Given the fact the Steelers offense scored just 17 points against New England on Sunday, it might be tempting to suggest offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner did not call his best game. Don’t be tempted. His play designs and use of formations were excellent and he found creative wrinkles to disguise some of the Steelers’ base concepts, thereby keeping New England off balance. In short, the first-year coordinator called one of his best games when the team needed him most.
Let’s take a look at a few of his most effective designs.
Mired in a three game losing streak, and having not beaten the Patriots since 2011, it was imperative, from a confidence standpoint, that the Steelers got off to a good start. The opening drive Fichtner scripted could not have been better in that regard.
Taking over after a touchback, the Steelers drove 75 yards in 11 plays to score, chewing up over six minutes of the opening quarter. The drive mixed seven passes with four extremely effective runs to rookie back Jaylen Samuels. The play design of the first two runs was brilliant.
On their fourth play of the drive, the Steelers had 1st and 10 at their own 36. Operating from 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) with Vance McDonald aligned into the boundary to the side of the back, the Steelers used a wide zone scheme with the OL and tossed the ball in McDonald’s direction to Samuels. The full flow of the line and the back got the Patriots defense running to the boundary. But McDonald, rather than reach block for sweep, pulled to the other side and wrapped up for the single linebacker in the box. Samuels caught the toss, put his foot in the ground and came back around with McDonald. Had he followed McDonald’s block he might have hit it for a big play. But Samuels cut up one gap too soon. The play hit for six yards anyway.
Fichtner must have seen how well the play was blocked because he came back to it on 2nd down, albeit from a slightly different look. This time he lined McDonald up on the opposite side of the formation and brought him across in motion. Once the ball was snapped, McDonald countered back. This time, with a Patriot defender coming off of the edge, McDonald kicked him out rather than wrapping up to the backer. Samuels ran inside the kickout, read a nice downfield block by Eli Rogers and bounced to the edge for 25 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the NE 33.
Two things stand out about this play. First, it was an old-fashioned concept, similar to the classic Sally play run out of the Wing-T, where all of the linemen block one way and the RB counters back the other. Fichtner put a creative twist on it, however. Most counter plays involve a pulling guard, which can take a good linebacker who is reading his guard key right to the ball. Rather than pull a guard, Fichtner zone blocked the play so that no interior linemen would pull. By tossing the ball to Samuels he created a true full-flow look and then brought the off-set H (McDonald), who no linebackers would be keying, back around as the sole lead blocker. It was a tough concept for the defense to read and a very creative design by the OC.
The other thing that stands out about the play is how it provided Samuels a lead blocker out of a predominantly passing formation to help get the rookie comfortable in the run game. In 2x2 sets with a single back in the backfield, especially a back with a reputation as a good receiver like Samuels, the defense is often thinking pass. The most common run option out of these sets is inside zone, which relies upon a back’s instincts to find a hole and does not traditionally supply a lead blocker. Samuels, who is both inexperienced and does not strike me as a great inside zone back (lack of vision and natural burst) did not seem a strong candidate to run this concept. So, rather than force the player into the scheme, Fichtner found a way to adapt the scheme to the player (precisely what we were suggesting last week that Keith Butler needs to do).
Fichtner essentially used McDonald to show Samuels where to run the ball on those first two carries. Although Samuels didn’t follow McDonald on the first run, he did so the other times in the game the Steelers ran this play. All told they ran it four times for 50 yards. It was the most effective run play on a day when Samuels came up huge, carrying the ball 19 times for 142 yards in James Conner’s absence. Fichtner’s creative design got Samuels comfortable early and the rookie flourished from there.
That first drive ended with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a five yard touchdown pass to McDonald on a 3rd and goal play. If the play looked painfully familiar to anyone watching, it should have. It was the same concept the Raiders ran on 4th and goal last week to win the game. Just as Derek Carrier did for Oakland, McDonald ran an arrow route straight towards the sideline, then pivoted and whipped back inside. Safety Patrick Chung got caught on McDonald’s outside shoulder and the big TE beat him easily back to the inside. It was a good route by McDonald and a good throw by Big Ben. But it was an even better call by Fichtner, who was smart enough to copy something he saw from an opponent and use it at an opportune time.
Following the first drive, Fichtner started using heavy doses of empty formations to force the Patriots into non-traditional defensive alignments. The Patriots played a lot of these empty sets in two-high safety looks with wide linebackers, which, given the width of the receivers, opened up the middle of the field. Fichtner exploited this expertly on the Steelers second touchdown drive.
Early in the drive, on a 2nd and 1 from the -34, Roethlisberger threw a short flat route to Antonio Brown out of an empty set. It seemed like a strange call at the time - a long throw to the flat that barely picked up the yard necessary for the first down - but it would prove to be a clever setup.
Two plays later the Steelers went empty again and hit James Washington on an in-cut for a first down. They stayed in empty and hit Eli Rogers on a flat route on the next play, then got a pass interference call on the Patriots on a fade to Rogers out of yet another empty set. The spacing of the routes on these plays was great as the Patriots were forced to cover from one sideline to the other - the entire 53 yards of the width of the field.
It was now 1st down on the +18. With the defense effectively stretched and the Patriot safeties beginning to widen, Fichtner ran a great compliment to the flat route he’d hit AB on earlier in the series. The Steelers stayed in empty, with AB as the #3 receiver to the trips side of the formation. At the snap, Washington, the #2 receiver, cut across Brown’s face towards the middle of the field and Brown widened as he’d done before. It appeared he might run a flat or a wheel route, something outside the numbers for sure. Safety Devon McCourty widened with Brown and took a peek at Juju Smith-Schuster, who was running a go route up the hash. That was all Brown needed. In an instant, he put his foot in the ground, burst past the underneath coverage and split McCourty and fellow safety Duron Harmon, who was stuck on Ryan Switzer up the opposite hash. Big Ben stood tall in a clean pocket and put the ball on AB’s chest. Touchdown, Steelers.
The design of the routes on the drive was a thing of beauty. The Steelers receivers spaced them perfectly, creating room to operate and clean throwing lanes for Roethlisberger. In order, the passes on the drive went deep right, deep right, left flat, right flat, short middle, short middle, right flat, deep right, left seam. Seven completions and a PI on nine attempts, most out of empty sets, using every inch of the field. The offensive line was excellent in pass protection. Fichtner was in command making the calls. It was a heck of a drive.
The offense slowed a bit in the second half due to an unfortunate Roethlisberger interception and a missed chip-shot field goal by Chris Boswell. Fichtner continued to mix things effectively, however, especially on the most important drive of the game.
After Joe Haden’s interception of a terrible (and shocking) Tom Brady heave gave the Steelers the ball at their own 4 with a 14-10 lead and seven and a half minutes to play, Fichtner ran it twice and got a nice conversion to McDonald to pick up a crucial 1st down.
Fichtner then pulled the guards and ran true sweep with Samuels followed by the toss counter play to pick up another first down (nice compliment there, stretching the defense on first down then countering them on 2nd). After converting a 3rd and 9 on a patented Big Ben scramble play where he found Samuels out of the backfield for 20 yards, he came back to the kid on a stretch play for another first down.
If you were like me, you were probably thinking Big Ben was going to have to win that drive for us. The rookie RB was having a good game but there was no way Fichtner was going to try to ride him in that situation. Too predictable to just run it to kill clock and too much pressure on the kid to deliver. And yet, that’s largely what Fichtner did. The line did a stellar job getting a push against the New England front but still, Samuels delivered. He was patient finding holes and physical once he found them. He was smart, too. Twice he went down in bounds on the sideline to chew up clock when a less attentive player would have gone out of bounds. In all, he tallied six carries for 29 yards and a 20 yard reception. The Patriots seemed unprepared to defend Samuels on the drive. Perhaps, like me, they didn’t suspect he’d be the go-to guy.
The drive went 13 plays in all, chewed up over five minutes of game clock and resulted in a clutch 48 yard field goal from the much-maligned Boswell.
Fichtner hit the right notes with Samuels all night. He recognized that Samuels was more comfortable at this point as an outside runner than as an inside runner and he structured his game-plan accordingly. He scrapped much of the inside zone game, a Steelers staple under Conner and Le’Veon Bell, and replaced it with a heavy dose of sweep, stretch and counter, often providing Samuels a lead blocker along the way. The results were impressive. On plays up the gut, Samuels was mediocre, gaining 33 yards on 9 carries. But on plays that went off tackle or hit the edge, Samuels went 10-109. Fichtner did a great job getting Samuels the ball where he could be most effective.
The numbers the offense put up were not the most impressive they’ve amassed this year. 17 points, 376 total yards. That’s nothing to crow about. But in a tough. cold-weather game with an untested rookie at running back, the game-plan Randy Fichtner assembled was tremendous. It should give us hope as the biggest games of the season loom on the horizon.
The first victory in seven years over the Patriots sure feels great. As you gloat and celebrate this week, don’t forget to add Randy Fichtner to your list of heroes who finally broke through and got it done.