On Urban Meyer without Dan Mullen or Tom Herman (and why Kevin Wilson matters so much). ... Is this the season it comes together for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense? … For the final week of the NFL preseason, you either choose to work very hard, or not at all.
It will be Part II of Ohio State-Indiana coming to the front today, raising the question as to whether hiring Kevin Wilson as OC may have been a bigger move by Urban Meyer than may be appreciated, and as the NFL team-by-team tour continues it is also time to ponder whether this is the season that those recent Pittsburgh drafts on the defensive side of the ball bear fruit, the signing of Joe Haden on Wednesday bringing even more of a spotlight.
Let’s begin with a question that I believe is valid, but one that not many are going to ask.
What if Urban Meyer simply isn’t a great (or perhaps even good) offensive coach?
I believe the hiring of Wilson is the most important assistant coaching move of this college football season. He has been first rate in that role previously, including igniting the tempo at Oklahoma a decade ago before moving on to be the HC at Indiana, where his teams were never going to have the talent to consistently win in the Big Ten but did manage to move the ball and score points.
When there are player or coaching changes anywhere the formula is a basic one: How much better (or worse) is the new guy at the position compared to whomever has been replaced. In this case it may be major after the Ohio State offensive sputters of 2016, and it does take us to the lead question: While there is no denying how great of a HC Meyer is, could it be said that his offensive tactics leave much to be desired?
One of the reasons why Meyer has been a great HC is his ability to surround himself with good assistants, as well as top-level talent through masterful recruiting. Part of what made his offenses go at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida was the presence of Dan Mullen, and Mullen going 61-42 at Mississippi State, including five bowl wins, cemented notions of his acumen – that is quite an achievement in the tough SEC West when dealing from the toughest recruiting outpost in the group. Like the way Dak Prescott plays the game? He got coached awfully well by Mullen in his college career.
There wasn’t a huge change in the Florida offense the first season after Mullen left, largely because Tim Tebow was returning for his senior campaign, which meant that the playbook was barely tweaked at all. But then look at what happened the following season, using Total Offense as the measure:
Season Rank Per Game Per Play
2008 #15 445 7.1
2009 #6 458 6.9
2010 #82 351 5.2
Yes, losing Tebow was a major blow. But should the program have seen the offense fall nearly two full yards per play from the Mullen/Tebow combination of 2008 to the 2010 offense?
When Meyer took the Ohio State job in 2012, one of his first moves was to hire Tom Herman to run the offense and it led to a terrific cycle, one that ended with that dramatic run to the National Championship in 2014 with a pair of freshman QBs.
Season Rank Per Game Per Play
2011 #17 318 5.1
2012 #47 424 6.1
2013 #7 512 7.2
2014 #9 512 7.0
2015 #41 434 6.3
2016 #31 459 6.0
In the first season under Herman, the offense improved over 100 yards per game, and one full yard per play, from what was inherited. In 2013-14 the Buckeyes were among the nation’s elite. Yet look at what has happened in the two seasons since Herman left. In terms of personnel the drop was not supposed to happen, with J.T. Barrett ideally developing as he got more experience. So far he hasn’t. The end of the 2016 campaign was particularly brutal – the only offensive TD scored in eight quarters of regulation play vs. Michigan & Clemson came on a 4-yard drive after a turnover.
The 2009 Florida/Tebow offense did not require a lot of coaching up, but in the three seasons in which Meyer did not have Mullen or Herman, the offense greatly underachieved given the talent levels. Hence why bringing Wilson on board could make such a major difference – he has a chance to make Meyer look good as an offensive tactician again. For those wagering serious money on these college outcomes, knowing the exact “why” behind the 2017 Ohio State offense can make a difference in terms of developing the proper perspectives.
Is this the season it comes together for the Steelers' defense?
While the big-name players on the Pittsburgh offense naturally grab the headlines, the skill positions arguably the NFL’s best when all hands are on deck, it is the defense that comes front and center in my focus for 2017. Last year’s edition left the field with some egg on their face in an impotent showing at New England, something that justifiably raised a lot of game-plan questions, but if the tactics and talent become a fit under Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler, there is plenty of upside.
The Steeler defense was fading towards the final years of Dick LeBeau’s tenure as DC, finishing #20 on the Football Outsiders adjusted charts in 2013, and then falling to #27 in 2014, but in the first two seasons with Butler making the calls it improved to #8 in 2015 and then #7. A big part of that can be found in the team’s commitment to adding personnel on that side of the ball at draft time:
2013 #1 Jarvis Jones (LB)
2014 #1 Ryan Shazier (LB), #2 Stephen Tuitt (DE)
2015 #1 Bud Dupree (LB), #2 Senquez Goldson (CB)
2016 #1 Artie Burns (CB), #2 Sean Davis (S)
2017 #1 T.J. Watt (LB)
Jones did not pan out and is attempting to revive his career with the Cardinals, but it is possible that all seven of the others will be in the starting lineup when the season opens next Sunday, pending how they decide to use veteran James Harrison vs. Watt in the rotation (if Goldson is healthy, he would be a “starter” at nickel back).
On top of the draft status of those players, add that DE Cameron Heyward was a #1 pick in 2011, NT Javon Hargrave a #3 in 2016, safety Mike Mitchell a #2 (by Oakland) in 2009, and now also Joe Haden a #1 (by Cleveland in 2010), and that is a lot of pedigree to work with. And while the pieces did begin to come together last season, note that injuries impaired the development – only Mitchell and CB Ross Cockrell started all 16, and in particular note that Heyward, Dupree and Shazier missed a combined 21 games.
The LB corps has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best. The DL can be good. The key is whether the secondary can at least play average and perhaps elevate a level above that. Haden, signed after being released by Cleveland, becomes an interesting added piece in that regard – injuries led to a disappointing 2016 for him, but he may be more comfortable in the Pittsburgh zone schemes than playing man-to-man, which makes this a potential career rebirth.
And about those Week 4 Preseason NFL Games
I may be leaving money on the table by not digging more deeply into the final NFL board of the preseason, but it is something that I have chosen to do years ago and not only has fit from a bankroll perspective, but also the aspect of mental health. It is indeed a time in which the right information can deliver edges, but the time that it takes to properly assimilate that info is too exhaustive when there are 130 NCAA teams on the board, many of them hitting the field this very week.
Here is the prime problem – even with the best of the info, these games are as random as anything that appears on the betting menus. Even if one can gauge a coach’s intent at kickoff, those purposes can change as the flow lays out, which means that even the best-laid handicapping plans can be swept away by the current.
There is whimsy to much of it. Buffalo signed Keith Wenning to play QB tonight, potentially going the entire game, and then will place him on waivers afterwards. With Tyrod Taylor and T.J. Yates in the concussion protocol and not certain to be cleared for next week’s opener vs. the Jets, they don’t want to risk Nathan Peterman getting injured. Wenning was brought in as a stop-gap because at least he worked with OC Rick Dennison in the past when Dennison was the Baltimore QB coach.
Let’s let Wenning’s take define much of what you will see tonight, not just in Lions-Bills, but across the league: "It’s tough. I know a couple people here, that’s about it, some guys I’ve been on other teams with. Coach Dennison, his offense, I’m pretty familiar with. That’s been the biggest thing, as long as I know the plays, I know how to run the offense, I’m comfortable. But as far as knowing the tendencies of the receivers and linemen, and the linemen hearing my cadence and stuff like that, that’s the tough part.”
Are there some worthwhile scoops out there? Absolutely, and fortunately some of them will be passed my way. But will I be the one scouring the fine print on this board? No, it just doesn’t fit in the grand scheme. So I will not be taking a full dive, except to go back to one particular well that has been productive in the past.
In the Sights, Thursday NFL
The low priority that Mike Tomlin puts on preseason scoreboards was a feature topic here a few weeks ago, and note that even with Pittsburgh going 2-1 this August nothing has changed – the Steelers were -19 first downs across those two wins. They cared little, but were up against teams that cared even less. So I will be back at it with #112 Carolina (7:30 Eastern), with value holding at -4 or less.
When it comes to “Coachspeak” for this particular week, there simply isn’t anyone better than Pittsburgh’s Tomlin: “This fourth preseason game is always a big platform for guys to state one last case for being here. Beyond that, the division of labor within being here and the etching of roles … There will be some significant action that regard. Whether it’s the competition at the corner position or the infusion of a a savvy veteran into the tight end position, we’ll continue to watch the development of some men in special teams. They have a position and maybe that position comes natural to them, but some of them are being introduced to some different aspects of play.”
That is his way of working around the fact that to him the scoreboard doesn’t matter, and it leads us to Round 3 of what has become an annual (for whatever reason) matchup of the Steelers and Panthers closing out against each other.
The past four seasons these teams have met in Game 4 and it has been a collective 76-22 rout by the Panthers, with first downs at 77-47 and total offense 1,464-802. There are two aspects to it, the first being Tomlin’s low priority, but the second the fact that in Derek Anderson and Joe Webb the Carolina backup QB rotation is arguably the best of any team in the preseason. In particular there is the mobility of Webb, which can create havoc for inexperienced defenses.
I do not believe those recent flows change all that much, and note that Ron Rivera has still not ruled out giving Cam Newton an early series or two, since he has only thrown two passes through the preseason.
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