On the Steelers: Planned uncertainty ... the QB strategy

Who do Tomlin and Arians ready and what do they get him ready for? Favre's fate to be settled on diamond?

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The ongoing state of affairs at quarterback for the Steelers not only remains captivating in a provincial Pittsburgh sense, it may be unique to the history of the National Football League.

If another pro team ever had to prepare for a season under these conditions with its quarterback, those who have been around for a while cannot remember one. Not even Bill Nunn, the longtime Steelers scout who goes back to the 1950s as a newspaper man covering the sport before he joined the Steelers, could remember a situation quite like this.

The Steelers must prepare a quarterback to start the first four games of the season knowing he will be benched as soon as their regular quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, returns presumably for the fifth game. Coach Mike Tomlin has not even decided which quarterback will play those first four games. At least he says he has not. At the same time, Tomlin wants to avoid having a flat-out competition for that job in training camp.

And what will he do with Roethlisberger once he returns for spring practices, never mind the larger issue of how he will use him in training camp and preseason games? Does he run him with the third team, get him work with the first? And when does he play in the preseason? Once the season begins, Roethlisberger must leave the Steelers entirely for the first month, so the training he gets in August could be lost by the time he returns in October.

Other teams have experienced similar circumstances at other positions such as wide receiver, but not quarterback.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians says they have to proceed "the same as when they're injured." Yet, they will have Roethlisberger during camp and presumably he won't be sitting on the water cooler every practice. Also, there is the difference in styles among the various quarterbacks that include Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.

"You have an offense that you hope is broad enough that can fit each guy's style, what he does best, and you don't ask guys to do things they can't do," Arians said as to how his offense might take advantage of each quarterback's strengths. "That's the key to all offenses; you take your personnel, you find out what we can do and it's broad enough if an injury occurs here or there, which always happens -- like Dennis in Baltimore, being the [No. 3], having something where he has a chance to win the game. This is the process of going through all that."

Dixon performed well enough in Baltimore even though the coaches tried to limit his ability to run because they feared an injury with only a concussed Roethlisberger and inexperienced Tyler Palko behind him.

During this spring, Arians is not adapting his offense for any quarterback but trying to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are in that offense.

"This time of year you find out what they can do," Arians said. "You keep stretching the envelope and say, 'OK, this is the offense, everybody's doing it,' and then you just make mental notes as you go along: 'He really struggles with that throw or he really struggles with that footwork, or this type of read' or letting him change protections. So if and when the time comes to call on one you can tailor your game plan to fit him."

There is no blueprint for this type of situation because there has never been this kind of situation.

"I wouldn't say it's weird, but it is different," Batch said. "I think how we handle it, maybe other teams will look at how it works. But it may never happen again but because it's a first."

Going fullback in time

There are strong opinions when the topic of a Steelers fullback is broached, and what that position means to the team's running game. Many call the use of a pure blocking fullback "Steelers football," as if that is how they've played the game for years.

That style of offense, however, is only of more recent Steelers vintage.

It was not until Tim Lester joined the team in 1995 that they began using a pure lead blocker at fullback, and Lester did not play much that Super Bowl season. John L. Williams was used more at fullback in '95; he was not a pure blocker but more of the type of fullback who caught passes and ran with the ball. Williams actually led the team in '94 with 51 receptions, a year in which he also ran for 317 yards on 68 carries.

Chuck Noll's teams rarely used someone in the backfield merely to block. Under his split-back offense, Noll's fullbacks were the lead runners, not blockers. Franco Harris was the fullback in Noll's offenses. Merrill Hoge led the Steelers three times in rushing by '90 yet by '92 he was used as the "fullback" by Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt, and not their lead runner. Hoge remained in that role until Williams joined them in '94.

So it was only in '96 that the Steelers began adopting the idea of using a true blocker at fullback, starting with Lester, moving on to Jon Witman and then to Dan Kreider. The position morphed to the point that the coaches rarely considered their fullback for anything other than to block. In 2004 when the Steelers rediscovered their ground game and averaged 154 yards rushing, Kreider ran four times for 18 yards.

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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