Haley's diverse game plans provide offensive boost
Steelers running back coach Kirby Wilson used the analogy well before Todd Haley was hired as the Steelers' offensive coordinator.
It just seems to resonate a little louder nowadays.
Wilson's story goes like this: “If you are going to fix a refrigerator and you have a toolbox full of tools, just take the tools you need to fix the refrigerator. Don't take the tools you need to fix the television and the air conditioner, too.”
Such an approach is why the Steelers' offense has been successful in Haley's first season: It has been multiple, versatile and, most important, not predictable.
Heading into Monday night's game against Kansas City at Heinz Field, the offense might not be among of the top-ranked units in the league, but it sure has been one of the most diverse.
“We know we have a lot of tools,” Wilson said, “but we will use whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
The offense is doing just that — taking only the necessary tools into each game. Usually, it's a different tool each week.
“You never want to be one-dimensional,” Wilson said. “But sometimes success lends you to be that way, and you can get out of whack.”
Diversity is something the Steelers were lacking in recent years under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. He liked bubble screens, deep passes, three tight end sets and throwing on third-and-2.
It led to an offense that put up big numbers at times but that would bog down in the red zone and short-yardage situations.
“We had tendencies with some people wanting to stay in their zones and do things they felt comfortable with more than trusting other individuals on the team,” tackle Max Starks said. “That's more of the philosophy of the coordinator and being able to adapt and not being able to adapt.”
Haley's philosophy has been simple: Identify an opponent's weakness and relentlessly attack it.
“It can lead to good offensive play and winning football, the more diverse you can be and still do what you do well,” Haley said. “When you do have real good personnel in a bunch of spots, it makes it a good situation for you as a staff and a team.”
Diversity is what every team strives for but few accomplish, whether because of style, personnel or even ego.
“Some coaches get locked into tendencies, and it is all on film for teams to study,” NFL Network analyst Steve Wyche said. “Todd doesn't do that. He always seems to have something in place to exploit a defense. Todd is understanding what he has now and is playing to it. He has been brilliant.”
Haley's diversity was on full display last week against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Despite the Giants having a porous secondary, Haley's game plan was influenced by New York's ability to create turnovers out of its Cover 2 defense.
So despite having a red-hot quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, Haley built his game plan around power football by fullback Will Johnson and running back Isaac Redman. Focused almost solely on running between the guards, the Steelers rushed for 158 yards in a 24-20 win.
“We just do whatever we feel we have to do to win the game: Run the ball, pass the ball, throw deep or throw short,” Roethlisberger said. “We take pride in being able to be diverse.”
It would be hard-pressed to find a team that has been as diverse from one week to another. Consider:
• A week after using the three wide receiver set 51 times against the Denver Broncos, Haley scaled back the formation against a depleted New York Jets secondary by using three wide receivers only 14 times. It worked. The Steelers beat the Jets, 27-10, and Roethlisberger had a 125.1 passer rating.
• Despite the Raiders allowing 263 yards rushing to the Dolphins the week before, Haley decided to attack the Oakland secondary by throwing 49 times. Roethlisberger threw for 384 yards.
“If there is an obvious glaring deficiency, we want to take advantage of it and exploit it,” Starks said.
• Against the Redskins, the Steelers used more zone-blocking schemes to help their run game while attacking with the short passing game. Twenty-four of Roethlisberger's 31 attempts went less than 10 yards.
“If we see something we think we can take advantage of, we have to do it,” Wilson said. “We believe that's good football. We believe that is mandatory.”
Haley's in-game adjustments have been just as successful.
• After the Steelers struggled with their first three series in Denver, Haley went to the no-huddle with five minutes left in the first half and never got out of it. The Steelers scored both of their touchdowns while running the no-huddle.
“We are capable of going no-huddle at any time, and we are capable of doing anything we want to do at any time,” quarterback Byron Leftwich said.
• With the Steelers trailing, 14-3, in the second quarter against the Bengals, Haley unexpectedly turned to his 31st-ranked running game. To that point, the Steelers had attempted 16 passes and six runs. Haley called five consecutive runs and six in seven plays and stabilized a game that appeared to be spinning out of control.
“That is something that he has always been able to do,” said Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel, who was Haley's defensive coordinator with the Chiefs. “He has a good offensive mind. That's just who he is, as far as the offense goes and what he tries to get done.”
Adjusting on the go
Then there are the subtleties of a game plan:
• Targeting tight end Heath Miller 10 times against Oakland
• Attacking the middle of the Tennessee defense by throwing 24 of 32 times in between the numbers
• Targeting the weak left side of the Bengals' defensive line with the run game.
“We really have tried to do a really good job of dissecting our opponent and finding their strengths and weaknesses and then trying to create a game plan around that,” Wilson said. “When you have the personnel that we have, you pretty much can do whatever you feel like you want to do. That's what we believe in here.”
All Haley is concerned with is finding a way to win. If that means changing the game plan significantly every week, so be it.
“We want to win the game, score more points than the defense,” Haley said. “I've always been a big believer in less is more, that you get good at what you do. We have a long way to go, but I'm confident that the more we know what our guys can do and the more we let them do what they can do well that we'll be OK.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.