If Art Rooney II gets his way, you can expect to see a lot more rushing in Pittsburgh next year. (ZUMAPRESS.com)
The Steelers' reported move to force offensive coordinator Bruce Arians out the door and into retirement turned the meter up on this offseason from interesting to critical for the iconic franchise. In addition to some key personnel decisions -- who will back up Ben Roethlisberger? Will Hines Ward get cut? Can the offensive line be upgraded? -- Pittsburgh now faces the possibility of running a new offensive system.
Arians told the York Daily Record that he wasn't offered a contract by the Steelers, a revelation that came on the heels of a report that Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II wants to "shift the offense back toward its blue-collar identity of years past."
What that means exactly is anyone's guess.
The most straightforward answer would be that Pittsburgh wants to reestablish itself as a physical, run-based offense. And that's all well and good, except it doesn't jive with the Steelers' 2011 stats or their current offensive stars.
Pittsburgh was, despite common misconception, a pretty decent rushing team this season. Led by Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers put up 4.4 yards per carry, the ninth-best average in the league. They also rushed for 118.9 yards per game, which put the Steelers just above the NFL's halfway point.
Of the 1,015 plays Pittsburgh ran, 43 percent were on the ground. That's in spite of the Steelers' loaded arsenal of weapons in the passing game -- Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Ward, Heath Miller, etc. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, finished among the league leaders in just about every major statistical passing category, despite taking 40 sacks.
Maybe, though, that's what this is about: Protecting Big Ben. Roethlisberger hobbled through the later stages of the season and the postseason, a hindrance that definitely impacted Pittsburgh's offense. Without Roethlisberger able to take advantage of his scrambling and improvisational abilities, the Steelers' offense struggled to run at full gear.
Still, is that enough to totally buck Arians' system? In his five years as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, the team averaged 11 wins and won three division titles, two AFC crowns and a Super Bowl.
Which brings us back to this whole notion of Pittsburgh wanting to get more "blue collar."
If that's indeed the goal -- and part or all of that goal involves the restoration of a power-run offense -- this could be the start of a major shake-up in the Steel City. Pittsburgh already has decisions to make on its offensive line (Trai Essex and Max Starks are free agents, for starters), while the pieces in place are there more for their versatility than their ability to pave the way for a 40-run-per-game attack.
Quite frankly, it would not make a lot of sense to eschew what's been working for this offense in recent years. That success starts with Roethlisberger and continues on through one of the league's best receiving corps.
The winds of change are blowing in Pittsburgh, though. Some of the linchpins of the franchise's extended run near the top of the NFL have a lot of tread on their tires, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The Steelers still have enough talent to compete at the league's highest levels. But even the most consistent teams reach a point where they have to turn the page and plan for the future.
Is Pittsburgh at that crossroads? We'll know a lot more about how to answer that question when we find out just how "blue collar" the next offensive coordinator wants to be.