It’s never a good sign for an offensive coordinator when your offense is more effective in its no huddle. But that’s the case for Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. His six-year tenure in Pittsburgh has seen his offense described with any range of qualifiers from “dink-and-dunk” to “the most explosive unit in the NFL.” Yet despite Pittsburgh’s transformation as the most dangerous team in the league, Haley has no rings to show for it.
When Haley left Kansas City for Pittsburgh, he inherited an offense of unproven youngsters, a number one wide receiver who was probably a deep threat at best in Mike Wallace, an aging veteran in tight end Heath Miller, and a fumble prone running back in Rashard Mendenhall. Two years before Haley’s arrival, the Steelers made the Super Bowl, but most of the players who drove that title push no longer had a future in Pittsburgh.
Next to Bruce Arians’ offense, which let then 29-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball downfield and take risks under pressure, Haley’s new system was conservative, and often frustrated Pittsburgh fans, myself included. But Haley’s system has also changed Roethlisberger’s playing style and given him at least two more solid seasons than he would have had, a necessity for a Pittsburgh team whose best backup during Roethlisberger’s time was either Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch, I’m still not sure which one.
In 2013, Haley’s second season, Wallace and fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders were gone. Mendenhall was replaced by Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown became the number one receiver. 2014 brought more complementary pieces. Receiver Markus Wheaton became more involved in the offense, Brown was now a veritable star, and the team now had speedster Martavis Bryant. Tackle Alejandro Villanueva joined the team, completing the current Steelers offensive line.
The defense’s youth movement was getting all the press, but the changing of the guard on the other side of the ball was just as noteworthy, as the Steelers made the playoffs for the first time under Haley’s tenure as offensive coordinator. A wild card loss to Baltimore was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after Bell’s injury against Cincinnati (hmmm, where have I heard that before), but the Steelers were back.
No longer was Haley’s system derided as conservative. Roethlisberger was playing the best football of his career, and with a steadily improving defense, Pittsburgh’s name was back in the discussion of a Super Bowl contender. The offense was good enough to overcome a season ending injury for Bell (against Cincinnati again? What a coincidence!) to reach the Divisional Round in 2015. The team nearly overcame injuries to Brown (Cincinnati again) and backup running back DeAngelo Williams to take down eventual champions Denver, but bowed out at the Divisional Round, regrouping for another title push.
Pittsburgh’s offense carried them to a division title in 2016, clinched by a dramatic reach over the goalline from Antonio Brown against Baltimore, and advanced to the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro, where an early Le’Veon Bell injury doomed Pittsburgh to an embarrassing defeat.
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers fell at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round by a score of 45-42, despite countless momentum changing plays swinging in their favor. They blocked a punt, scored long touchdown passes against a brilliant Jags secondary twice on fourth down, and nearly erased a 21-point deficit to make the trip to Foxboro themselves.
Todd Haley’s system works wonders, especially with the talented weapons–Brown, Bell, Bryant, rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, and tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James–at the team’s disposal. Todd Haley doesn’t work.
Pittsburgh is more effective in the no huddle. Roethlisberger has been in the league long enough to effectively read defenses, feel the rhythm of the game. Roethlisberger calls those plays, not Haley. And beyond that, the Jacksonville game was the first time the offense performed to its potential in the playoffs in the last three years.
Go back to 2015. Cincinnati marched down the field with AJ McCarron to likely win the game. The only Steelers touchdown came from Bryant catching the ball on his butt and doing a somersault. The play that got Pittsburgh into field goal range came from two fifteen yard penalties against linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, two players notorious for dirty play and questionable disciplinary records. But there’s an excuse: Le’Veon Bell was hurt. Landry Jones had to play the fourth quarter. The coordinator and his offense aren’t to blame.
The next year, it took six Chris Boswell field goals to squeak by Kansas City on the road. Why could the team with Bell and Brown at its disposal not get into the endzone? But Kansas City’s defense is good. They won, didn’t they? The next week at New England, the high octane Steeler offense lost its running back, and no one can do what Bell does. Todd Haley gets another pass, and even I looked at that loss as an unlucky injury and a propensity for the defense to get burned for big plays. Yet I wondered, for the first drive that Bell was healthy, why didn’t he get more handoffs? He’s the most effective player on his team in at least half of the games he plays, and as a bonus, running the football keeps Tom Brady off the field. Did they panic because of an opening drive touchdown? In reality, I only asked the first question at the time, but the second has just popped into my head. Because for the second straight year now, Pittsburgh has been outcoached in a playoff game.
On Sunday, Jacksonville marched down the field using play-action passes, and eventually punched it into the endzone with a two-yard Leonard Fournette touchdown on the game’s opening drive. The Steelers needed to answer, and given that they’ve already played Jacksonville before, and that NFL coaches will often “script” the first few plays of their opening drive, it’s likely that an offense as talented as Pittsburgh’s would gain momentum of its own. Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in the Week 5 meeting, and Jacksonville’s defense finished 21st in the league against the rush. It was baffling to see Pittsburgh throw three straight passes and go three and out. The next drive, Roethlisberger threw an interception. Fournette scored on the next play, and Jacksonville led 14-0.
The Steelers offense finally got going after the second touchdown and drove down the field. They had fourth down and about half a yard to go on the Jacksonville 25. Looking for some momentum, they went for it, and even forced the Jags to call timeout. With time to discuss the play, a 6-foot-5, 240 pound quarterback at their disposal, and repeated success running the ball up the middle, what did Pittsburgh do? Run a halfback toss for a loss of four yards: the same play that already failed on 3rd and 2. Jacksonville would go on to score again.
Pittsburgh fought its way back into the game, scoring a touchdown on 4th and 11 and marching down the field to start the second half. After a Jags three and out and a blocked punt, it was 4th and 1 again in Jacksonville territory. Again, a reasonable distance for Roethlisberger to sneak it, run up the middle with Bell, or utilize McDonald on a short route for an easy pickup. With time to talk it over, Pittsburgh went for a play-action pass, but instead of a tight end being in range for an easy first down, Roethlisberger threw 15-yards down the middle of the field for a diving Smith-Schuster. There were hints of defensive holding, and Smith-Schuster still almost made the catch, but there were no underneath routes in sight. What could have been a first down on the way to a game tying touchdown, turned into Leonard Fournette’s third rushing touchdown of the afternoon, and the Steelers played catch up. They couldn’t stop the Jags the rest of the way, and found their afternoon exemplified by an onside kick attempt that didn’t even get six yards.
And now it’s three years in a row that Pittsburgh couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. It’s two years in a row that Pittsburgh didn’t utilize the best running back in the NFL early, and when they did, they didn’t play to his running strengths. The former power back excels at finding holes in the line to gain yards, not using blinding speed to run around the corner. Pittsburgh’s offense looks better in the hurry up offense, when Roethlisberger is calling the plays and the defense doesn’t have a chance to set itself. Two of Pittsburgh’s touchdowns came from broken plays, down to the individual brilliance of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell. Another came in garbage time, a score for pride. Two others didn’t create any separation and were just brilliant catches by the two best players on the field. Todd Haley made one good play call for Bryant’s 4th and 11 touchdown, but made three bigger mistakes.
Pittsburgh’s talent isn’t the issue, but its preparation for big games is. It’s inexcusable to not even appear in the Super Bowl with the talent at the team’s disposal, and it needs to happen now before Roethlisberger retires and the team looks for its next great quarterback. It took a long time after Terry Bradshaw. Pittsburgh is a stable organization, and its previous two offensive coordinators, Arians and Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, only left for other coaching opportunities. But the preparation in Pittsburgh isn’t good enough.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is the youngest coach to reach 100 career wins and has never had a losing season in Pittsburgh. He won Super Bowl XLIII and made another. He’ll stay. Keith Butler’s defense was the best in the league before the injury to linebacker Ryan Shazier and boasts promising youngsters with more room to improve. His job is safe.
That leaves the six-year offensive coordinator. There was already speculation that he may not be back in Pittsburgh for 2018, with his contract expiring. This game won’t help him. So goodbye, Todd Haley. Your time is up.