In Todd, Steelers finally trust
As Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski toss footballs toward garbage cans at a lengthy distance — a fun drill that often brings out the competitive side of the Steelers' quarterbacks — offensive coordinator Todd Haley takes a few turns himself.
Haley puts a few balls close but doesn't sink any, and Roethlisberger lets him have it. Jokingly, of course, and certainly not with the same sense of frustration and tension that existed a year ago when Roethlisberger felt uncomfortable at times with the new offense imposed upon him. And following a late-season loss, he let his boss have it, though he apologized a couple of days later.
“He's as competitive as they come,” Haley said of Roethlisberger, the man who ultimately will determine whether Haley is judged as a success or failure. “He doesn't want to see anybody listed ahead of him, whether it's throwing in buckets out here or Super Bowl rings or completion percentage.”
Roethlisberger last week admitted to some disgruntlement among offensive regulars when forced a year ago to change so much of what they knew to fit Haley's system — one that limited deep passes Roethlisberger likes, plus some of his improvisation, and created a new vernacular for them to learn.
Haley hasn't changed his tune — the focus remains the same, and that includes keeping Roethlisberger upright and productive — but he has rewritten the words. The familiar terminology of plays the Steelers ran for years has returned, and the quarterback is upbeat about the up-tempo style Haley wants to run, even if it's not entirely the no-huddle look Roethlisberger loves.
An 8-8 season, numerous offseason meetings with players and assistant coaches and self-evaluation caused Haley to refine his offense. To him, he's doing only what any good coach would do.
“(I'm) no longer the one lone wolf, the new guy on the block,” Haley said. “As you get to know and communicate and a trust level is built between player and coach, it becomes much easier to talk and ask questions and offer suggestions, which I'm always open to. I think as last year went on, that evolution started, and it was a natural progression during the offseason.
“Just get it right. That's always been my philosophy. It's not about my idea, my offense — I've made it clear every time I've talked, this is not my offense. … I think guys just understand that now. You're seeing a lot more give and take, and that's when you're able to succeed. It's not a my-way-or-the-highway-type deal.”
Running back Isaac Redman said the players are impressed at how Haley not only listened to them but also reworked his system to make it more familiar.
“He's willing to open up and take advice and take criticism. He said, ‘If you don't like this, if you don't like anything, come to me, and we'll fix it,' ” Redman said. “That says a lot, for him to stand up in front of the offense and say that. Just the relationship he has with the whole offense, you can tell it's a lot different from last year.”
As a result, Redman said, “The offense is just clicking for us.”
Of course, it's only practice, at least until the preseason game Saturday against the Giants at Heinz Field.
Familiarity breeds contentment
Roethlisberger seems to be more relaxed than he was last season, when, despite running an offense that wasn't nearly as comfortable to him as Bruce Arians', he was headed for a career year statistically before getting hurt in November. Despite seeing those numbers slip following his return from an upper-body injury, Roethlisberger finished with 26 touchdown passes and eight interceptions — a significant improvement from his 21 TDs and 14 interceptions in 2011.
No doubt that newfound comfort is partly because Haley made many of the alterations the quarterback suggested.
“We're the two that have to have the greatest amount of trust,” Haley said. “When the bullets are flying on game day and he hears my voice, he's got to trust that I'm giving him the best chance to succeed. When I make a call, I've got to trust that what I'm giving him, he's going to make it work. And that only happens through time.
“When you don't know somebody and you haven't had any kind of background or relationship, you're starting from ground zero, and you've got to just take the time to let things evolve and happen in any kind of relationship.”
Haley and Roethlisberger have similar personalties. Both are competitive, a bit prone to agitation when criticized and, at times, hardheaded.
“I've got a little of that in me,” Haley said.
‘Everybody's bought in'
Each is learning to adapt.
While Haley incorporated much of what the players requested, the offense has a lot more of Haley in it, too. Most significant is a greater emphasis on zone blocking, which, in a simplistic definition, features multiple blockers moving in the same direction at the same time, often with the intent of double-teaming a defender. Previously, the Steelers were more inside driven.
They attempted to incorporate more zone blocking last season, but it didn't work well with Max Starks and Willie Colon along the line, especially after injuries began to hit. With Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams at tackle, Ramon Foster and David DeCastro at guard and Maurkice Pouncey at center, Haley feels more comfortable with the blocking scheme being taught by new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
“It's something in Kansas City that we ran a bunch of when we led the league in rushing,” said Haley, the former Chiefs head coach. “It gives us a little more diversity in the run game, which will be great for us. (Last year) we had a little more of a road grader mentality and lacked some athleticism in spots. Now all of a sudden we've got a pretty athletic group from top to bottom. Everybody's bought in, most importantly.”
So has the quarterback, who is looking forward to running an offense that is expected to be faster paced than the Steelers traditionally run. The more athletic offensive line is one reason Haley believes it will work.
“You can be up-tempo and in and out of the huddle faster. We're a younger group across the board. I think we're in the best condition I've seen them,” Haley said. “Any time you've got highly conditioned guys at all positions, you can be up-tempo, whether you're huddling or not huddling. When you are the better-conditioned team, you have a chance to wear out defenses, and as the game goes on, you can gain a distinct advantage. … If you can stay on the field and run a lot of plays, that's usually a good equation.”
Roethlisberger seems convinced, too.
“I firmly believe this will work, especially now with the changes that we've made, and we've gotten better,” he said.
‘Ultimately it's his offense'
Most important is keeping the 31-year-old Roethlisberger on the field. Haley wants the quarterback to get the ball out quickly, throw to all of his receivers and, by doing so, stay out of harm's way. The last two seasons were disrupted by Roethlisberger injuries.
“Every year that he gets older, that's something that's paramount to him, continuing to get better and continuing to be an elite quarterback — in my opinion, he can be the best quarterback in the league,” Haley said. “He's got to be out there playing to do that, and for that to happen, we've got to keep hits off him, as many as we can. Some of that falls on his shoulders, too.”
With a potential new running back in Le'Veon Bell and without playmaker Mike Wallace, the weight of the offense is on Roethlisberger's shoulders more than ever.
“I'm excited about where we're at. I'm excited about where he's at — he's got his mind set on what he wants to get done this year with this team,” Haley said. “Ultimately it's his team.”
Especially now that Roethlisberger is running the Steelers' offense and not just Todd Haley's.