By Ryan Wilson
Posted Feb 15, 2007
Mike Tomlin has been on the job for roughly three weeks and we still don't know much about what the Steelers might do differently in 2007. We do know that new offensive coordinator has some ideas in mind, and not surprisingly, they involve Ben Roethlisberger.
This time of year -- after the season ends and before the free agency and pre-draft hype machines really get rolling -- almost anything qualifies as news. Last week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette helped break up the monotony with two solid Pittsburgh Steelers-related columns.
First, Bouchette wrote that new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will be tidying up the playbook this off-season. Apparently, last year's offense was an amalgamation of the 15 that preceded it under Bill Cowher. Nothing wrong with adding as you go, I guess, but at some point things become unwieldy. For Arians, we've reached that point.
Arians admits much of the base packages won't change, but the guy loves four-wide sets -- especially on first and second down, and even better, he loves running out of this formation.
I love the idea, but two questions immediately come to mind. First, who are the Steelers four wide receivers? Obviously, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are Nos. 1 and 2. After that, you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart at the wide receiver depth chart. Cedrick Wilson has been consistently inconsistent in his two seasons and third-year wideout Nate Washington is basically coming off his extended rookie season. And then there's Willie Reid, who played in one game before limping into the off-season with a serious foot injury. After that, it's just training camp fodder and warm bodies vying for practice-squad space.
One idea would be to use Heath Miller. In fact, even with four competent wideouts, Miller should still be involved in the four wide receiver sets because he's deceptively fast, creates matchup problems because of his size and has great hands.
[A quick digression: for me, the draft doesn't begin until the Combine, which starts next week. It doesn't officially begin until I hear what amounts to Mike Mayock making out with himself describing the next great prospect or busting out the phrase "heavy-legged waist-bender" to illustrate why an offensive lineman struggles as a blocker.
Without going into details -- primarily because I don't know enough to speak intelligently on it -- I will make this suggestion: the Steelers should think about drafting a tight end. And I don't mean a late second-day afterthought. I mean an athletic kid with good hands and who can block a little. I know, easier said than done, but I think we can all agree that Jerame Tuman is adequate, and that's all he'll ever be. Pittsburgh should expect more out of the position. Miller's shown that tight ends can be good pass catchers and good blockers. This doesn't mean the team needs to arrange their draft board around finding the next Antonio Gates, but at some point -- and I think that point is now -- the Steelers will need to add quality depth behind Miller. Plus, it will give Arians one more option and opposing defensive coordinators one more thing to worry about (as much as an opposing defensive coordinator worries about the backup tight end).
One more thing: if you thought, "Hey, Jon Dekker could be the guy to replace Tuman," punch yourself in the face. If instead, you thought, "I wonder what Matt Kranchick's doing and if the team would invite him to training camp," punch yourself in the face … twice.]
Arians points to the Colts as a team that effectively runs out of the spread offense, but they also like to split tight end Dallas Clark out wide. In fact, with the loss of Brandon Stokely, Indianapolis seldom used three wide receivers. Instead, they would line up Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne on the outside and Clark in the slot.
The Patriots are also successful running out of the four-wide set and they also utilize their roster-full of tight ends better than any team in the league.
Arians acknowledges that to the untrained eye (read: me) most changes won't be discernable, although I'm quite certain I can recognize four wide receivers on the field on first or second down. Still, I think it's important to remember that the offense isn't going to be the pass-happy 1999 St. Louis Cardinals, but just a streamlined version of what we've seen over the years.
Part of the streamlining includes making the verbiage easier to understand. Ideally, this will benefit a) the quarterback and b) players new to the system. And this leads me to my second question -- and Bouchette's second column. How will Ben Roethlisberger respond to all of this?
Specifically, will this be the off-season Big Ben makes the jump from "young quarterback who's mostly gotten by on talent" to "first in, last out film rat and team leader"? Head coach Mike Tomlin hired Ken Anderson as the quarterbacks coach, ostensibly to facilitate this progression … to get Roethlisberger to play like a champion everyday:
"We have an elite quarterback -- or someone who can be elite -- and we need to get him to that level…
"We want to see him improve from the minute details of footwork all the way through his completion percentage and his touchdown/interception ratio, to get back to where he's one of the three or four elite guys in this league, because he has that ability."
In the article, Arians referred more to Roethlisberger returning to form after his off-field setbacks last season, but the between-the-ears stuff is just as important as perfecting his footwork and his throwing mechanics.
I've written before that Tomlin and the other offensive coaching staff changes may be the kick in the pants Big Ben needs, but it's important to keep this in perspective. It's not like we're dealing with Michael Vick, or worse, Rex Grossman. Twice a year it seems, Vick finds a new, more ridiculous way to draw attention to himself (I can't wait to see how he tops the hidden-compartment-in-the-water-bottle trick. Now you see the weed … and now you don't!). Grossman, who may be the hardest worker in the league (though I doubt it) just doesn't have the makeup to be an NFL quarterback. Roethlisberger won't be 25 years old for another two weeks, made one really big mistake in his life -- and almost died -- and is sometimes accused of not taking his job as seriously as maybe he should.
Yeah, that will happen when you're in your early 20s, given a crapload of money and experience so much professional success at such a young age. I'm not saying Big Ben doesn't need to change his work habits, I'm suggesting it could be a lot worse. But it could be much, much better too. And I think Roethlisberger understands that.
He skipped all the Super Bowl-week festivities, and he and Tomlin have spoken extensively:
"I have talked to [Roethlisberger] more than most (players) - it is the quarterback position in the NFL. We have to have an understanding of what we need to do and he's a big part of that…
"I put no more responsibility on him than I would anyone else, and that's to realize you represent not only yourself and family but the Steelers and the NFL, so conduct yourself with class."
Nobody's seen Tomlin the coach yet, but Tomlin the public speaker and motivator is impressive. I know it's only February and the 2007 season is almost six months away, but right now, I feel good about where this team is headed. Of course, a Hall of Fame Game shellacking will change all of that, but for now, I'm excited about a more efficient offense and a committed star quarterback. I mean, we could be in much worse shape right now ... we could be San Diego Chargers fans.