Breaking Down The Language Barrier Is Key To Steelers Offensive Success

By Matthew Marczi

Whether merited or not, there was quite a bit handwringing in the media last offseason over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to hire Todd Haley as the team’s offensive coordinator, and subsequently how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would respond to a coach known for a fiery disposition after seeing his good friend Bruce Arians shown the door.

Of course, as the 2012 season bears out, not much was ever made of the explosive dynamic that was supposed to exist between the two after initial worries over whether they had met, other than a scarce few comments.

A note or two after a tough loss during the season made bigger headlines than they should have, but perhaps the most notable discussion came early on, as Roethlisberger repeatedly referred to Haley’s new playbook as a Rosetta Stone book, a tool used to learn a new language.

After a tough loss early in the year to the Oakland Raiders, Roethlisberger alluded to calling plays in a no huddle situation “that weren’t in our playbook”. He later clarified that he was referring simply to old hand signals used during the Arians regime, but the story stuck.

Late in the season, after yet another defeat, Roethlisberger also made some remarks that alluded to playcalling, citing that as the reason for moving away from the no huddle and for tight end Heath Miller not having a ball thrown his way in the second half.

There is no question that the transition from one set of offensive terminology to another is a difficult one, and that in this case it resulted in some growing pains during Haley’s first season. It is natural for confusion to set in when the identical play that the team ran a year ago is now called something new, as several players made mention of during interviews last spring and summer.

Yet overall, the players seemed to respond positively to Haley’s new offensive schemes, which focused more on protecting the quarterback and getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. And it was showing on the field up until Roethlisberger suffered a rib injury that knocked him out of three and a half games and saw him come back looking like a different player.

Now with a full season of the new offense in place, even the most steadfast denier of the earlier controversy from a season ago would be hard-pressed to deny that there is a different, more congenial tone to the dialogue of late.

Roethlisberger and Haley both spoke with the media on Wednesday, and both addressed the topic of Haley’s offensive system and its terminology. Both intimated that constructing the offense is a mutual process that includes input from everybody.

When asked about reports that Roethlisberger had given his input on changes to be made in the offense to Haley, he was quick to point that out:

“It’s more than just me. I think it’s everybody. Just the simple fact that [Haley] came to me and asked what I thought about it, changing the names of things to kind of make more sense to all of us. Usually, I talk to a lot of the guys. I ask the tight ends and wide receivers, ‘Does this hit you? Does it make sense to you if we call it this?’ If it doesn’t, then we will go try to change it. We want everything, when it’s on the fly, to make as much sense as possible.”

For Haley’s part, he was asked by a reporter—who sounded suspiciously like Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—if he was indeed more open now to input from his team with regards to tweaking the offense. Needless to say, Haley took umbrage to the implication, and rightfully so:

“That’s offensive to me because I’m an open-minded guy, but I think it just comes with familiarity and getting to know people. Myself, as a coach, I know the players a lot better. They know me personality-wise. I think it’s just an evolution of how things go with anything you’re doing, business, sports, whatever it is. I think we’re seeing that happen. I think everybody is just more comfortable, which is a good thing. That leads to better communication, which in my opinion leads to better execution and better football.”

And what better way to communicate than to speak the same language?

The crux of the issue goes right back to Roethlisberger’s Rosetta Stone comments from a year ago. The vocabulary, the terminology’s unfamiliarity to familiar plays did seem to pose a problem in terms of comfort and consistency, and now with the offseason, there is time to make changes. As Big Ben explains:

“When Todd came in, it was the exact same play that we had the past couple of years but it was called something completely different. It was just hard for us to make sense of something completely new. So we’ve gone back to what is familiar to a lot of guys. Some things we’ve kept the same. But we’ve moved some terminology around just to make it simpler for the young guys and even for some of us old guys.”

After the season, Haley and the rest of the offensive players and coaches have had time to go over the results and see what worked and what didn’t. The subsequent conclusion has in part resulted in breaking down the language barrier, something that Haley clearly understands, noting that “’the hardest thing for everybody is the terminology”:

“The terminology is why I think everybody is a lot more comfortable. Where the input comes in is something I love on a weekly basis, whether it’s first year, second year or tenth year, you want your marquee-type players, your big dogs, to have input because they’re the ones out there facing the live bullets and I think that through a comfort level as much as just getting to know people, guys are just naturally more comfortable coming to you as coaches and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?’ As a coach, from a very early stage in my career, I’ve been taught that if guys believe in something, they tend to take accountability in it and things work out in a good way.”

Hopefully, the key word during this offseason for the offense will be just that: accountability. Now that the players and assistant coaches have had their input into Haley’s system, they are more invested in its success, because now they feel a sense of ownership over the offense. Now that everybody is on the same page—and speaking the same language—there are no more excuses. The offense sounds confident that it is poised for success, and it is about time to deliver on all of that promise.

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