If you're a die-hard Steelers fan, you can probably recall a slew of offensive coordinators over the past twenty years. There was the smashmouth predictability of Ron Ehrhardt. The play-calling gimmickery of Chan Gailey. The balanced attacks of Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt. No doubt about it, there was some variety in the mix. But one theme, almost as old as the Iron City's steel mills and three rivers remained a constant among them. That theme was a power running game, rooted in the I-Form, with a quick, explosive offensive line and a bruising, linebacker-crushing, hole-opening fullback.
This is the age of Bruce Arians. And he has singlehandedly taken the team back to 2003 and its doomed experiment with the pass-happy Tommy Gun offense.
The overall problem is derived from two roots:
1) The Offensive Line is Too Big and Too Slow
Did anybody watch the Jets-Titans game last weekend? Alan Faneca put on a clinic in use of leverage, agility, and how to be a pulling guard. Now, he is an 8-time Pro Bowler, but it used to be an entry-level requirement for Steeler linemen to know how to generate push and be both smart enough and quick enough to properly execute any number of blocking schemes. Think back to Justin Strzelczyk, Brenden Stai, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings, Will Wolford, etc. - they were all quick, strong, and had great technique.
The downside to these archtypal Steeler linemen is that they tended to be a little closer to 300lbs, than the 350lb leviathans Bruce Arians wants. The current o-line has been designed as a human shield, a wall of mammoth, side-of-beef-eating pilons geared predominantly toward pass protection. Yes, guys like Max Starks and Chris Keomatu can buy Ben Roethlisberger time and are hard to move but, if you've been watching the tape, they lack versatility and have not been able to generate, with any consistency, the level of push needed to support a traditionally dominant running game. Forget running upfield to get that second or third block. When your line struggles with run blocking, it makes sense to help, but Matt Spaeth and his inability to get low on defenders is not the answer. A good fullback is the answer and can cover a multitude of sins
2) The Single Back Formation is a Bust - I-Form is the Answer
Let's put the matter to rest, Willie Parker still has what it takes to be a 1,300yd back. His biggest obstacle to achieving that goal is the difficulty that he has shedding the first defender and getting enough open space to turn on the jets. Some backs have an exceptional ability to read a defense, discern the blocking scheme and any holes as they develop, and beat the initial defender with a great first move. Bettis was a slower back, but he was one of those guys. Parker is wicked fast, but the preceding areas are not the strongest part of his game. It does't mean that he's bad. It just means that he needs a little help, via play-calling adapted to his strengths.
Case in point - Parker's breakout season. Bill Cowher loved the I-Form. It was at the essence of his offensive philosophy. So did Whisenhunt and Mularkey. These guys were former tight ends - they had a passion for good run blocking, and they knew how useful a good fullback could be in that regard. And it showed in what Parker was able to achieve: an impressive 4.7ypc in 2005 and 4.4ypc in 2006. It was a lot tougher for Ray Lewis to trip up Willie in the backfield with Dan Krieder playing the role of Aunt Jemima and turning him into a pancake. Kreider only started 4 games in 2007 and was sent packing the next season. With the rise of Bruce Arians, a former receivers coach, and his infatuation with the Single Back and Twin-TE set, Parker's rushing dropped to 4.1ypc in 2007, 3.8ypc in 2008, and is even worse so far in 2009. Something has to change. Where have you gone Dan Kreider?