Offense expands options
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers turned to the no huddle offense out of desperation last fall more than anything.
Mired at the bottom of the AFC North and off to the franchise’s worst start in more than two decades, offensive coordinator Todd Haley decided it was time to speed things up and give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a little more freedom in the process.
The positive results – a 5-2 run to end what became an 8-8 season thanks in part to a significant uptick in scoring – led Haley into a deep dive over the winter. The playbook he handed his players earlier this spring included a broadened section on the no huddle that could have the Steelers running it at any time – with various personnel packages – when the season begins in September.
“The menu has expanded as far as it can go,” Roethlisberger said.
Maybe it’s because the introduction worked so well.
Pittsburgh was 3-6 and facing Detroit in November when the Steelers opened the game in the no huddle as a way to tire out the Lions’ aggressive defensive line and limit how often they could substitute.
Roethlisberger immediately led a 68-yard touchdown drive and the lethargy and sloppiness that plagued Pittsburgh during September and October vanished. The Steelers averaged 28 points a game over the final seven weeks – up from 20 during the first nine – and came within a tiebreaker of securing an unlikely postseason berth. They did it while using the no-huddle about 40 percent of the time.
“The second half of the season, we did a lot of good things, as we worked our way through adversity when you couldn’t see much light at the end of the tunnel,” Haley said. “I think a lot of good came out of that. I think a lot of the guys that were here and are still here, feel that and know what we have to accomplish. We are all interested in building off of that finish.”
So Haley pressed on with creating more intricate no huddle packages despite losing wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to free agency. He expects opponents to adjust after the Steelers ended 2013 as the hottest team in the AFC over the second half. He knows he has to adjust, too.
Haley joked he’s not going to spill all of his “secrets” but Roethlisberger believes he can work out of the no huddle regardless of who is alongside him in the huddle. Last year Pittsburgh’s no huddle set primarily consisted of three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back lining up next to Roethlisberger in the shotgun. That might not be the case this time.
Roethlisberger pointed to the versatility of fullback/tight end Will Johnson and the flexibility of running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount as proof the Steelers will not be predictable when they start to push the tempo.
While the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bell and the 6-1, 245-pound Blount hardly appear to be built from the same mold – Bell likes to wait behind his blockers then use his quick feet to burst forward when he sees an opening, Blount is all bulldozer – their quarterback thinks they can be interchangeable.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to tell anything with the first two guys,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll be able to tell the difference because we’re asking both of them to do the same stuff. The key for me is to not know who is in there.”
Roethlisberger only wants whoever it is to be productive. So does Haley after the Steelers finished in the bottom quarter of the NFL in yards rushing (25th), yards per carry (29th) and rushing touchdowns (25th).
The key to improving those numbers will rely on the health of the offensive line and the ability to keep defenses guessing. It means doing different things from the same looks.
It’s why Haley implemented the entire offense so early in the offseason rather than start slowly to give the new faces a chance to catch up. There is no time for that now, not after consecutive 8-8 seasons.
The Steelers spent a significant part of organized team activities and minicamp continuing an evolution that began last November out of despair and ended with them discovering a new identity. It’s unusual to do so much so soon. But these are unusual times for a team in transition.
“I think you’ll see more of (the no huddle),” Roethlisberger said. “So it was more important for us to get it in early and often.”