PITTSBURGH – Hines Ward sat in the corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room Saturday afternoon and toed the line of blasphemy.
"We don't want to be predictable on offense," the wide receiver said following a mini-camp session. His eyes twinkled as he tugged at his camouflage t-shirt and twisted open a sports drink. Ward then paused and smiled. He said he felt younger, more rejuvenated. "See, for so long, it has been smashmouth – you know, run and get three yards. Then you have second-and-7 and you run again, get three more yards and set yourself up to convert a short third down. We've always had that mentality. Do I think we'll still have that mentality? Yes, but you will see it in different ways. And maybe we'll be getting six or seven yards on first down."
He diagramed the offense in the air. It wasn't long before the spread sets of new coordinator Bruce Arians began to take shape from his fingertips. Three- and four-wide receiver sets on first down. Defensive front sevens stretched at their seams. Running backs isolated in space against linebackers in pass coverage. It sounded so &helip; so … (dare the words be spoken in a Pittsburgh locker room?) … so Indianapolis Colts.
"Oooh, I wouldn't say that," running back Willie Parker said, shifting backward. Understandably, it wasn't a parallel you wanted to draw too loudly in this city. Or at least, that's what you would have thought. "No, I wouldn't compare us to the Indianapolis Colts. Not yet. They've been in that offense for years, and we're just starting to move in that direction. But yeah, I think that's what we're trying to get to."
Arians might have his compass pointed in that direction, but old rhetoric dies hard. Every time you mention the Colts or the reality that a four-wide set on first down seems somewhat finesse, a Steelers player or coach quickly delivers a missive about toughness and physicality. Nobody wants the general public thinking this franchise is abandoning smashmouth – a Pittsburgh football ideal that has morphed into a state of being in this town.
"All spread football does is really kind of predetermine the box count," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Whether you're going nine on nine with two tight ends on the field and pounding the football in there, or whether you're spreading it out and going five on six, it really doesn't matter. It's just the nature of what your line comes off and how your backs finish. You've got an opportunity to be a physical football team. Just because you spread the football field, it doesn't define what kind of offense you are."
And Tomlin insists such creativity isn't anything new for this franchise. When he took control of the team in January, he went through tapes and saw an offense that had the potential to be very schematically diverse.
"This team has been spreading you out and making you defend the entire field for quite a few years," Tomlin said. "I think that was part of (former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's) personality. When they won (Super Bowl XL), they ran gimmicks better than anybody. They ran reverses and screens better than anybody. And they were very physical while doing it. I think it's kind of a misnomer that us having this mentality is a great change. I don't think that it is."
How drastic the alterations look on field won't be known for months, but make no mistake, change is occurring. Arians, Pittsburgh's wide receivers coach the previous three years, has gone a long way toward streamlining his scheme. His first order of business was to cut down the old playbook, which had become as dense as the Rosetta Stone from 15 years of additions under Bill Cowher's various coordinators. After that, he made the decision to put more responsibility on the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger, who will now have the sole ability to audible protections at the line of scrimmage.
"The things that concerned me from last season were the turnovers and just a lack of being on the same page in pass protection," Arians said. Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high 46 times last season, many resulting from linemen and backs calling their own protection adjustments and creating confusion. "I'm talking about everyone being part of the problem – our receivers, our quarterback, our running backs and our offensive line. Basically our whole package, there were too many times where we weren't in sync. So we're simplifying that and making Ben the guy who makes the adjustments himself. It's time to let him direct the show. He's ready for that."
Said Roethlisberger, "It's going to eliminate problems, plain and simple. And if we had taken a step like this at some point last season, maybe the successes and failures would have been different."
Arians, Peyton Manning's quarterback coach from 1998-2000, was impressive enough during his Colts' stint that he earned the jump to offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 2001. And it was during his tenure with the Browns that Arians learned an often painful lesson of how easily a spread offense can fail without a robust running game.
That's where the Indianapolis comparisons likely end. While the Colts' success still flows largely through the pass, Arians' scheme is going to continue to make Parker as large a focal point as Roethlisberger.
The point of spreading the field, according to Arians, is to create space for his running game and force more of a commitment one way or another from defenses. It's an ideology that probably has the rival Baltimore Ravens in mind, considering that is the team Pittsburgh will likely have to go through to regain the AFC North title. It's a construct that will take the frenetic and blitz-aggressive fronts of teams like the Ravens and space them out, turning their own attacking mentality against them. In turn, Arians will be able to maximize passing options for Roethlisberger, and open vertical running seams for Parker.
"I can't even imagine it," Parker said. "I've never been in a situation like that. It's new to me, but it's going to mean more creases and more holes for me. How can that be a bad thing? My whole career here, I've seen eight in the box. Shoot, sometimes I've seen 11 in the box. Hey, he wants to spread those guys out and get the ball in my hands like that, you won't ever hear me complain."
But the work in progress still has a long way to go. There are still questions about whether Pittsburgh's depth at wideout will truly allow a dedicated spread look. While Ward remains the reliable cog in the passing game and Heath Miller could put up career-numbers in this scheme, Pittsburgh still needs more development from the second wave – players like Santonio Holmes and Cedrick Wilson – and needs Roethlisberger to show he can handle additional responsibilities.
"We'll get it done," Ward said. "And this offense will really excite people. I remember the first time I saw something like this was when Bruce was coaching with the Cleveland Browns when we played them in the playoffs (after the 2002 season). They jumped right on top of us. That great defense we had, they spread us out, really took our weaknesses and exposed them. All of the sudden, our linebackers were in a position where they had to cover people. We were all over the place. And they went and up down the field on us the whole game. And that's what I think we can do, too."