"It's a passing league".
It's become so cliché. That's what we all hear.
"In order to win in this league, you have to be able to throw the football."
Yet last year the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl running the ball 139 times and passing the ball 132 (counting sacks as pass attempts) throughout their playoff run. The San Francisco 49ers ran the ball 16 more times than they passed it during their playoff run. Still, all I heard following the Super Bowl is that "it's a passing league."
Fast forward to this years playoffs, and it's clear to me the main reason why the final four teams were still standing: They were running the ball, stopping the run, and getting solid QB play without the backbreaking mistakes.
I heard Charlie Casserly on the radio this week talk about how the Broncos made it a priority this offseason to improve their running game in order to take pressure off of Peyton Manning. Had the Broncos not abandoned the run game that got them inside the 5 a couple times against the Chargers in the previous week, there's a good chance that game is a blowout.
The Saints and Seahawks both ran the ball successfully in the divisional round -- but Pete Carroll was more willing to stick with the run than was Sean Payton, whose desire to air it out in the wind and rain with his good-weather/dome- reliant QB Drew Brees led to a couple of crucial turnovers. Russell Wilson managed the game and got the victory with 108 passing yards. Wilson didn't make the crucial mistake. He allowed Seattle's great defense to do what it does.
The two other divisional playoff games were even more glaring in how running the ball and stopping the run smelled like victory. The Patriots and 49ers could pound the ball into the end zone. The Colts and Panthers could not. The Patriots were unstoppable just about anywhere on the field, and inside the 5 you knew LeGarrette Blount getting in the end zone was inevitable. The Colts had a couple opportunities inside the 5 and could not come close to getting it done running the ball.
The most critical phase of the Panthers/49ers game occurred with under two minutes left in the half. The Panthers (for a second time in the game) could not get into the end zone despite having a first down inside the 5. Instead of going up 14-6, they settled for a field goal. The 49ers then scored a TD with seconds to go in the half to lead 13-10 at the break. It was the turning point of the game.
We could look at other examples: The Chargers running the ball 40 times against the Bengals and passing it 16 and not committing the mistake that could allow the Bengals back into the game. They instead let Andy Dalton continue seal the Bengals' fate.
What does this all mean for the Steelers heading into next season? Do they really need a big/tall wide receiver to get back to the championship rounds?
Out of the final four teams, only one has a really large weapon at WR, Demaryius Thomas with the Broncos (and to a lesser extent Eric Decker). The Patriots and Seahawks reached the final four with smurf types that Steelers fans have come to grow frustrated with.
I would be just as excited as the next fan to see Kelvin Benjamin selected by the Steelers this May. I think a receiver like Benjamin can open things to the point at which this offense can be extremely productive. Ben to Benjamin sounds like a match made in heaven. But is it really what the Steelers need to win another championship? Is a slight improvement over the last half of the season's 29.7 PPG output all they need? With the return of Maurkice Pouncey and a zone/improved run game? And the decrease in sacks and turnovers that we saw at the end of this past season?
I think we need to see more progress and experience from Steve McLendon and Vince Willams before drafting replacements for young talents whose arrows are still pointing up. Maybe McLendon just needs to be healthy or play more in the nickel. Maybe Vince Williams can be the next Larry Foote. Maybe there is a Sean Spence miracle. Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds should be able to improve as edge-setters.
I think the immediate improvement needs to be in the secondary. On the college level, I saw Michigan State dominate defensively this past season because they were able to leave their corners on an island and were aggressive with their remaining nine. Adding a corner that could allow the rest of the unit to be more aggressive would be a huge asset.
I think adding another safety who can quickly fill at the LOS in the run game and cover ground in center field (and hopefully create more turnovers) would be critical in seeing the Steelers improve on last season's run defense as well.
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