More Thoughts on Power Running Game
Here's some more clarification on my thoughts on the Steeler running game. (My previous ramblings dealing with this particular subject can be found in my July 6th "Loose Slag" article...)
Allow me to emphatically state a few truisms related to the Stiller running game. Before I do, when I refer to the "Steeler running game", I am referring to the I-formation set with Bettis at TB, Witman/Kreider at FB, and Breuner at TE in the "base set".
First off, the I-formation is the absolute WORST formation to pass out of. This is why NFL teams invented the "pro set" of having two backs in a SPLIT backfield, which inherently allows for the RBs to be able to dash out of the backfield and into open space for pass patterns. In the I formation, each back is directly in the middle of the formation, which means -- if you can recall your geometry lessons -- that these backs have the absolute FURTHEST route to take in order to get AROUND the scrum at the line of scrimmage, and into a pass route in the flat or down field. Not only that, but in the "I", each back is at a point FARTHEST from the outside of each OT, which makes it all the more difficult to pick up outside blitzers and rushing OLBs. This really is repeating the obvious, as it's been a well known fact that the I formation is a running formation only and not optimal for the passing game.
Second, there is NO SLOWER base offense in the National Football League than the Whalecrap Offense employed in Pittsburgh, in which a tubby tailback weighs in at 280 pounds; a slowpoke non-rushing/receiving factor plays FB; and the TE is an oafish, clumsy chump whose career high in receptions in his SIX year career is a whopping 26 grabs, which occurred when the man was a rookie, and who has twice sustained season-ending leg injuries. I challenge anyone to find a slower & more pass-catching-challenged group of "skill players" than the trio of tailback Bettis, fulback Witman/Kreider, and tight end Breuner. Go ahead -- pull your hair out and try. I've personally scoured every NFL roster and there is no slower trio than these three stonefoots.
This, then, leads us to axiom #3: The Stiller running scheme, without question, INHIBITS and HINDERS the passing game. Axiom #1 shows us that the I formation is the absolute worst formation to pass from. Axiom #2 shows that, despite some other teams having a modicum of success passing out of the "I", there is no slower group of RB/FB/TE in the entire NFL, than the one employed by the Stillers. Factor in Axioms #1 and #2, and you have a passing game that gets absolutely NOTHING from 3 of its 5 eligible pass catchers in the "base set" of their I formation. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Bettis is slow & tubby, has below-average hands; and wears elephant-sized shoulder pads that hinder his ability to reach, crane, and twist for passes. On top of that, if and when he does catch a pass, he takes forever to get his fat rear-end in gear, making him an easy target and causing him to get pitiful amounts of RAC yardage. Witman & Kreider are both slowpoke blocking backs who offer nothing in the passing game, and neither one will make anyone forget about John L. Williams, Kenny King, or Roger Craig. Breuner is the clod who has yet to eclipse the 26 grabs he had as a rookie. Mediocre hands, slow footspeed, and no RAC ability are his trademark. Opposing defenses, therefore, can rush 7 men at the QB and use 4 DBs to cover the 2 WRs while all but ignoring the clubfooted trio of Bettis, Witman, and Breuner. This, just as much as shoddy QB play and imbecilic coaching, is the reason for the 29th ranked passing game. Other offenses casually, with seemingly little effort, get 50 yards of receptions from a RB and 70 yards from a TE. The Stiller are lucky if they get 25 yards combined from the TB and TE in any given game.
Before I hear what I know will be the responses, let me nip them in the bud:
"In 1997 our offense was just fine." In 1997, Bettis didn't weigh 280 pounds. He was actually more like 260 back then. It wasn't until the '98 season that Bettis began sporting that mammoth belly that has become his trademark. Back in '97, Bettis was actually capable of getting to the outside, which forced defenses to spread their assets. Nowadays, the savvy defenses jam 7 or 8 defenders within a 15 foot front, knowing that the moment Doughboy Bettis gets his shoulders parallel to the line and tries plodding wide, he's as easy to tackle as shooting fish in a barrel. Additionally, 1997 was not the grande season that everyone fondly remembers. Our offense staggered and sputtered down the stretch. We beat Denver on the strength of hideous CB play from Gordon. We squeaked out 3 OT wins, including games against Indy and AZ in which both opponents missed chip-shot FGs late in the game that would have iced a win. The 3rd OT was a gift win from NE in the infamous "Immaculate INT". Go check out the 7-6 playoff win over an injury-decimated (decimated, not merely "depleted) Pats team, in which our ground game stunk and sputtered the entire game. We scored one TD the entire game, that on a 43-yard Stewart run in which the Pats' LB eased off near the sideline in fear of getting a personal foul flag. Late in the game, this prolific offense was so sorry that it was incapable of scoring a TD from the Pats 1-yard line in order to seal the game. And remember, aside from the Pats -- who that year basically perfected the way ya bottle up the Stiller ground game -- the run-blitz was still a novelty of sorts in the NFL. Since then, a score of teams -- most notably the Ravens -- have copied the Pats tactics.
"Other teams have used the I and/or the emphasis on the ground game, and have done well." True. And other teams haven't employed the glacially slow trio of Bettis, Witman, and Breuner. Take the Doncos during their title years. Davis at RB, Griffith at FB, Sharpe at TE. We all know Davis' prowess. He was the man who jammed the ball down our throats in the Jan. '98 AFC title game loss. He ran up the middle, he ran wide, and he ran everywhere. In fact, we still had a chance to get the ball back after the Sharpe 3rd-down grab after the 2-minute warning. But Davis took simple up-the-gut dive plays and, seeing no daylight, ran WIDE for consecutive 10+ yard gains to ice the game. Stiller fans should remember Griffith as well. He was the man who scored on a splendid 20-something-yard catch-and-run late in the 1st half of that game. We all know about Sharpe. He was the man who absolutely manhandled Dontgay Jones and Jason Gildong in that game, and has been a key contributor to 3 Super Bowl wins, all of which centered around a power running game.
"But the passing game has to set up the running game, so if the passing game struggles then so will the running game." Therein lies another fallacy. The passing and running games are not 2 exclusively independent entities. In the "base set", the majority (3 out of 5) of your pass-catching assets are actually your RUNNING GAME assets --- the RB, the FB, and the TE. If ALL 3 of those assets are too slow and too unproductive, you have a severe difficulty in passing the ball out of this set. You can't gain much yardage thru the air with a slow RB/FB/TE trio, and worse, you can't draw coverage AWAY from your WRs. The best offense, whether in war or in football, is one that has the versatility to strike anywhere, anytime, with lethality, surprise, and initiative. Real NFL offenses actually get production out of their passing game on the typical "running downs" of 1st & 2nd down. The capable offense doesn't need to wait until it runs 2 plunges for a total of 3 yards, and then gains 5 yards on a short 3rd down pass (followed by the punt). The capable offense can strike a defense with play-action passing and utilizing both backs and the TE in passing the ball on running downs. The Stillers can talk all they want about trying to do this, but their RB, FB, and TE are ALL oafish clods who offer nothing for the passing game, other than the clever 2-yard out to Witman just inches from the sideline chalk, or the 3-yard completion to Bettis with him turned ALL the way around toward his QB rather than facing downfield.
"But Amos Zeroue and Fu can come in and help us." Only if they are ALLOWED to play in the BASE SET on "running downs". Putting Amos or Fu in the game on 3rd down and 9 does nothing except send a LOUD signal to the defense, "Ok, we pulled our tubby RB and inserted a quicker one -- look for him on the draw, the shovel pass, or the screen !!!!" You want to exploit Amoz or Fu --- give 'em a few carries out of the BASE set, and then let him get into open space for a pass on 2nd down and 4, with the defense looking for a plunge.
"John Riggins and OJ Anderson and Emmitt Smith have run in power running offenses, and they did pretty good." Quite true. Riggins weighed 240, not 280. He was actually nimble enough to get to the outside and move with some alacrity. Witness his game-winning 43-yard TD scamper against the Dolphins in SB 15 (or so). OJ Anderson was big and tough, but he was about 45 pounds shy of 280. Smith was a threat both inside and outside, and was a CONTRIBUTOR and a THREAT in the passing game, something Doughboy Bettis clearly is not. OJ and Smith also had a TE who could murder a defense. We have the 19-catch wonderboy, Mark Breuner. Opposing defenses must literally snicker uncontrollably every time they have to prepare their pass defense to face Breuner. Bettis, looked at in a vacuum, can be part of a good offense that can both run and pass well. However, Bettis, along with Witman/Kreider and Breuner, and running out of the I formation, is part of a trio that is too slow, too unskilled, and too unproductive to help the passing game out at all.
All of this is not to say that improvements in coaching and quarterbacking will not help. They should. However, when your base offense is so one-dimensional and slow, you cannot hope to improve your passing offense with any quantum leaps. Power running can be a help to the passing game. We've seen it in last year's championship Ravens team, as well as the Bronco title teams before that. We've seen it help the Jaguars, Titans, and Bucs rest near the top of the NFL heap. We saw it with the Stillers of the 70's. However, with this core -- Bettis, Witman/Kreider, and Breuner -- of lumbering oafs (or is the plural of oaf "oaves" ??) the power running game is a hindrance, not a help. No less than Frederick The Great offered these words of wisdom: "Little minds try to defend everything at once, but sensible people look at the main point only; they parry the worst blows and stand a little hurt if thereby they avoid a greater one. If you try to hold everything, you hold nothing." So it will be when defenses face the Stillers --- throw the kitchen sink at the slowest, most predictable, most passcatching-deficient running game in the National Football League, and take their chances that this tactic will both snuff out the ground game and harass an erratic QB into pressing and mistakes. I can't think of a single reason why a defense would not shade "man-and-a-half" coverage on Burress; put one man to cover Ward or Troy; and leave 1 man to peek at Breuner or a RB sneaking out for a short 6-yard pass, as well as peeking at Stewart for a designed QB draw or scramble. This leaves 7 defenders to wreak havoc against 6 line-of-scrimmage blockers.
The Stillers have had 3 seasons worth of observation and data to counter this tactic, but have staunchly refused to do so. Experts say insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results...