Bruener Lost for Season
Before Stiller fans dash for the bridges and skyscrapers of Pittsburgh, and jump off in utter despair �. Stop.
Yes, starting TE Mark Bruener is gone for the remainder of season with a torn rotator cuff. But there's absolutely no need for any wailing of despair or misery from Stiller fans. No need to cast away hopes of a home playoff game. No need to put away the Stiller garb and paraphernalia while fretting about "what could have been". Keep the chin up and the caterwauling down, as this is not a catastrophic event for this team.
This is not to be coldhearted toward Mark Bruener, who has been a true professional in his 7-year career in Pittsburgh. But the cold, stark reality is this: The Stillers will easily survive without Bruener, and assuming a few easy moves & adjustments are made, they will still thrive after their 7-2 start.
No need to inundate me with the shopworn fawning over Mark Bruener. Been there, heard it, and have yawned at it. "Mark Bruener is the best blocking TE in all of football." "Mark Bruener is the key to the Steeler rushing offense." And on and on and on. While this fawning over Bruener is folksy and full of motherhood and apple pie, the fact that Mark Bruener is such a "great blocker" is worth little more than a warm six pack of cheap beer around the NFL. Two teams -- Balt. and NY Giants -- tangled in the Super Bowl last season, both on the shoulders of a power running game. Both ran the ball well, yet neither employed the almighty blocking TE, Mark Bruener.
Again, not to belittle Bruener's health and welfare, but frankly, this injury isn't anywhere near the disastrous proportions of Rod Woodson tearing his knee up on opening day of 1995, or Greg Lloyd suffering a similar fate on opening day of 1996. Nowhere close.
"But what about the running game?!?", fans will shriek and sob in horror and fear. This isn't the first time Bruener has been lost for the season. Back in 1996, while wide open on a seam route, the brickfingered Bruener bobbled a perfectly thrown pass in a MNF game at Miami, and by the time he managed to corral the bobbled ball he got crushed by the DB and tore up his knee. Bruener missed the final 4 games of that season. But it was awful quarterbacking by Mike Prozac; the maladies of Yancey Thigpen; and the ineptitude of the Stiller passing game that caused the team to stumble against Balt. and San Fran down that stretch, not the loss of Mark Bruener.
Just look at this past game. The 2 best runs of the game -- Bettis' 40-yard rumble followed by Zereoue's 28-yard scamper -- came well after Bruener, the God of Blocking, had already departed the game with the shoulder injury. The belief that it is impossible to run the ball with any modicum of success, without the almighty Lord of Blocking, Mark Bruener, is as absurd and ridiculous as any fallacy ever espoused since the days of declaring that the Earth is flat
This is not to say that Jerame Tuman is an adequate replacement as an every-down starting TE. He's not. Tuman is a frail weak, soft blocker with an obvious disdain for hitting, and who has no business playing a prominent role on a team that prides itself in smashmouth football. If the team wants a TE who can pound opposing defenders, then the ever-tough Matt Cushing will need to see more time. Another option is to see if ex-Stiller Corey Geason is in-shape and available. If not Geason, then some other veteran TE most assuredly will have to be signed, if for nothing else some modicum of depth, as well as help on special teams and a body to use in practice.
And if blocking at the TE spot is so immensely critical that the world will end without it, then here's a simple suggestion -- use backup tackle Oliver Ross, who played some TE two days ago as a 2nd TE -- as our starting TE. Some will guffaw and call this preposterous, but those are the same folks who fawn over Bruener and claim that his blocking is the most critical element of the Stiller offense. If one clings to the premise that the most critical part of our offense is having a big body block next to the tackle, then who better to do that task than your 3rd best tackle ? I already know the opposition to this idea -- "Ross couldn't help our passing game". And therein lies the fallacy of Mark Bruener, a slow, brittle-fingered TE who has done nothing in his entire career to help this passing game, other than catch a few short dumpoffs and a few rare downfield grabs. In 9 games this season, the ham-handed Bruener has caught a whopping 12 passes and no TDs (along with dropping about 4 passes), which was putting him on a prolific pace of 21 grabs over the course of the season. Since no team in the NFL spends even 10 minutes in their game-planning worrying about Bruener's pass catching, Ross would give the Stillers about what Bruener did -- good blocking (actually, as a tackle Ross is probably a better all-around blocker) and lousy receiving. Hell, just seeing the portly Ross rumbling downfield after a short dumpoff would be humorous, if nothing else.
Actually, the bigger picture for this Stillers offense as it heads down the home stretch is this: This injury can be viewed as a catastrophe, or it can be viewed as an opportunity. I choose to view it as an opportunity. And here's why: Bruener's injury can, and should, serve as the impetus for more 4WR sets. This has numerous long-range benefits for this offense, as follows:
1. As we saw on Sunday versus Jax, when these 4 WRs are clicking, this can be a potent passing offense. Ward had the best game of his NFL career. Shaw had the big 40-yard gain on the 2nd series, as well as a couple clutch 3rd down grabs. Edwards helped put the team in FG range late in the half with 3 catches in that series. And Burress, despite being frozen out by his own team 2 days ago, has shown signs of hope with strong games against Tenn. and Balt. Remember, Shaw averaged nearly 17 yards per catch last year, and it appears he's back in the same groove after a slow start. Edwards remains an enigma, but I'm convinced that Troy is at his best when he's fully engaged and employed (as he was two days ago), not sitting on the pine 85% of the game. With the stonefooted Bruener on the field, one of these weapons is sitting in the bench. The only way for Stewart and these 4WR to reach their maximum level of confidence, trust, and fluidity, is to work these four to the max extent that is reasonable and possible. The way to do that is with more 3WR and 4WR sets, and less sets involving a slow, bootfooted TE.
2. Just as we saw in 1995, I'm convinced that this offense needs a consistent, trusted 4-WR set if it has any hopes of going to the big show. (And yes, I realize that '95 used more 5-WR sets, but it also used 4-WR sets.) The point here is this: the 4-WR set gives the Stillers great flexibility, especially against defenses that have to make a personnel choice between playing extra DBs for coverage but who are weak tacklers, or run-stuffing linebackers who are incapable of covering the #3 and #4 receivers. And the 4-WR set is a weapon that must be used when playing catch-up football, which the '95 Stillers had to do in the regular season win over Chico, as well as in the playoffs against Indy and against Dallas. It's hard to play catch-up football with a TE who might average 6 or 7 yards per grab.
3. The use of the 4-WR set will actually help, not hinder, the running game. Using a TE in these tight-assed alignments has its obvious downfall that we've all seen the past couple of games -- the offense is in a very compressed front, and the defense can bring an extra man up to the LOS and run-blitz him pell-mell at the snap of the ball. This helped cause the safety against Cleve. 9 days ago, and it helped the Jaguars stuff and bottle Bettis on almost every one of his 21 rushes 2 days ago. The "Bruener is an indispensable God" crowd can't see this, but the reality is that, when you line up in a 3WR and 4WR set, you can still run the ball. In a 4WR set, you can use a 1-back set, and there's simply no way that a defense can stack 8 men within the length of the offensive line, because if they do, this means a WR is literally not covered. The four WRs are spread out wide, thus spreading the defense, and inhibits the defense's ability to mass 7 & 8 men within our 5-man front and run-blitz like hell at the snap of the ball. Ergo, not only will the use of the 4WR set help the passing game, but it can also help the running game fend off these devil-may-care run-blitzing schemes that the Stillers will see a whole lot of these final 7 games.
Yes, it's a shame for Bruener to get injured and to miss the rest of the season. But despair not, Stillers fans. Bruener is far from irreplaceable, and the opportunity now exists to shed some of the sloth from this offense and replace it with some skill that will ultimately enhance this oft-sagging passing game. And that improved passing game is exactly what will be the difference if the Stillers are to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.