Ready or not, here it comes:
- NFL coaches talk about it all the time, especially head coaches and offensive coordinators. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley talk about balance a lot, but it's instructive to understand what they mean when they're referring to the Steelers offense having balance.
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- It's a common misconception that offensive balance means the game ends with close to the same number of running plays as pass plays, with – in the Steelers' case – the touches/targets divided in a suitably proportional way among Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
- That might be one definition of balance, but it's certainly not Tomlin's.
- "When I say balanced, I'm talking about capabilities, because we've got to be able to ring up the scoreboard and get yards and chunks by every and any means," said Tomlin at a recent news conference. "Sometimes we're going to step into a stadium and people are going to be committed to minimizing our passing game, and we've got to take that run game when it's given to us and vice versa. The Tennessee Titans were not going to let Le'Veon [Bell] get going. It was obvious after a short period of time that was their mentality, so we took what was given to us. That's what I mean when I say balance. You can look at us at any given time and it may represent an imbalance, but I'm talking about capabilities and willingness. We've got to be able to cut it and slice it in any way possible, and I believe that we have the schemes and the personnel to do those things."
- Going back to that game against the Titans, the final statistics definitely represent an imbalance. Bell had 12 carries, and the Steelers attempted only 18 running plays in the entire game, not including the kneel-downs from victory formation. The Steelers complemented those 18 running plays with 49 pass plays in the form of 45 actual attempts plus three sacks plus a 10-yard scramble by Ben Roethlisberger.
- Going farther back into this regular season – to the Oct. 15 game against the Chiefs in Kansas City – you will find an example of a totally different version of what Tomlin means by balance.
- In that game, the Chiefs responded to the Steelers' lining up in the shotgun with a defensive formation reflecting an assumption that Roethlisberger was planning on throwing the ball all over Arrowhead Stadium even though Bell was lined up in the backfield as well. In the first quarter, the Steelers ran 15 offensive plays out of the shotgun – five passes and 10 runs – and Bell had 58 yards in the quarter.
- From there, the Steelers remained "balanced" against a Chiefs defense loaded up to stop the pass when the Steelers deployed their offense in the shotgun, and Bell finished with 32 carries for 179 yards and a touchdown, while Roethlisberger attempted only 25 passes in a 19-13 victory.
- Now, re-read Tomlin's explanation. "You can look at us at any given time and it may represent an imbalance, but I'm talking about capabilities and willingness. We've got to be able to cut it and slice it in any way possible, and I believe that we have the schemes and the personnel to do those things."
- And it's critical to be able to "cut it and slice it in any way possible," because there are going to be games on the horizon – such as those in the postseason – where an opponent is simply not going to allow you to beat them with what has been established as your strength over the course of the regular season.
- More examples: During a four-game stretch starting with the win over the Chiefs, Bell carried 32, 35, 25, and 26 times, for a total of 118 rushing attempts. In those same four games, Roethlisberger attempted 25, 24, 31, and 31 passes, for a total of 111 passes. But because Bell's per carry average fell from 5.6 against the Chiefs to 3.1 against the Colts as opponents believed they had figured out their offensive strategy, the Steelers switched over to a pass-heavy offense against the Titans and Packers.
- In those two games, Bell had 32 combined rushing attempts and Roethlisberger attempted 90 passes, and those 90 pass attempts yielded 650 yards and eight touchdowns.
- Balance. Or as Chuck Noll used to term it, "How would you rather die – drown or burn in a fire?"
- That's an especially appropriate way to look at games during the playoffs, where it's win-or-go-home, where all of the months and months of hard work that went into a successful regular season can be snuffed out in a few hours because your offense isn't what Tomlin refers to as balanced.
- Take the 2016 Miami Dolphins as an example. On Oct. 16, Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts, and the Dolphins put together a relatively easy 30-15 victory over the Steelers.
- Then came the rematch, in the AFC Wild Card Round, and the Steelers came into that game determined to control Ajayi. When the Dolphins got only 33 yards on 16 carries from Ajayi they was incapable of causing enough damage with their passing attack, and Miami's season ended with a 30-12 defeat.
Picture of Steelers' rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and his family throughout the years, submitted by JuJu's mom.
- Once the playoffs begin, there is a season's worth of video available on each of the 12 teams, and it's not difficult for an opponent to determine an offense's preference. And because the stakes are what they are, and because it's single elimination, there is a greater willingness to sell out and do whatever might be necessary to neutralize the opponent' offensive preference.
- That's why a team looking to compete for a championship has to be balanced, because once that team's playoff opponents begin studying, a one-dimensional offense, or even an offense that leans heavily one way or the other, will be revealed. Once revealed, it becomes a simpler matter to devise a plan to neutralize that preference, which typically ends up being the path to defeat.
- Bill Belichick is famous for sizing up an opponent and devising a plan to take away one thing that opponent does well, and so it's important to be multi-dimensional when facing a team he coaches. That's why it's so important to present him with an offense that could hand the football to a running back 35 times, or put it in the hands of a quarterback and have him throw it 40 times.
- Keep this in mind as you pore over the statistics following a Steelers game, and instead of worrying about the number of carries Le'Veon Bell had, or the number of attempts Ben Roethlisberger didn't, or vice versa, appreciate that the Steelers are developing an offense that can lean heavily on one or the other and still come out with a victory.
- Because then they truly will have achieved balance.