the physical reps mean to us as an offense."
At this stage, the coaching staff recognizes what it has in Roethlisberger's shoulder. Like many injuries, unless he sits down for a sustained period, it's going to be something that lingers in varying degrees of pain for the remainder of the season. The longer he goes without getting hit in the shoulder, the more manageable it will become as the season goes on.
"As we saw in the Washington game, (the shoulder injury) can always come back at any time," Roethlisberger said. "Going into the Washington game, I was actually finally able to sleep on my right side again. If we can get to that point again, and not take the hits, we'll be all right."
To Arians, the key from this point forward is getting the pieces around Roethlisberger as close to normal as possible. Arians didn't sound optimistic about the return of Smith, who has been sidelined with a lingering back issue. Instead, Arians identified two pieces the offense knows it will eventually get back – Parker and Miller. Parker is expected to play this week against San Diego, while Miller is more likely to come back in Week 12 or 13.
"It was totally different when Willie (Parker) was on the field in Washington," Arians said. "Mewelde had done a heck of a job, a great job. But Willie's speed and burst was out there – boom, there's 5 yards and nobody was blocked, just because it's Willie. You do have some identity back there with Willie. That linebacker focus and safety focus may head more that way. And then you can do more with the quarterback with that.
"Heath Miller's injury was huge, too, because he's such an integral part of the running game and the passing game. He's probably the most – he's part of the puzzle we couldn't afford to lose."
What Arians accepts is that his scheme must continue to make do with a dinged-up quarterback and a surrounding cast with less than its full complement of talent. With Smith possibly done for the season, and an identity change unlikely in the middle of the season, Pittsburgh has a limited number of options. Getting the trio of Roethlisberger, Parker and Miller healthy and practicing is essentially what is left on the table – and, in turn, the hope that timing and familiarity will ease some of the issues with the offensive line.
"We're 6-3, we've gotten by, and we have not played good on offense at all – which is promising," Roethlisberger said. "It's disappointing as an offense to know that we haven't played up to our potential or even close to it. But it's reassuring in the fact that we're still 6-3. We still have a second half of the season to go, and if we turn it on at the right time, we feel that we can be pretty dangerous."
- Bruce Arians
- Mike Tomlin
- Willie Parker