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Labriola On

Labriola on scheme vs. execution

Ready or not, here it comes:

Ben Roethlisberger was the one who told us before the start of this regular season that the offense would struggle early on, that there would be growing pains, that it wasn't going to be a smooth ride with all of the newness, from approach to play-calling to personnel.

Whether you chose to believe him or not, his assessment was on the money. And so, what was Roethlisberger's appraisal four days after the offense set season highs in points (27), total yards (391), and rushing yards (145) in a victory over the Denver Broncos that snapped the Steelers' there-game losing streak?

"Listen, by no means are we going to sit here and say, 'Oh, we're fixed. We're this great offense.' We're not there yet," said Roethlisberger. "Just like last week, after a loss (to the Bengals), I'm not going to sit here and dwell on the losses and where we're bad. After a win, I'm not gonna sit here and say, 'These are all the good things we're doing.' We still have a long way to go, and we've got a really talented (Seattle) defense coming in here this week."

Roethlisberger may not be interested in citing chapter and verse when it comes to what the Steelers offense did well in the win over the Broncos, but there are some obvious things to identify as contributors for the performance.

Coach Mike Tomlin has been hammering this particular point since the start of the season, and even though "staying ahead of the chains" comes off as classic coachspeak, it had an obvious impact for the Steelers against the Broncos.

The Steelers ran 26 plays on first down vs. Denver, including one snap in victory formation at the end of the game following James Pierre's interception in the end zone. The ran the football on 21 of those 26 first downs, with the other five plays being passes. Going by the old-school rule that a 4-yard gain on first down is a win, the Steelers "won" on first down 10 times, and another six times they came close to a win with a gain of 3 yards. Only twice did the Steelers lose yards on first down – one 3-yard loss and one 1-yard loss – not including the take-a-knee at the end.

Reading that may not come off as overly impressive, but the Steelers came into that game ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 30th in the NFL in average yards per rush, and so impressive or not, it reflected improvement.

Also, "staying ahead of the chains" allowed offensive coordinator Matt Canada and Roethlisberger to be less predictable with what the team had to do on second down to end up with a third-and-manageable situation on third down, which beyond being easier to convert, such situations also prevented Von Miller from being able to tee off and go about the business of wrecking the opposing offense.

So, kudos to Chuks Okorafor and whomever else was involved in keeping Miller from breathing down Roethlisberger's neck the entire afternoon.

Which brings me to another point: While it's possible to win with schemes and play-calls in college, in the NFL the path to winning is with players and execution.

The fascination that some fans and media have with pre-snap motion and the quarterback under center and jet-sweeps and play design and all of that stuff – even when all of it is combined – doesn't amount to a hill of beans when compared to the starting left tackle doing a solid job against one of the most effective pass rushers of this generation.

Or compared to the No. 3 tight end being a physical presence in the running game.

Or compared to "staying ahead of the chains" by "winning on first down."

You know, the boring stuff that doesn't really get talked about on pregame shows or mentioned by "insiders" or diagrammed on the telestrator.

Allow me to remind you scheme people that scheme is just another word for a plan, and in the inimitable words of Mike Tyson, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about the NFL or to anyone who follows the NFL, but one week after Ravens Coach John Harbaugh ran a meaningless play—instead of having Lamar Jackson take a knee – so his team would finish a game against Denver with over 100 net yards rushing, he had absolutely no qualms about having Lamar Jackson attempt 32 passes and complete 29 of them for 335 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the second half of an overtime victory over Indianapolis last Sunday.

In that game, the Ravens finished with 86 net yards rushing, which means their streak was snapped. And in that game, the Colts defense allowed 513 total net yards, an average of 8.1 yards per play, and so if 100 net yards rushing in a game was that important, that "meaningful," there certainly should have been opportunities to run the ball a couple of times (instead of throwing it so much) to extend the streak.

"One hundred percent my call," said Harbaugh, in response to Broncos Coach Vic Fangio taking issue with going for a "record" when the outcome of the game had been decided. "That's one of those things that's meaningful. It's one of those things that, as a head coach, you've got to be mindful of your team and your players and your coaches and what it means to them."

Maybe Harbaugh was not being disingenuous when he talked about a streak of 43 consecutive games with 100 yards rushing being "meaningful," but when that is compared to a victory in a regular season game, well, let's not get ridiculous.

Jackson learned the streak was snapped just minutes after the end of the Colts game and said in a postgame interview, "We didn't get (the record)? It's all good – we got the victory. I'm good with that."