ON GOOD DAYS, PITTSBURGH LOOKS LIKE A SUPER BOWL CONTENDER. AND THE BAD DAYS? OH, BROTHER.... THE DIFFERENCE COMES DOWN TO THEIR DERRING-DO
THE STEELERS trailed the 1--8 Jets by 17 points with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on Nov. 9—but still, they were not dead. Pittsburgh had driven to the end zone's doorstep behind a quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who in the previous two weeks had become the first NFL passer to throw six TDs in consecutive games; a wideout, Antonio Brown, who led the league in receiving yards; and a tailback, Le'Veon Bell, who was No. 3 in rushing. And so, naturally, their first play from New York's one-yard line went in the direction of ... a 36-year-old linebacker who had only recently emerged from retirement?
"Uh, college, maybe?" answered James Harrison, the 'backer-turned-pass-catcher, when asked to recall the last time he'd taken a snap on offense. "High school?"
Needless to say, Roethlisberger's pass fell incomplete—"I don't think he's quite adept at breaking off his route and getting open," the QB said. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal on the way to a 20--13 loss that would provide another exhibit in the ongoing case of Steelers Nation v. Todd Haley.
Ever since Haley was named offensive coordinator in 2012, the former Chiefs coach has taken heavy flack for his embracing of unconventional tactics on the league's most traditional of teams. Haley's first two years coincided with the Steelers' first consecutive playoff misses since the turn of the millennium, and popular blame landed on his fondness for deceptive plays (bubble screens, flea-flickers, end arounds) and on his dabbling with the no-huddle offense. In the media Roethlisberger's sound bites were parsed for hints of discontent, and a prominent Pittsburgh columnist called for Haley's job after a dispiriting 31--10 loss to the Browns on Oct. 12.
The offense's subsequent explosion—124 total points in wins over the Texans, Colts and Ravens—quieted the hordes, but the Jets game again had them agreeing with Haley's most prominent critic. "Coach [Mike] Tomlin, this is Snoop Dogg," the rapper said in an off-season Instagram video. "Fire that motherf----- and get us a real offensive coordinator!"
"I don't give a s--- about the criticism," Tomlin told SI when asked about Snoop, a prominent Steelers supporter. "I really don't."
In fact, Haley had already begun to shift away from gimmickry long before the Jets loss, which had more to do with uncharacteristic turnovers by his stars (two Roethlisberger picks, two Brown fumbles) than with Harrison's strange cameo. That simplification started after the Browns loss, just Pittsburgh's third to Cleveland in 23 games. "We had struggled playing the same way," Haley says. "It couldn't stay the same." The Steelers decided to minimize their trickery in order to allow their superior collection of skill players to best exploit their talents. They scrapped the no-huddle (which limited the array of formations they could use) and decommissioned most of their gadgets. "We're running a lot of plays, but it's simplified," says Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey of the offense. "It helps out. It does."
Also helping the cause: a significant improvement in the unit that compelled Haley to rely so heavily on unconventional tactics in the first place, the offensive line. Since the analytics website ProFootballFocus began issuing grades in 2007, the Steelers had never finished a season with a pass-blocking mark better than -5.5, suggesting a below-average performance. So far this year they grade out at +11.1, sixth best in the league. That improvement can be attributed to improved health (whereas Pouncey's 2013 ended after eight plays, when he tore up his right knee, this year's starters have combined to miss just three games), the hiring of line coach Mike Munchak (the Hall of Fame guard who coached the Titans the past three seasons) and, above all else, cohesion. "We've got a group that's getting into the prime of their career, between year three and year five for the majority of them," says Munchak. "They've grown up together. They've taken their lumps, stuck together and improved."
Of particular note has been the play of 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, who stands just 6'3" and is the lightest starting left tackle in the league—"290-something, if he's lucky," says Munchak—but who PFF nonetheless ranks as the NFL's fifth best player at his position. "Maturity and time," Beachum says of his success. "And eating." Roethlisberger has sent his personal chef over to Beachum's house to serve up caloric breakfasts, from time to time.
All of this has had the effect of freeing up the 32-year-old quarterback to orchestrate his offense without schematic complications, while he's still in his prime. "The great quarterbacks have to evolve, to become more and more cerebral as they rely less and less on the physical traits that were dominant early on," says Haley. "[Ben] doesn't have quite the escapability he had in his younger days, but that's where the cerebral part comes in."
On Nov. 17 the Steelers found themselves losing to a bad team for the second straight week, needing that O-line to allow its cerebral QB to do his thing. The 2--7 Titans led by 11 points late in the third quarter, but this time Harrison stayed on the sideline, and there was nothing deceptive about how Pittsburgh scrapped back. On 25 of their next 28 offensive plays, the ball was touched by the hands of just four men: Pouncey, Roethlisberger, Bell (who scored on a five-yard run) and Brown (who scored on a 12-yard catch). Then they ran out the clock, improving to 7--4 with five games left, each of them against a playoff contender. But if they needed any confirmation, they got it: This offense is now good enough, in all ways, to keep things simple.