When the Pittsburgh Steelers chose not to retain offensive coordinator Bruce Arians at the end of the 2011 season, they were making a bold statement. The team had strayed too far from the classic Steeler mentality. An offense that prided itself on a hard-nosed running game and toughness for decades had become a pass-first offense. Reportedly, owner Art Rooney II had become dissatisfied with the mentality change and sought a change. The most perplexing move in the situation, however, wasn't the decision to let Arians go. It was that within a couple weeks the organization had hired ex-Chiefs head coach Todd Haley to run its offense.
Haley embodies the opposite of the classic Steeler mentality. He crafted one of the great pass-first offenses of the last ten years. In 2007 and 2008, Haley was the architect of the Arizona Cardinals' offense that nearly shocked the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals ranked fourth in total offense that season. The passing attack led by Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin ranked second in the league, but the running game finished dead last. If Art Rooney hoped replacing Arians with Haley would reestablish the Steelers as a power team, he was sorely mistaken.
The fact of the matter is, the Steelers are not a power team anymore. The personnel simply does not fit the mold. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall had two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons in 2009 and 2010. Yes, the bruising Isaac Redman put on some impressive power performances in Mendenhall's absence toward the end of last season, with 92 yards in Week 17 and 121 yards in the playoff loss to Denver. But Pittsburgh's true strength lies in the passing game.
At times last season (before his broken thumb and high ankle sprain), Ben Roethlisberger played better than he ever has. He passed for over 4,000 yards for only the second time in his career. The vertical passing game became a staple of the Pittsburgh offense. The young, speedy wide receiver combination of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both averaged over 16 yards per catch on their way to 1,000 yards and the Pro Bowl. Heath Miller, though targeted only 75 times, caught 51 passes and became Roethlisberger's safety net at tight end.
The current Steelers mirror the 2008 Cardinals in many facets of their personnel. Both teams boast a quarterback with a rocket arm who enjoys throwing the deep ball. Both teams have top notch wide receivers lining up on each end of the field (though Fitzgerald and Boldin made their living on size and physicality and Wallace and Brown make their plays mainly from pure speed). The Steelers hold a huge edge at the running back position, though. Arizona's running game struggled with an aging Edgerrin James carrying the load. Mendenhall still has a few productive seasons left, but nobody knows how the torn ACL at the end of last season will affect him. Redman is rising steadily and could become a viable option.
I'm not saying the Steelers should shrug off the hard-nosed mentality completely. Rooney faces a tough task in preserving the team identity that his father and grandfather worked so hard to create. Anyone understand where he's coming from in trying to preserve the classic Steeler mentality. Pittsburgh doesn't need to hold on to that attitude, and the hiring of Haley will only transport the team further from it. Pittsburgh has some prime offensive talent with which to work. The offense will be putting on an air show next year. It will just take a while for the Pittsburgh faithful to embrace the change.