Well now. To quote the immortal Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly.” And not in a good way.
As ugly as those final seven minutes of the fourth quarter and the interminable overtime were, there are some reasons for optimism. The defense was solid. T.J. Watt played like a man possessed. James Conner made me forget about Le’Veon Bell. And Randy Fichtner, the Steelers new offensive coordinator, called a good game in his NFL debut.
Some of you may read that last sentence and think I’ve broken into Martavis Bryant’s stash. The offense was awful down the stretch and is clearly the reason we turned what should have been a routine win into the least satisfying tie of all time. Separate the players from the play-caller, though. Fichtner wasn’t the guy putting the ball on the ground or failing to complete a simple shotgun snap. His gameplan was sharp. Unfortunately, the men executing it failed to do so with any reasonable sense of competence during the final seventeen minutes. Thus, the dreaded tie.
To prove I’m not crazy, let’s take a closer look.
There’s a lot to unpack in this department. Let’s start with Fichtner’s use of personnel groups. As I speculated last week in a game-plan preview, Fichtner went heavy on 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE, 3 WR) formations in the first half. Basing out of a 4-3, Browns’ DC Gregg Williams alternated between run-first Cover-1 looks with a safety rolled down as an eighth defender in the box and pass-first two-high looks. Eleven personnel gave Fichtner the ability to match-up against either.
When the Browns went Cover-1, he used a variety of crossing routes, quick slants and fade balls. These are all effective Cover-1 beaters, and with the blitz more likely out of Cover-1 than Cover-2, they served the dual purpose of also allowing Ben Roethlisberger to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
When the Browns went Cover-2, Fichtner often ran the ball. He motioned Jesse James or Xavier Grimble and Juju Smith-Schuster to kick out or seal defensive ends and wrapped his guards up to the linebackers so the Steelers could run gap concepts, which are effective against a 4-3 defense. James Conner ran well, tucking in behind his guards, squaring his shoulders and making tough yards. Conner was also utilized well in the passing game early on, staying in to chip on Myles Garrett or to help with the blitz before releasing to the flat or over the ball on check-down routes.
While Roethlisberger sputtered through a 3-interception first half, Fichtner didn’t try to cram a round peg into a square hole. He took what Cleveland gave him and put the Steelers in a position to succeed.
In the second half, Fichtner made a great personnel decision once the Steelers had taken a 14-7 lead. With the Browns defense beginning to wear down, he went to a heavy 22 personnel group (two TEs, two RBs, 1 WR) featuring Xavier Grimble, Rosie Nix and big Chuks Okorafor as the second tight end. That group blew Cleveland off of the ball on a 2-play, 39 yard drive that consisted of Conner running a zone-iso concept for 17 yards, with Nix bulldozing a Cleveland linebacker, followed by Conner taking old-school power to the house. On the touchdown, Grimble and Alejandro Villanueva each washed their gap defenders down and Nix once again bulldozed a hapless Brownie, creating a freeway-sized lane for Conner to run through. It was a great adjustment by Fichtner and it should have sealed the victory.
Another area where Fichtner shined was the RPO game. Run-pass options allow the quarterback to read an unblocked defender and hand the ball off or make a quick throw, depending on the reaction of his read key. Fichtner used a variety of RPOs against Cleveland, showing creativity in the designs. I’ll highlight two here.
The first came in the third quarter immediately following Cleveland’s first touchdown that had tied the game at 7. Out of an 11-personnel formation with Jesse James and Justin Hunter to Ben’s left and JuJu and AB to the right, the Steelers ran a trap concept with right guard David DeCastro pulling and kicking out Garrett. Roethlisberger read the linebacker over top of DeCastro, who flowed just enough to open a seam for JuJu, who was running a slant from the slot. Interestingly, Cleveland was in Cover-1 — not an ideal defense against which to run RPOs. RPO passes are far more effective when zone defenders are displaced by run-action, opening seams in the zone. Against man, the run action doesn’t dissuade defenders from covering their men. Still, JuJu beat his defender clean to the inside, caught the slant and raced 67 yards to the Cleveland 7 yard line, setting up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown.
Why didn’t Roethlisberger check out of the RPO vs. man coverage? My guess is because Fichtner trusts JuJu and AB to win inside on slant routes facing man-coverage and he liked the look he was going to get if the backer flowed with the pulling guard. It was a good look, indeed, and a great result.
The second RPO we’ll highlight turned out to be the most disastrous play of the day — Myles Garrett’s strip-sack of Roethlisberger that led to Cleveland’s tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Don’t blame Fichtner for the call, though. The call was great. Maurkice Pouncey’s bad snap, coupled with Roethlisberger’s bad decision, were the actual culprits.
Look at the first diagram below.
Here, the Steelers are running that same Trap RPO but with a wide-receiver screen to Hunter in place of the slant concept. It’s crunch time and Myles Garrett is rushing the QB like a banshee. What do you do to defensive linemen who get too far up the field? You trap them. It’s a great call and would have been a great play when you look at the second image below:
Look at the running lane Conner is going to have if Roethlisberger hands him the football. Garrett is so far up the field DeCastro doesn’t even need to kick him out. Conner is going to run underneath him and into the open. The Steelers are going to get a first down and probably put the game away.
Except they don’t. Pouncey’s snap is low, the timing on the handoff gets screwed up and then Roethlisberger, rather than falling on the ball and eating the loss, tries to hurry the receiver screen out to Hunter. DeCastro is blocking trap and is expecting the ball to be handed off or thrown by then so you can’t fault him for not getting to Garrett that far up the field. Garrett blindsides Ben and the rest is (ugly) history.
(Look at the screen to Hunter, by the way. If executed, this is money as well. The trap and the screen were both great options here based on the look Fichtner was getting. Feel free to punch yourself in the face now).
This disaster aside, Fichtner’s performance is encouraging. He didn’t change the core of the Steelers’ offense, which was smart considering how much success Todd Haley had with it. Instead, he added effective tweaks, like the RPOs, the creative use of heavy personnel and (OMG!) a successful quarterback sneak. He trusted James Conner and the young man (one costly fumble aside) produced with flying colors. He had a move to counter every move Gregg Williams made, which is impressive considering Williams is an experienced and respected DC. The Steelers racked up 472 yards of offense and averaged 5.9 yards per play. That’s impressive against a Browns’ defense that is supposedly much-improved. The ceiling is high for this group with Fichtner in charge. Provided...
... we can protect the football. Six turnovers and a minus-five in the turnover department has to fall back on the OC somehow. Conner’s fumble wasn’t Fichtner’s fault. Nor were Roethlisberger’s interceptions. Nor the bad snap that led to the Garrett strip-sack. But Fichtner has to figure out a way to minimize the damage those turnovers create, especially at crunch time when we are playing great defense and have the lead. Maybe an RPO late in the fourth quarter isn’t a great idea on a wet day when ball-handling is dicey. Maybe just pound the rock, punt it back and trust the defense. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll need to channel a little of his inner “Haley” and tell Ben in no uncertain terms to play smarter and not force the ball into triple coverage or be reckless with the game on the line.
As for other issues, like the expected up-tempo/no-huddle stuff that never came, I’ll reserve judgment. On a wet and sloppy day, and protecting a lead for much of the second half, the no-huddle wasn’t necessary or even prudent. I’m hoping to see it soon, though, as I believe it plays to our strengths as an offense — provided we can hold on to the damned ball.
All in all, though, it was a solid first outing for Randy Fichtner. Let’s be happy with the performance of our new offensive coordinator, even if it’s hard to be happy with the result.