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Starkey: The Arians dilemma

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Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

From the sounds of it, changes are at hand.

Big changes?

"I like to use the term, 'appropriate changes,'" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his season-wrap news conference.

In terms of the coaching staff, a major question looms: Would it be "appropriate" to hire a new offensive coordinator• Tomlin isn't saying — he's meeting with players and coaches all week — but that would be one bold and risky move.

The Steelers, after all, won the Super Bowl last season — on a dramatic drive — and finished seventh in the NFL in total offense this season while setting several franchise benchmarks.

What's more, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has progressed nicely in three years under Bruce Arians and appears to enjoy working with him.

Take away Ben's guy, and you're messing with your $102 million franchise centerpiece.

On the other hand, you might be saving your $102 million franchise centerpiece.

See, for all the nice numbers the Steelers have racked up in three seasons under Arians, there are plenty of not-so-nice numbers, starting with this one: Roethlisberger has been sacked 156 times, including playoffs.

Part of that, as we all know, is attributable to Roethlisberger's big-play style. He holds the ball longer than most. Part of it is substandard blocking.

Most of it is the fact that the Steelers have fallen deeply, hopelessly in love with the pass, to the point where one might forget that when Tomlin got here, he claimed to be a "smash-the-run" kind of guy.

Smash-the-run• How about fast-to-pass• The club's media guide goes back to 1969, and this was the only season in which the Steelers ordered at least 100 more passes than runs. That, despite the fact they almost never were in must-pass mode, trailing by double-digits only once.

I asked Tomlin if all the quarterback hits are something he can live with, or something he will try to rectify.

"I'm looking to rectify it in some form or fashion," he said.

Now, I'm not one who believes you need a "smash-the-run" attack to win Super Bowls. Too many teams, including the Steelers, have disproved that theory. But I am one who believes in balance - and that the $102 million quarterback needs to stay in one piece if the Steelers are going to win anything of significance in the near future.

But that's not the only factor at play here. "Points scored" is the most important offensive statistic, and the Steelers don't score enough. In Arians' three seasons, they have finished in the top third of the league once, tied for ninth in 2007. In a full 25 percent of their games this season (four of 16), they scored one offensive touchdown or fewer.

That is unacceptable.

Tomlin began his media address by emphasizing the 2-4 division record as his team's undoing. I'm guessing he wouldn't need to be reminded that in two of those losses, his offense failed to muster a single touchdown.

Red-zone offense is another area of consistent failure.

"Situational football defines us," Tomlin said, "and we were below the line."

The Steelers finished tied for 21st in red-zone offense — below the likes of Tampa Bay — after finishing a mediocre 15th last season. They failed to put away several games because of red-zone meltdowns.

Let's be honest about last season. The Steelers won their division and the AFC's No. 2 seed largely because the defense would keep them afloat until Roethlisberger could work his late-game magic, often of the sandlot variety.

I'm not saying Arians has been a bust. Not by a long shot. His resume looks a lot better now than it did three years ago, and it wasn't his fault the defense and special teams blew up so often this season.

The question at hand, however, is how this franchise best moves forward with its offensive philosophy. A solid case could be made for keeping Arians, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Tomlin take a pass.

I wouldn't blame him, either.

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