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Coaches Corner: The failed fake punt and what Mike Tomlin should learn from it

One of the worst plays of the 2018 regular season should teach head coach Mike Tomlin a valuable lesson.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to BTSC Coaches Corner, where we examine situations from the 2018 season to get a feel for how the Steelers’ staff schemed for their opponents. The focus here is on the philosophy of the coaching staff, their strengths and weaknesses, and the ability of our players to execute their schemes. We may look to the upcoming draft for candidates who could be good fits for these schemes as well.

This article examines the failed fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter at New Orleans and offers some thoughts on what Mike Tomlin and his staff might learn from it.

The Failed Fake Punt

In my personal catalog of gut-punch Steeler plays, this ranks pretty high. Not “4th and Goal Incompletion to Barry Foster in the ‘94 AFCCG” high. And certainly not “He Who Shall Not Be Named in Super Bowl XXX” high. But high enough that I don’t need to clarify the date or location. Any time the conversation is about soul-crushing Steeler moments and someone mentions “The Failed Fake Punt,” I’ll know exactly what they mean.

My initial reaction was disbelief. Something like, “Oh my God, it’s a fake,” said out loud, to no one in particular, as my eyes widened and pushed my eyebrows up my skull. I would have been less surprised had a “Breaking News” banner announced Democrats and Republicans were holding a Love-In on Capitol Hill.

The element of surprise, or what might otherwise be deemed “timing,” is no doubt integral when attempting a trick play. It’s often said in coaching circles that if you’re going to run a gadget, run one before your opponent does, when neither team is anticipating it. In this instance, we had surprise in spades.

Let’s reset the scene. Week 16 in New Orleans. Four minutes to play. Steelers 28, Saints 24. Our punt team takes the field for a 4th and 5 from our own 42 yard line. With huge playoff implications hanging in the balance, a fake seemed far too risky. Maybe if it were 4th and 1 or 4th and 2. Maybe if the ball were on the plus side of the field. But not here, with five long yards to gain and the Steelers with their base punt unit on the field. Nothing to see here. Move along, everyone.

We know the fake caught the Saints by surprise because not one Saint defender acted unusually. Even when up-back Jordan Dangerfield motioned out of the formation towards the sideline (presumably to remove a defender from the box), there was no discernible reaction from the Saints that indicated they believed a fake was coming. No hand-gesturing or pointing. No one adjusting their alignment in any way. The ball was snapped and the Saints got off like they were expecting a punt. Watch:

Their edge rushers rush. Their interior players shoot their hands into the chests of the Steelers’ interior players in an attempt to hold them up as long as possible before releasing them to cover the punt. All of these actions are consistent with a punt return team executing their normal duties. The Saints were not expecting this to be a fake.

Unfortunately, timing is only one of the elements of a successful trick play. The other is execution. Simply stated, the fake punt in New Orleans failed because the coaching staff tasked players with executing a scheme that did not compliment their abilities. This was a recurring problem in 2018, and is perhaps the biggest lesson head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff need to learn moving forward.

The Scheme

The scheme the Steelers used was fairly straightforward. As seen below, they attempted to gap-block the Saints on the back side of the play while having Sean Davis kick out the front-side edge player. That left linebackers Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich (circled) to on-block the defenders lined up across from them. The short snap went to fullback Rosie Nix, who attempted to run to daylight between the blocks of Chickillo and Matakevich.

This scheme is fine if you can execute it. The problem is, expecting a couple of linebackers to on-block opposing defensive players (one of whom was a defensive lineman) is a tough ask.

Let’s start with Chickillo. Chickillo is assigned to turn out linebacker Craig Robertson, who is using a hold-up technique against him. On a hold-up, the defender is going to fire off and shoot his hands into the chest of his target. He wants to drive that player two or three yards into the backfield to delay his ability to run down and cover the punt. Bottom line - “hold up,” despite its passive-sounding name, is an aggressive technique.

This is exactly what Robertson does. His hands come out quickly, he gets inside on Chickillo’s chest and he drives him back into the hole where Nix is trying to run. Chickillo, meanwhile, stands up passively, does not strike with any force and makes himself a target. When you microscope the block, it’s easy to see how Robertson was able to fall off and make a play on Nix.

Matakevich’s situation is even worse. It will be easy to watch him get completely blown up here and say all sorts of derogatory things about him as a football player. Before you do that, consider what the staff has asked him to do on this play. Matakevich, a 235 pound linebacker who last played offense in high school, where he was a running back, not a lineman, has to aggressively on-block 6’4-300 pound defensive tackle David Onyemata, who makes his living taking on blocks. The assignment given Matakevich here violates one of the most basic coaching principles: don’t ask players to do things they are not capable of doing.

Onyemata, lined up outside Matakevich, gets off the ball quickly and drives him towards the center. Matakevich’s get-off is more aggressive than Chickillo’s but his two-point stance compromises his ability to gain leverage and his base is too narrow, meaning his feet aren’t wide enough apart to create stability. Like Chickillo, Matakevich also loses the battle of hand placement as Onyemata gets into his chest, allowing him to shed Matakevich and throw him to the ground once he notices the short snap. Nix runs hard, so hard he tricks himself into believing he’s made the first down, but he can’t overcome the poor blocking. It all amounts to a disaster.

Here’s the play in its entirety:

I have no problem with calling the fake punt in this situation. I understand the logic of it. Not wanting to give the ball back to Brees. Not trusting the defense to stop him. Mike Tomlin remarked after the game that he had wanted to “stay aggressive” in that situation. I think most fans understood what he was really saying. And I think many agreed.

But was this the best utilization of our personnel? Asking Matakevich and Chickillo to execute drive blocks? Putting the ball in the hands of Nix, a great blocker but a player who hadn’t had a single carry all season? A trap scheme, which would have created angles for all of the blockers, would have given them a better chance to succeed. Heck, leaving the offense on the field and giving Ben, AB, Juju etc a shot to make five yards would have been preferable to asking Chickillo and Matakevich to make those blocks.

It’s possible special teams coach Danny Smith was anticipating a different alignment from the Saints. Perhaps something that gave him an “I-O” block at the point of attack, meaning there would be a defender lined up inside of Matakevich and outside of Chickillo. Each player would then have an angle on their defender and would have an easier job turning them and creating a hole for Nix. If that was the case, there should have been a “hot” check to either change the aiming point for Nix or call the play off entirely. There was no hot check and the play failed. Our season seemed to fail with it.

Looking Ahead

I am by no means in the doom and gloom camp when it comes to the state of this franchise. Heck, I believe, had things shaken out just a little differently, we could be the ones awaiting the Rams in the Super Bowl. We have some holes in the lineup but who doesn’t? We can beat any team in the league on any given Sunday. Those holes aren’t the reason we’ve been sitting home for a month.

My enthusiasm for the upcoming Super Bowl was dampened by about 90% the second Rex Burkhead crossed the goal line in overtime in Kansas City last Sunday. I don’t have the energy to hate the Patriots anymore. It’s exhausting. I would rather just ignore them and hope they eventually go away. That said, it’s impossible not to marvel at their brilliance. To have sustained this level of success in a league built on parity is remarkable. They have had some luck along the way and I have no doubt they have bent some rules. But their success is earned.

What is even more remarkable is that, when you look at the Patriots roster, you are surprised at the lack of so-called “big” names. They have had great players over the years, Tom Brady being the obvious, but the secret to their success has always been Bill Belichick’s unique ability to find ordinary players to excel in specific roles and to tailor his schemes to the strengths of his roster. Tom Brady is hardly ever touched in the pocket. But quick - name one of the Pats starting offensive linemen. How many Super Bowls have they won with marginal running backs and receivers whose careers thrive while in New England and fizzle everywhere else? How many Mike Vrabel’s have they rescued from obscurity, found a role for and created an environment in which to thrive?

Belichick credits Bill Parcells for teaching him the value of having the right players in the right roles. Parcells’ New York Giants, for whom Belichick was defensive coordinator, won two Super Bowls with players like Phil McConkey, Dave Meggett, Stephen Baker and Jeff Hostetler playing integral roles. A lights-out defense built around legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor certainly helped. But it was Parcells’s ability to have his players prepared, for them to know their roles and to put them in positions where they could succeed that allowed the Giants as heavy underdogs to topple juggernauts like the Joe Montana 49ers and Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills. Belichick has taken the lessons he learned from Parcells and crafted them into an art form.

When we reflect on the Steelers’ 2018 season, we see some troubling examples of the opposite in play. Steeler linebackers matched up on wide receivers. Terrell Edmunds playing cover-2 (not yet a strength of his) in obvious passing situations. Steven Ridley carrying the football out of the I-formation in crunch time. Josh Dobbs quarterbacking the team unnecessarily in a crucial road game. The linebacker assignments on the fake punt. All are examples of players put in roles for which they were not suited.

That New Orleans game still stings because it was one of the best games the Steelers played all season. It showed that this team could go into one of the toughest environments in the league and stand toe-to-toe with an elite team. The fake punt call did not lose that football game for us. But its reliance upon players being asked to do things they were not capable of doing just might have. This is the primary lesson I would encourage Coach Tomlin and his staff to consider as they self-evaluate this off-season. How can they reduce the number of times players are put in positions of weakness? How can they scheme to the strengths of their players? The answer to these questions may very well bridge the gap between continued disappointment and that elusive seventh Super Bowl