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That's offensive: Without proper personnel, these teams will struggle

The soap opera-like drama unfolding in D.C with Jim Zorn has brought to light a complex issue that plagues offensive coordinators around the league.

For all of the credit that coordinators get for their innovative scheming and creative play-calling, it is their ability to match their offensive philosophy with the talent of their roster that ultimately determines their team's success.

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Although these offensive architects have spent countless hours perfecting their intricate systems during offseason organized team activities, practices and minicamps, the regular season provides the ultimate test for play-callers. In these win-at-all-cost contests, the symmetry between scheme and talent is vital to the success of the offense.

Whereas the offensive fireworks set off in New Orleans are indicative of the budding chemistry that exists between Sean Payton and his personnel, the abysmal tenure of Zorn reveals the pitfalls of trying to execute a system that doesn't mesh well with the talent on a roster.

Zorn, who acted as his own offensive coordinator since taking over for Joe Gibbs in 2008, has struggled mightily while trying to implement the west coast offense in Washington. The Redskins have lost 10 of their last 14 games and have been awful on offense this season. The team is averaging just 13.2 points a game and it has not scored more than 17 in any single contest. In addition, the Redskins rank 23rd in total offense (294.0) and are among the bottom third of the league in rush offense and passing yards (195.3).

While some would blame the ineptitude solely on the selection of the plays, the fact that Zorn is playing with a host of players ill-suited to play in his system has been critical to his downfall.

"It amazes me that they (owner Dan Snyder and GM Vinny Cerrato) thought that he would be able to successfully implement his system in such a short amount of time," said an NFC personnel director. "He inherited a team that was built to play a power running style under Joe Gibbs, and the team didn't make major personnel moves to adapt to the West Coast offense. Without the proper personnel, no system is able to work effectively, and the Redskins are finding that out."

Although Washington's offensive woes have received most of the attention this week, the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans are also suffering from an identity crisis.

Chicago's offensive problems are somewhat surprising given the makeup of the roster. Though they acquired Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler during the offseason, the Bears were expected to remain a running team with Matt Forte leading the way. However, the second-year pro has struggled finding running room (Forte is averaging 3.4 yards per carry and has only one 100-yard rushing day on the season) and his inability to pick up yardage consistently has forced the team to rely on Cutler's right arm to win games.

While Cutler has performed admirably through the first five games -- he's completing 64 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a respectable 86.9 passer rating -- the team lacks the proper personnel to move the ball primarily through the air.

Whereas most pass-heavy attacks feature the presence of a dominant No. 1 receiver, the Bears' top weapon in the passing game is tight end Greg Olsen and the rest of the team's receiving corps lacks the skills to warrant double coverage on the outside. Although Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have occasionally provided a big-play element, the Bears have yet to have a receiver produce a 100-yard game this season and Olsen currently ranks as the team's fifth-leading receiver. With such inconsistent production from their pass catchers, it is not surprising the Bears, despite leaning heavily on their passing game, have failed to crack the top 10 in passing yards (16th) or points per game (13th).

The Titans' offensive futility has also been a stunning development this season. The unit added several explosive weapons in wideouts Nate Washington and Kenny Britt, and tight end Jared Cook to a backfield that featured two Pro Bowl players (Chris Johnson and Kerry Collins) and the AFC-touchdown leader (LenDale White) from a season ago. With a more potent aerial attack available to complement their formidable running game, the Titans were expected to field an offense that was problematic to defenses.

But Tennessee ranks 21st in total offense and is averaging a paltry 172.3 yards per game through the air. While those numbers are comparable to the team's statistics from a season ago, the notion of the Titans producing a more explosive aerial attack has not materialized this season; the Titans have produced just eight plays of at least 20 yards.

Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press
Ben Roethlisberger, with 1,887 yards through six games, is on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards this season, which would easily break Pittsburgh's single-season record.
Steelers' all-time single-season passing leaders
Rk
Player
Year
Yards
TD-INT
1
1979
3,724
26-25
2
2006
3,513
18-23
3
2003
3,414
18-17
4
1980
3,339
24-22
5
2008
3,301
17-15

While some would point out that the Titans' running game averages the sixth-most rushing yards per game (138.5), a deeper look inside the numbers reveals that Johnson's explosive day against the Texans in Week 2 (16 rushes for 197 yards) distorts the team's gaudy statistics. Furthermore, the team's rushing attempts per game has fallen from 31.4 in 2008 to only 26.0 this season. Of course, the team's penchant for falling behind early in games has forced it to fade away from the running game. The fact that White has seen his workload sharply decline this season (he has carried the ball more than 10 times only once compared to 11 games with 10 or more carries in 2008) is indicative of the troubling shift in offensive emphasis in Tennessee.

"Sometimes a team gets a few new weapons in the offseason, and they are so determined to get them involved that they forget about their foundation," said an AFC personnel man. "By the time they realize that they have strayed too far from their personality, they are in too deep of a hole to recover."

With that sentiment universally shared throughout the league, it is not surprising that some teams are already undergoing midseason makeovers. Interestingly, the defending Super Bowl champions are undergoing such a transition.

The Steelers, who have been viewed as a smash-mouth team since the Chuck Noll era, have transformed from a run-heavy attack to an aerial circus this season. Led by Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are passing the ball 34.7 times a game and rank second in passing offense (296.7 yards per game).

Utilizing a shotgun formation with a host of three- and four-receiver packages, the Steelers are allowing Roethlisberger to pick apart defenses from a wide-open offense that is similar to the attack he directed during his days at Miami of Ohio. He has responded with three 300-yard games, including 417 last week against Cleveland, and leads the league with 1,887 passing yards, a pace that would shatter Terry Bradshaw's Steelers record.

Although the Steelers realize that they must maintain the threat of the run by using Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker on occasion, their shift to a pass-first approach has sparked a three-game winning streak and forced defenses to use a different game plan when defending them.

The Miami Dolphins have also used a midseason makeover to overcome a disappointing start. Fueled by an injury to Chad Pennington, the Dolphins have transformed their offensive attack to a running machine while slowly integrating a young signal caller into the lineup. Although this hasn’t been a drastic change from their ordinary approach under Tony Sparano, the creative way the offense has functioned in the weeks following Pennington’s injury has modified the offense’s persona.

Last season, the Dolphins unveiled their “Wildcat” offense, and the old-school formation spread like wildfire throughout the league. Their adaptation of the single-wing offense befuddled defensive coordinators not prepared to deal with a scheme that taxed defenders mentally and physically. While other teams had used single wing concepts like the direct snap (center snaps the ball directly to a running back) in the past, the Dolphins use of the single wing was more advanced than anyone had seen on the pro level. The team used a combination of an unbalanced line with “heavy” personnel (multiple tight ends and three running backs) in the game to create advantageous situations in the running game. The unorthodox formation became a staple in their game plan, and helped the team win the AFC East title after getting off to a 0-2 start.

This year, the team has turned to the formation to alleviate some of the pressure on Chad Henne. The second-year pro was thrust into action after Pennington suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3 against the Chargers, and defenses were poised to attack the youngster with a host of exotic blitzes designed create confusion and turnovers. Anticipating the blitz-heavy approach, the Dolphins have increased their usage of the “Wildcat” in the two games following the injury. With unconventional offense forcing defenses to abandon their traditional tactics, the Dolphins have been able to exploit schematic weaknesses and keep defensive coordinators off balance.

Additionally, the increased use of the formation has gotten the Dolphins’ best players more involved on offense. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have combined for 68 carries for 342 yards and five touchdowns in the Dolphins’ last two games. While all of their touches didn’t come from the Wildcat, the successful use of the power formation has encouraged the Dolphins to rely on the running game as their preferred method of moving the ball. After two impressive wins against the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, it is apparent that the change is yielding positive results.

With six weeks of the season in the books, the identity of offenses throughout the league are starting to take shape, and savvy coordinators are assessing if a midseason makeover is needed. Their ability to make to make the right decision at this critical stage could result in a playoff appearance or a pink slip at season’s end.

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