Whisenhunt's game plans commanding attention

DETROIT -- Had his career path veered off in another direction, Ken Whisenhunt might be here this week studying the underpinnings of the Ambassador Bridge, the 9,200-foot span that connects the downtowns of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and which remains, eight decades after its completion, the world's longest international suspension bridge.

Good thing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, that 20 years after Whisenhunt graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering, the talented offensive coordinator prefers conjuring up pass routes instead of innovative ways to link cities via bridges and tunnels.

"Good thing, too," joked Whisenhunt, who has become nearly as high profile a celebrity during Pittsburgh's brilliant run to Super Bowl XL as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or tailback Jerome Bettis, "for all those poor people who might have been traveling on the bridges or roads I could have been drawing up, huh?"

The self-deprecating shot by Whisenhunt, uttered in a number of variations on a theme following each of the Steelers' postseason victories, has become a stock reply by now.

Anything but hackneyed, however, is the work Whisenhunt has performed in designing game plans and then in finding the right play for the right situation in virtually every one of the circumstances the Pittsburgh offense has confronted so far in the playoffs.

The guy who might have been designing eight-lane highways had he opted to accept any of the real-world job offers proposed to him after college, and eschewed an athletic career as an NFL tight end, has taken the Steelers' offense on the road and topped the very solid defenses of the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. Forget slide rules and calipers, because Whisenhunt is more into "slide" pass protection schemes and stretching opposing defenses. Instead of sitting at a drafting table, Whisenhunt is a lot more comfortable now at a dry-erase board, matching up O's with corresponding X's, trying to determine whether an I-cut slant route will work against a certain coverage instead of doping out the numbers for the weight-bearing capacity of a multiton I-beam.

His blueprints deal in passes, not overpasses.

Yeah, the offensive coordinator known to Steelers players as "Whiz" has emerged of late as an offensive wizard, and most of the people he has worked with in the past are hardly surprised by the evolution.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry, who coached Whisenhunt at Georgia Tech, recalls the day his former pupil came out to watch a 1980 Yellow Jackets spring practice. As a high school quarterback, the Augusta, Ga., native was widely recruited until he tore up his knee during his senior year, and schools who were wooing him backed away.

One of his assistants apprised Curry that he had a young player Georgia Tech likely could never have attracted before the injury, but who might enroll in school and try to earn a roster spot as a walk-on. As Curry recalls, he stood with Whisenhunt for about 90 minutes at practice, during which neither spoke very much. When the session concluded, Curry asked Whisenhunt what he thought of the then-downtrodden Yellow Jackets.

"And he turned to me," Curry said, "and said, 'Coach, I've seen enough to know that I can come here and help you.' And when he came out for the team in the fall, he was so much better than what we had at just about every position, it took us all of maybe four minutes to locate a scholarship for him. He always had a suggestion or two, occasionally too many of them, but he was just brilliant."

A lot of people Whisenhunt has worked with, at every level of the game, share that opinion of the Steelers' offensive coordinator.

"To say he was a guy who was always drawing up stuff on cocktail napkins, that would be a little bit of [an embellishment], and he doesn't need that to validate what he's doing," said former NFL coach Rod Dowhower, who while at Vanderbilt hired Whisenhunt for his first coaching job. "He's a very bright guy, one of those guys who has to know what everybody is doing on a play, and why they're doing it. He sees the whole picture."

And after only two seasons as a coordinator, having presided over the development of Roethlisberger and the advancement of a Pittsburgh attack much more diverse than the opposition was likely to expect until a month ago, it appears Whisenhunt is poised to broaden his professional horizons.

Whisenhunt, 43, is likely to meet with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis sometime shortly after Sunday's game to discuss the league's last head coaching vacancy. If he is as smart as he appears, Whisenhunt can leave his résumé home, and merely walk into Davis' office with the celluloid documentation from the Steelers' last three games. Of course, there are those who contend that if Whisenhunt were really savvy, he would avoid Davis' overtures altogether, and wait for a better opportunity.

But when your career has taken the on-ramp to the fast track, as Whisenhunt's has during a run to the Super Bowl once deemed improbable by even some of the most loyal card holders in Steelers Nation, it's difficult to ignore opportunity knocking. Patience is a virtue Whisenhunt has practiced in the past, former Atlanta Falcons teammate Jeff Van Note acknowledged, but he's not necessarily into biding time.

"He was kind of a, 'Why are we doing it this way and what's it meant to achieve?' sort of player," Van Note said. "There was a natural curiosity within him. I'm sure that is serving him pretty well right now. I would think guys like playing for him. He's been a player, he knows that side of it, and he can relate."

Indeed, the Steelers' players, arguably given a bit more freedom and input than in the past, swear by Whisenhunt, the manner in which he prepares them, and the way in which he has called plays during the team's hot streak.

Nothing against Mike Mularkey, the former Buffalo Bills head coach and the man who preceded Whisenhunt as Pittsburgh's offensive chief, but players concede privately that they felt he was often too quick to abandon the run. There were whispers as well that Mularkey enjoyed, perhaps a little too much, his reputation for offensive trickery. There are detractors around the league who still feel the Steelers use more gimmickry than any other NFL offense, but those people clearly don't watch much videotape.

Not that Whisenhunt doesn't occasionally scour the back of the playbook for a gimmick; the play that broke open the Steelers' victory at Cincinnati in the wild-card round was a throwback pass that began with wide receiver Antwaan Randle El's taking a direct snap in a shotgun formation and ended by going for a 43-yard touchdown. But Whisenhunt isn't as prone as Mularkey to dig deep into his bag of tricks.

And more often than not, the skulduggery has paid big rewards.

"Everybody has gimmicks and exotics, and everybody knows everybody has them," Curry noted. "The coaches who succeed with those things are the ones who use them at a point when the opponent doesn't know they're coming. And that's why Ken is so good at that kind of thing."

As he explained after the win over Denver in the AFC Championship Game, Whisenhunt tries hard to make certain the more exotic plays in the Pittsburgh repertoire flow naturally from the team's normal offense. Or from what recent game plans have demonstrated to Steelers opponents. The touchdown toss to wideout Cedrick Wilson in the Cincinnati game was a spin-off of a package in which Pittsburgh uses Randle El in the backfield. It is hardly the lone example of Whisenhunt, the ol' civil engineer, building upon past plays.

Many of the principles of the pass protection scheme against Denver, a high blitz-quota defense, were erected from Whisenhunt's ambitious use of a bunch formation package against the Colts in the divisional-round game. At Denver, the Steelers often aligned in a bunch look, but then brought a player in motion back toward the formation, usually to serve as an extra blocker against the blitz. And on Pittsburgh's first touchdown at Denver, a 12-yard corner route to Wilson, the play was set up by the fact the Steelers are such a slant-proficient team in the red zone. The Steelers used the spread formation they favor near the goal line, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey bit badly on a Roethlisberger pump fake because he felt he could jump in front of the slant, and Wilson went to the corner instead and was open by 8 yards.

"You want to do new things, but do them from looks you've given teams in the past, like from a formation or a [substitution] package or something," Whisenhunt explained. "But the most important thing is just getting players into position to make plays. We're kind of a 'square peg into the square hole and round peg into the round hole' offense. We're not going to ask guys to do what they can't possibly do. And we always try to play to a guy's strengths. I mean, that's the name of the game, right? You might add some things here and tweak something there, but it's still about basics, and about growing where you can."

And the brainy Whisenhunt, it seems, knows how to grow an offense.

The former college and NFL tight end (Whisenhunt played nine seasons with Atlanta, Washington and the New York Jets, compiling 62 receptions for 596 yards and five touchdowns in his career) has been an assistant in the league only nine years. He had principally mentored tight ends until Mularkey departed after the 2003 campaign, and Steelers coach Bill Cowher elevated him into the coordinator spot.

The offense Whisenhunt inherited had finished 22nd overall in 2003 and ranked next to last in the league in rushing. In Whisenhunt's first season, the Steelers moved up to No. 14 in overall offense and were second in rushing offense. This season, Pittsburgh was 15th overall and fifth in rushing offense. And during Whisenhunt's short tenure as the coordinator, the Steelers' offense has recorded two of its five highest-scoring seasons in Cowher's 14 years as head coach.

Opponents who have bought into the fallacy that the Steelers' goal is to just bludgeon an opponent from the outset have paid the price. Indeed, most of the diversity of the offense has come in the first half, to build a lead. The erosive running game usually comes in the second half, when Pittsburgh typically tries to put the game on ice.

"I'm kind of [biased], but when those teams bring the eighth [defender] down in the box because they think we're just going to run it to death, well, look out," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We're as diverse as anyone. 'Whiz' is great with formations, with stuff that disguises our intentions, and the man is absolutely in a zone right now as far as dialing up the right [plays]. For us, he's really taken it to a higher level."

To do so, of course, Whisenhunt had to accelerate the Roethlisberger learning curve. And together with vastly underrated quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, he has accomplished that feat. Roethlisberger is playing with obvious poise and confidence, and he seems so utterly nonchalant in the pocket right now, it's almost like his game is in cruise control.

That comes from having been ceded more responsibility by Whisenhunt, from having more freedom than a year ago, from having a coordinator who has built the quarterback up as much as one would build, well, perhaps a state-of-the-art superhighway.

Maybe one that is paved with big plays on Sunday evening and leads directly to a Super Bowl XL championship.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.