Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bruce Arians' Play-calling

The Steelers are on a two-game losing streak. Sentiments like "Fire Tomlin" and "Fire Arians" have been thrown around, including the latter on this site.

We're all for keeping Tomlin. We think he's a great coach.

Arians on the other hand...well, we're getting to that.

Bob Smizik wrote an article while touching himself about how Arians has done a good job.

Here are the stats Smizik used to back up his argument:
-The Steelers are averaging 379.9 yards per game, 6th in the NFL
-The Steelers are averaging 33:41 in time of possession, 3rd in the NFL

Guess what stat Bob-o leaves out?

The Steelers are 14th in the league with 23.1 points per game

Last time I checked, yards and time of possession don't win games, points do.

Ask the 2002 Steelers who out-gained the Houston Texans 422-47, and lost 24-6

Ask the 2003 Steelers who ran the Tommy Gun spread offense and out-gained opponents in 7 games, but only went 3-4 in those on the way to a 6-10 season.

Ask the 2006 Steelers who out-gained Oakland 360-98, and lost 20-13

But all of those examples were from the Cowher era, before Arians became the offensive coordinator.

Now let's look at some examples of Arians' stand-out games:


In 2007, his first season, the Steelers faced 3 teams that finished in the bottom 5 in the league in run defense: Denver, Miami, and the New York Jets.

The Steelers were 1-2 against those teams.

Against Denver, a Monday Night game coming off a bye week where they had no excuse for not coming up with a game plan, the play breakdown looked like this:
35 passes, with 38 passing plays called (Ben scrambled for 20 yards on 3 carries).
23 rushes, 21 to Parker who carried for 93 yards (4.4 yards per carry), and 2 to Najeh who got 6 yards. The real question mark here is that Parker only had 11 carries at halftime, against one of the worst run defenses in the league. In the first half, Roethlisberger had 2 interceptions and had fumbled once on a sack, which Denver returned for a touchdown. In the same first half, Ben had 25 pass attempts. Not exactly the run-pass breakdown you would expect against the #7 pass defense and the #30 run defense.

Against the Jets, who were 9th in the league in pass defense and 29th in run defense, the Steelers called 31 runs and 27 passes. Ben was sacked 7 times. Parker had 21 carries for 52 yards (2.5 yards per carry), Najeh had 8 carries for 39 yards (4.75 yards per carry). Not sure why Parker had so many carries and Najeh didn't have more, particularly at the end of the game or in overtime.

Against Miami, which many will remember as the game where the punt stuck in the ground, the Steelers controlled the ball in Miami territory for much of the game. The winless Dolphins kept the game scoreless as the Steelers just couldn't get into field goal range until 59 minutes and 43 seconds into the game. The stats from this game don't mean much because of the sloppy field, but the Steelers ran 29 running plays and 21 passes.


In 2008, the Steelers only played 2 games against teams ranked in the bottom 5 in rushing: both against Cleveland.

The Steelers won both games, but this is Cleveland we're talking about here.

The worst call of the year, by far, came in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers had the ball, up by 9, at the start of the 4th quarter. We worked our way into a 3rd and 1. Rather than pounding the rock and picking up the 1 yard we needed, Arians went 5-wide and called a pass. It was incomplete, which stopped the clock. We had to punt, and Baltimore took it down the field for a touchdown to pull within 2. On the Steelers next drive, they went run-run-sack, giving Baltimore the ball back with a chance to take the lead. Thankfully, Polamalu snagged an interception and took it to the house, erasing all memories of the terrible 3rd down call that almost cost us a chance at a Super Bowl.

One of the biggest problems the Steelers had in 2008 was an inability to put teams away at the end of games. How many times did our defense have to bail us out last season? Far too many.

The 2008 Steelers averaged 21.7 points per game, 20th in the NFL.

In 2009, Arians has continued the trend he started in the previous two seasons. The Steelers are racking up a lot of yards, but still aren't finding the end zone. In his 3 seasons, here are how the Steelers have ranked in scoring offense:
2007 - 24.5 points per game, 9th in the NFL
2008 - 21.7 points per game, 20th in the NFL
2009 - 23.1 points per game, 14th in the NFL

Let's look back at how the Whiz did.
2004 - 23.2 points per game, 11th in the NFL
2005 - 24.3 points per game, 9th in the NFL
2006 - 22.1 points per game, 12th in the NFL

If you compare their three seasons, both won a Super Bowl. The difference was that Whiz's Championship team won with his highest offensive output. Arians' worst offense won the Super Bowl.

If you look back at the big plays that the Steelers had in the 2008 season, they all came either on defense, or on broken plays where Ben stepped away from pressure and was able to redirect someone in the secondary. Take the touchdown to Holmes in Baltimore where Holmes broke off his route and came back across the field. The touchdown to Holmes in the AFC Championship game came when Ben scrambled away from pressure and Holmes went downfield. There are countless other examples of "Ben being Ben" and making a big play happen.

But what does this say about Arians? That the best plays the offense makes aren't on plays that he calls. Rather, they're on broken plays where the players are able to make things happen.

This season, Ben has utilized the no-huddle offense more and more. Much of the Steelers offensive success this year has come from the no-huddle. Once again, not exactly a vote of confidence for Arians' ability as a play-caller. The best offense we've had this year has been when Ben has been calling his own plays and keeping Arians' decision-making out of the equation.

This past week against Kansas City was the first time all season where we ran on 3rd and 2. Once was a run up the middle with Mewelde Moore that he converted. The other was on a toss sweep that got dropped for a 3-yard loss. We've already detailed how we felt about how terrible that playcall was, so we won't get into that.

Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg when we're talking about Arians' play-calling. With that being said, time and again he has proven to have very poor decision-making skills. Against KC, the Steelers started by establishing a running game, which opened up the play-action plays. However, they completely went away from play-action in the second half. In the first game against Cincinnati, Willie Parker was carving them up on the ground, and we went almost exclusively to a passing game in the second half. Arians also never runs a play to set up another play. An example of this would be coming out in the power I and running the ball two or three times early in the game, then going back to the same formation and going play-action later in the game.

At least with the Whiz, even though we were scoring at about the same rate, we would run one play to set up another and our offense had a flow over the whole game, rather than each play being called in a vacuum. If you look at successful offenses around the league, not only do they distribute the ball between their passing and running games, but they also call plays in the scheme of the game and understand situational football. Arians is terrible at understanding situational football (down, distance, and time on the clock) and this shows up time and time again during games, including calling plays with 12-yard routes on 3rd and 4, or trying for a deep pass on 3rd and 6.

We've made no secrets about the fact that we don't like Arians and his play-calling. Really at this point, give Ken Anderson (QBs coach) a shot at calling the plays, if not making him the offensive coordinator. Arians has a knack for trying to get fancy in the red zone, which leads to us kicking field goals rather than scoring touchdowns (see: both Cincinnati games). We need to find a way to start cashing those opportunities into points. At this point, sitting at 6-4, we need a solution and we need it fast and, based on his body of work, we're just not sold on Bruce Arians being the answer.

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