For years, the major complaint from Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans towards former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was that every time the team drove down the field, they often had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
Visually that perception may not have changed much during Todd Haley’s first season employing his “dink and dunk” offense, but when the Steelers got into the red zone, Haley’s play calling became surprisingly more aggressive.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 59.3 percent of Pittsburgh’s touchdown passes were caught in the end zone. That was tied for the ninth-highest total in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That alone should make quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a happy camper.
The Steelers scored 16 times when throwing into the end zone in 2012. There were only five teams who had more: the Denver Broncos (24), Green Bay Packers (22), Atlanta Falcons (20), New Orleans Saints (19) and San Diego Chargers (17). Notice the trend there in the quarterbacks as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers are among the most prolific passers in the league.
But while the numbers would suggest the Steelers were more aggressive in the red zone, it didn’t translate into a ton of success.
Last season the Steelers scored touchdowns on 27 of 49 trips in the red zone (55.1 percent), which ranked 14th in the NFL.
It was a slight upgrade though as in 2011, Arians’ last season as offensive coordinator, the Steelers reached the end zone on 27 of 53 possessions inside the 20-yard line (50.9 percent), which ranked 18th.
There are plenty of reasons why the Steelers have limited success inside the red zone and very few of them have to do with Roethlisberger, whose mobility, arm strength and decision making usually make him a weapon inside the 20-yard line.
The biggest downfall with the Steelers not being able to get into the end zone more frequently has to do with the lack of a running game. When teams don’t have to respect the run, they can pay more attention to the pass and with limited space in the end zone, there have been limited chances to score. In addition the lack of a ground game has all but eliminated the play action pass from the Steelers arsenal.
Finally there’s the fact that the Steelers offense became a little to structured and predicable last season.
Very few times did we see Roethlisberger do what he does best- improvise.
The ability to make plays out of nothing could be Big Ben’s biggest strength, especially in the red zone. But that was also a part of the Steelers offense that seemed to be removed with Haley’s arrival.
Finally there was the injury to Roethlisberger, who was playing at an MVP-level when he was injured against the Kansas City Chiefs. Neither Byron Leftwich nor Charlie Batch had the ability to sustain drives. When you rely on the short pass like the Steelers did a season ago, to score touchdowns most drives tend to be lengthy, which means more precision is needed for the entirety of a drive. Leftwich and especially Batch simply weren’t capable of that.
Entering the 2013 season, given the trends and what should be an improved ground game, you have to think the Steelers will be able to have increased success inside the red zone.
Even without Mike Wallace in Miami and Heath Miller likely to miss some time, the Steelers should have the opportunity to become one of the better red zone teams in the NFL in 2013.
That is a as long as No. 7 can stay healthy.