There are only a handful of dirty four-letter words in the NFL. "Dink" and "dunk" are two of them. Use them in sequence to describe your passing game, and you might as well accuse the offensive coordinator of playing with "Star Wars" action figures instead of installing a gunslingin', mad bombin', masculine offense.
Ben Roethlisberger used both four-letter d-words when describing coordinator Todd Haley's game plan against the Titans two weeks ago. In that game, Roethlisberger completed an early 82-yard pass to Mike Wallace, but then the bombs fell silent, with Roethlisberger throwing no deep passes at all in the second half. "Haley's offense is not a big-play offense; it's kind of a dink-and-dunk offense," Roethlisberger said, placing blame for the Steelers' lack of quick-strike ability on the "guy that calls the plays."
There were no accusations after Sunday night's 24-17 Steelers win over the Bengals, but the victory may only solve the Steelers' problems temporarily. Roethlisberger was 27-of-37 for 278 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but he spent a lot of the game distributing screen passes, and the Steelers' offense didn't get going until their defense handed them the ball at the Bengals' 29-yard line late in the second quarter. Roethlisberger was 0-for-4 with an interception on passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field.
The Roethlisberger-Haley love-hate relationship is likely to play out all season, but instead of focusing on the bromance, let's ask a simpler question: Is the Steelers' offense a dink-and-dunk? And if so, hasn't it always been? And is that really such a bad thing?
The Sultans of Dink
If you have watched the Steelers for years, you know that Roethlisberger loves to throw deep. You also know that the Steelers often throw screen passes to their wide receivers, and they have been doing so since long before Haley arrived. These screens (or "smoke" plays, or other passes right at the line of scrimmage we will call screens for simplicity's sake) serve several purposes. First, they discourage cornerbacks from setting up with a seven-or-more-yard cushion to guard against the deep pass. Second, they get the ball to Wallace and Antonio Brown, two incredibly fast receivers, in the open field. These screens are an effective counterpunch to the deep pass.
The table below shows the Steelers' deep passing statistics (passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield) for 2011 and 2012, as well as the league average. It also shows the same statistics for passes thrown anywhere from behind the line of scrimmage to a mere two yards downfield: in other words, the dinkiest of dinks. The numbers show that the Steelers are bombing as often as ever, but they may have a dinking problem.
Steelers Screens and Deep Passes Per Game
|Deep Passes, 2012||4.2||1||34.5|
|Deep Passes, 2011||4.3||1.5||50.1|
|Deep, League Avg.||4.3||1.4||49.9|
|Screens, League Avg.||8.9||6.4||41.9|
The Steelers fell right around the league average in deep passes in 2011, though that can be misleading from a strategic standpoint. They finished 12-4, meaning that they rarely had to throw deep in desperation when they were trailing. When it came to voluntary bombing, the Steelers were more prolific than most teams. This year, their numbers are off by half a completion and about 16 yards per game. That's not really significant: A dropped pass or two in the Bengals game (like the deflected pass Wallace could not quite haul in for a touchdown) are enough to skew the numbers at this point in the season.
But take a look at those screens! In 2011, the Steelers were slightly more screen-oriented than the average team, though they were more likely to toss screens to receivers than to running backs. This year, they have gone hog wild for screen passes, throwing about 2.4 more of them per game than the average team.
As the data shows, these screens have been somewhat effective, averaging around six yards per play. Figure 1 shows just one of the 16 (sixteen!) passes thrown within two yards of the line of scrimmage by Roethlisberger on Sunday night. It is second-and-18, and while the Bengals' cornerbacks are aligned tightly on the Steelers' receivers, their safeties are nearly 20 yards deep. Given a block at the line of scrimmage, a speedster like Wallace could do some damage. So tight end Heath Miller (83) loops around at the snap to block Wallace's defender, while Wallace takes a jab step forward, then waits for the screen. This is a 12-yard completion to create a manageable third-and-medium situation, and it is one of just many variations on wide receiver screens the Steelers executed on Sunday, tallying 79 yards on 15 completions.
Too Much of a Good Dink
If you are quick with your calculations, you realize that 79 yards on 16 pass attempts averages out to just under five yards per pass. That's the problem with running too many screens: There are diminishing returns. In addition to their screens, the Steelers executed four wide receiver end-arounds to Brown and Wallace, gaining 20 yards. Again, we are at five yards per play: not bad, but not what you want from plays carefully engineered to surprise the defense. The technical term for running too many of these types of plays is "getting too cute."
The Steelers run the risk of turning the counter-punch into the main punch. The receiver screens and end-arounds are meant to make the defense play "honest" football: no deep zones, no wacky blitzes. But the Bengals were playing honest defense for most of Sunday's game: 16 dinky passes and four end-arounds were simply overkill. Haley was trying to protect a patchwork line with all of the misdirection, but he also created several instances in which Roethlisberger dumped the football to Miller or a receiver with no chance to gain useful yardage.
The few times Roethlisberger did throw deep, the screen-heavy design of the Steelers' offense limited his options. Figure 2 shows the end-zone interception that killed a second quarter drive. It is first down, and Roethlisberger wants to take a deep shot, but he has just two receiving options: Miller up the seam and Wallace up the sideline. Brown loiters on the left side of the field for a short pass. The running back leaks just past the line of scrimmage for a dump-off. The extra tight end blocks. The short receivers serve an important purpose against a zone defense, "holding the level" of the linebackers so Roethlisberger has room to throw to Miller. But this play has too many level-holders and not enough receivers. Chris Crocker, the deep safety to Brown's side of the field, has nothing else to worry about, so he converges on Miller for an easy interception. Had Brown run a fly route instead of standing around, Crocker might have been otherwise occupied.
Of course, Roethlisberger didn't have to throw into tight coverage. He knew Brown was not running a route, leaving Crocker free to roam the middle. The running back dump-off would have gained four yards, adequate results on first down in field goal range. Either the play design must change or the quarterback's expectations have to change. We are back to the player-coordinator staring contest.
Truce or Consequences
Stories were already bubbling out of Pittsburgh about Roethlisberger using last year's audibles instead of Haley's plays during key drives, and other whispers of discontent, before last week's dink-and-dunk remark. Haley had a difficult relationship with Matt Cassel in Kansas City, and he arrived back in Pittsburgh with a reputation for over-complication and under-communication. Had the defense not given them a short field and a frustrated opponent, the Steelers' offense might easily be in full mutiny this week.
Roethlisberger has a point: The Steelers are getting carried away with the screen passes. But he and his receivers can make things better. Four or five deep passes per game are enough to balance Haley's passing attack, as long as Wallace doesn't drop passes and Roethlisberger doesn't force them. Complete another bomb or two, and the cornerbacks will play back, making those dinks a little less dinky.
The Steelers have made screen-and-bomb work before. Haley and Roethlisberger both need to adjust a little bit. Watching them try should be a lot of fun.
(All stats provided by Football Outsiders.)