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Arians doesn't let critics alter philosophy

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011

The man who supposedly has an aversion to power football counts Bear Bryant, as tough and gruff as anyone that ever blew a whistle, among his most enduring coaching influences. He also played quarterback in a wishbone offense at Virginia Tech.

The man who would supposedly throw the ball on every down if given carte blanche had a back, Paul Palmer, lead the country in rushing one season when he coached at Temple. He also helped the Chiefs finish in the NFL's top five in rushing in two of the four seasons that he coached running backs in Kansas City.

So when Bruce Arians is asked about the perception that he doesn't like to run the ball, the Steelers' oft-criticized offensive coordinator references his past, including the season at Virginia Tech when he, sometimes, threw less than 10 passes a game.

"If you can line up and beat people up that's an easy way to win," said Arians, who tutored running backs for Bryant and Alabama in 1981-82, one of nine college or NFL teams for whom he has coached. "It doesn't happen very often in this league. If you can't pass it, you're dead, you lost. You better be able to score points and, sometimes, you can set up the run with the passing."

That philosophy figures to be on trial — at least in the court of public opinion — as much as it is on display Saturday when the Steelers, in pursuit of a seventh Lombardi Trophy, host an AFC divisional playoff game.

Arians has been a lightning rod for fan criticism since succeeding Ken Whisenhunt as the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 2007. He has been lambasted for questionable play-calling as well as the empty backfields and the four-wide receivers sets that don't fit the traditional definition of Steelers football.

When a report surfaced last January that Arians' firing could be imminent, posed the question of possible replacements.

Dan Henning and Mike Mularkey were among the posts that followed.

So were "My 6-year-old niece" and "my shoe."

Criticism 'unfair, unwarranted'

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin later denied that he had been close to making a change at offensive coordinator or that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had made an 11th-hour pitch that saved Arians' job.

"It's really a joke," Tomlin said last March.

Roethlisberger feels roughly the same way about the constant carping directed at Arians, whether it is on sports talk radio or Internet message boards.

"I think it's unfair, unwarranted because people don't know what goes on," Roethlisberger said of the inner workings of the Steelers' offense. "Listen, he would go into a game and if the run was there we would run the ball every single play. He has no problem running the ball. People don't understand that. They think he is strictly a passing guy. That's not true. He's wants to be the most productive offensive team that we can be."

Arians gets his share of suggestions on how best to do that in the form of letters that are sent to him at the Steelers' South Side practice facility.

"I read most of them," he said, "unless they start off with you a--hole."

Arians laughs, and what else can an offensive coordinator do• Perhaps nothing else in sports lends itself to second-guessing more than play-calling in football.

"In our business, whenever anything's wrong with the defense, it's the players," said Henning, who spent the last two seasons as the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator and held the same position with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-06. "I'm sure up there in Pittsburgh, whenever there's anything wrong with the offense, it's the (play) call."

What has probably made Arians even more of a target is the perception that he has moved the Steelers away from their roots, away from what made them great in the 1970s — and even 2005 when they ran the ball 59.5 percent of the time during the regular season.

The phasing out of the traditional fullback under Arians may be more symbolic than substantial since the Steelers frequently use a tight end or running back Isaac Redman as a lead blocker for Rashard Mendenhall.

But to fans that still have a deep emotional attachment to the Steel Curtain years, it is akin to removing the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception statue from Pittsburgh International Airport.

The Steelers are still so associated with a smashmouth mentality that former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Joe Theismann said, "You're not going to see the Pittsburgh Steelers just light it up and drop back and throw. Every time they do that they get in trouble. They get away from who they are."

Line changes

If the Steelers have gotten away from a power running game part of it may be attributed to the offensive line — and how its makeup has changed.

In 2005, when the Steelers were fifth in the NFL in rushing (138.9 yards per game), they started three former first-round picks up front as well as a second- and third-rounder.

They have started only two first-round picks — guard Alan Faneca in 2007 and center Maurkice Pouncey this season — since Arians took over as offensive coordinator.

And the Steelers finished third in rushing in 2007 and 11th this season.

"A lot of people think running the ball is easier than throwing it and that's not necessarily true sometimes," Arians said. "Last year, we were very explosive and we were highly criticized for the number of runs but it wasn't the number as much as the quality. We weren't tough enough in short-yardage and goal line and at the end of the game. I feel much better about those areas."

He better since team president Art Rooney II said after last season that the Steelers needed to run the ball more effectively in 2010, an edict seemingly directed at Tomlin and, by extension, Arians.

They have done that, at least statistically, but the Steelers' red-zone offense struggles have left Arians vulnerable to criticism.

They scored touchdowns just 48 percent of the time they drove inside their opponents' 20-yard line during the regular season, which ranked 23rd in the NFL.

That represents a slight dip from last season (48.2 percent) when Arians got crucified for the offense's inability to finish drives.

"It's easy to point the finger at him because he's the one calling the plays," Steelers second-year wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "But as the same time, it's the execution not the play calls. It's just like playing quarterback. If things are going good, you're going to get the credit. If things go bad, you're going to take the blame."

That blame takes on an echo quality at a time when media has expanded greatly beyond its traditional form — and given a voice to critics that contend Arians' tenure as the Steelers offensive coordinator shouldn't have lasted any longer than his other stint as an NFL offensive coordinator did (three seasons in Cleveland).

"You've got bloggers and tweeters and all of that baloney, so what you have to do is keep in contact with people that you trust, that have an idea of what you do because only about five percent of the people out there ever speak up and they're always the disgruntled ones," said Henning, who coached Arians for two seasons at Virginia Tech and remains close to him. "I think he's very capable of analyzing the players and determining what's best to do."

Arians said he has that circle of trust, a small group of coaches that he said can critique him without raw emotion entering the equation.

He said he is also able to tune out the negativity largely by accepting that it comes with the job.

To illustrate his point, Arians talked about the victory parade that the city of Pittsburgh held following the Steelers' Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. It came a couple of days after Roethlisberger led an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive with less than three minutes left in the game.

"At the parade, I thought they were booing," Arians said with a chuckle. "They were going Bruce."

Statisically speaking

Here is how the Steelers have fared in four major categories since Bruce Arians became the team's offensive coordinator in 2007. The Steelers rank among NFL teams is in parenthesis.

2007 2008 2009 2010
Rushing offense 135.3 (3) 105.6 (23) 112.1 (19) 120.2 (11)
Passing offense 191.9 (22) 206.3 (17) 259.2 (9) 225.1 (14)
Total offense 327.4 (17) 311.9 (22) 371.3 (7) 345.3 (14)
Scoring 24.6 (T9) 21.7 (20) 23.0 (12) 23.4 (12)

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