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Faster starts on offense should be a point of emphasis for the Steelers moving forward

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to get off to better starts offensively, and this should be a point of emphasis for the rest of 2019.

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

Getting off to a fast start is a point of emphasis in every locker room at every level of football. No coach tells his team, “Hey guys, we’re gonna start slow and feel ‘em out before we really get going.” Scoring first is often a sign a team has scouted its opponent thoroughly and has executed its opening plan effectively. The best teams often come roaring out of the gate.

A fast start doesn’t guarantee success, of course, but it sure helps. New England, for example, has gotten points on all but one of their opening possessions so far this season, most recently on a 16 play, 78 yard touchdown drive that consumed almost nine minutes of the first quarter Monday night against the Jets. They now own an NFL-record 13 consecutive first quarters with a touchdown drive and have outscored their opponents an astonishing 70-7 in the first period this season. The Patriots are 7-0.

The undefeated 49ers are another team that has started quickly. They’ve outscored opponents 38-20 in the first quarter. The 6-1 Packers have a wider margin at 49-16. Wider still is the margin of the 5-2 Ravens, who own a 61-24 first quarter scoring advantage.

How have the Steelers fared in this regard? Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t nearly as pretty. On their six opening drive possessions, they’ve run 21 plays for 36 total yards, accumulated just two first downs and a paltry three points. To make those numbers a bit bleaker than they already seem, they haven’t registered a first down on a starting possession since the opener at New England and their three total points were the product of a turnover generated by the defense (TJ Watt’s interception against San Francisco that gave the Steelers the ball on the +33 yard line). The offense produced just five yards from that gift and had to settle for a 46 yard field goal from Chris Boswell.

While opening drives have been particularly bothersome, the offense hasn’t fared much better throughout first quarters in general. The Steelers have scored just 20 first quarter points on offense, their lowest output for any individual quarter. 13 of those have followed turnovers by the defense that gave the Steelers starting position on the plus side of the field. The only first quarter scoring drive the offense produced that wasn’t preceded by a turnover was a five play, 75 yard drive against Baltimore in week five. The rest of their first quarter offense? 62 plays, 203 yards (3.3 ypp), seven punts, two turnovers.

It gets worse. With the Steelers coming out of their bye week, BTSC stat guru Dave Schofield passed me a link that shows the Steelers haven’t scored a first-quarter touchdown in the game following their bye since 2008. 2008! Additionally, they’ve scored a grand total of six points in the first quarter of their last ten games following the bye. Before we crank up the “Fire Tomlin!” brigade, it should be noted the Steelers managed to go 7-3 in those games. The offense has been stagnant early on but Tomlin’s teams have generally recovered to play well.

This year may be different. With Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers were usually able to weather those slow starts. Mason Rudolph and/or Devlin Hodges, the two young quarterbacks entrusted to run the offense for the remainder of the season while Roethlisberger rehabilitates his injured elbow, are less likely to recover. Getting an early lead that will allow the Steelers to run the football and lean on their rapidly-improving defense (like they did week six in Los Angeles) feels like a surer road to victory.

How can the Steelers improve their first drive and first quarter performance so their young QBs can play from ahead? Here are some thoughts.

Break tendencies, especially on the opening drive

In each of their first six games before the bye, the Steelers ran their opening play from scrimmage out of an 11 personnel formation. Four times they threw the ball, completing three for a total of seven yards. Twice they ran it, for four total yards. That makes six plays, all from 11 personnel, for 11 yards gained.

The lack of success on these opening plays has put the Steelers in 2nd and long situations in four of their first six games. Only a four yard run by James Conner against New England and a five yard completion to Vance McDonald against Seattle kept them ahead of the chains. Every other play resulted in a 2nd and 8 or worse. Not surprisingly, given the long odds of converting first downs out of 2nd and long situations, the Steelers went three-and-out on five of those six opening possessions.

If we look more carefully at the opening plays the Steelers ran, we see a distinct lack of creativity or deception. Twice the Steelers ran “full-flow” sweep plays to Conner. These are plays where the back and the offensive line are all moving in the same direction at once. There is no counter action and no one moving opposite of the football. Defensive players, who are usually pretty amped up and eager to run to the ball at the start of a game, are constrained by nothing and can run downhill with abandon.

This was the case on the short-lived opening drive against Cincinnati that ended with a second-down fumble by receiver Diontae Johnson. On the opening play, the Steelers called an outside zone run to the single receiver side of a 3x1 formation. They sent Johnson on yo-yo (back and forth) motion to move the safety. Center Maurkice Pouncey was tasked with reaching defensive tackle (and former BTSC draft crush) Andrew Billings, who was shaded to Pouncey’s left. Guard Ramon Foster and tackle Matt Feiler would reach the play-side linebacker and defensive end, respectively.

I’m sure, on film, the Steelers felt comfortable with Pouncey reach-blocking Billings. However, with all of the flow moving towards the boundary, the Cincinnati defenders were able to fly to the football. This includes Billings, who beat Pouncey with good arm extension and combined with the end to stop Conner for no gain.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this play design. However, with no misdirection or deception, it relies upon technically perfect execution from the Steelers line on a full-flow play against a defense eager to impress a broad audience on Monday Night Football. Scheme plus emotion in this instance distinctly favors the defense.

When the Steelers have thrown the ball to open, they have opted for short throws at or near the line of scrimmage that went for little to no gain. A five yard hitch to Vance McDonald against Seattle; a two yard flat route to Juju Smith-Schuster against Baltimore; a check down to Conner for no gain versus the Niners.

Here is the throw to Juju versus Baltimore. The Ravens are in a cover-1 look, which the motion confirms when a Baltimore defender follows it across the formation. The Steelers execute a simple “mirrored route,” which means they run the same concept to both sides of the field. In this instance, it’s a curl-flat combo, with both outside receivers running curls while the inside receivers (Juju and James Conner) slide to the flat. As a check down, tight end Vance McDonald runs an OTB (over-the-ball) route in the center of the field.

This is a high school route concept. My team sees it every week, generally as a cover-3 beater. The Steelers run it, I’m guessing, because it’s easy for the quarterback to execute, it gets the ball out of his hand quickly and it’s low-risk. It’s also low-reward, as a professional defense would really have to play soft or blow coverage to fail to defend this. Realistically, with the way Mason Rudolph catches the snap and immediately looks at Juju, this is a pre-determined throw that functions like a long handoff. A quicker receiver might have turned up-field faster and gained another yard or two. But against a good defense like Baltimore’s, the two-yard gain here is about par for the course.

The Steelers opened the game in LA more creatively by attempting a double move to Juju. This was a smart call given the likelihood the Chargers would sit on the underneath routes with the undrafted Hodges making his first NFL start. Juju created separation out of the hitch but Hodges didn’t drive off of his back foot following the pump fake, resulting in an under-thrown ball.

Give offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner credit for taking a shot out of the gate here. It was tough asking a rookie quarterback to drop that throw exactly where it needed to be on his very first NFL snap. But the spirit of the call was more in line with how the Steelers should approach their opening plays and possessions. Broadly speaking, Fichtner’s goal with his openers has been to keep the Steelers “on schedule,” which means gaining four or five yards so the offense has a variety of options for second down. The problem is, with everything coming from 11 personnel, and with no deception involved, the Steelers are failing to create mismatches or get the defense out of position. Full-flow runs and three-step pass drops with no play-action are “hope” plays, as in “I hope we gain four yards,” as opposed to attack plays that strike a more assertive tone. The bland, conservative approach Fichtner took through the first five games did not yield positive results. It’s time for him to break the tendencies he’s established and change things up.

Here are three ways Fichtner might do this:

Heavy Personnel

A nice addition to the game-plan in Los Angeles was all of the heavy and two tight end sets the Steelers utilized. With solid tight ends in Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett and a six-offensive lineman package that utilizes hulking tackle Zach Banner, the Steelers have the personnel to bully teams out of the gate.

Better yet, the Steelers can create the appearance of bullying teams out of the gate. Simply lining up in heavy sets and running the ball down people’s throats is not very creative, and when you try to do that on the first play of the game against a jacked-up defense, you’re probably staring at 2nd and long. A nice opener for the Steelers, then, might be to align in a set like the one pictured below and to run some sort of mesh or crossing route that exploits the movement of the linebackers, who will surely be influenced by run action on the opening snap.

This is the aforementioned six OL package with both tight ends on the field together. Vannett is the end man on the line of scrimmage to the bottom of the screen while McDonald is aligned as a fullback to the left of James Conner. The Steelers run a sweep play to their right where they pull both Pouncey and guard David DeCastro. Notice the flow of the defense to the football in the image below. Now picture Mason Rudolph, rather than handing the ball to Conner, pulling it and booting back to his left. With the receiver to the top of the screen running off the corner, Vannett crossing the formation away from the flow and McDonald chipping the edge defender and releasing late to the flat, there is virtually no way a defense can cover both tight ends.

A play like this creates the easy throw for the quarterback Fichtner has been seeking to open ballgames. But by pairing it with full-flow run action it also creates deception and space, allowing a receiver to run once he catches the football. This play alone does not guarantee a successful opening drive. But, more than likely, it results in a completion, a gain of more than two yards and it slows a defense by getting them back on their heels. These are all net positives for the offense when devising a blueprint for a fast start.

Break out the gadgets

The Steelers went to the Wildcat in their week four win over Cincinnati, snapping the ball directly to running back Jaylen Samuels (with great success) on a number of plays. After the game, Mike Tomlin referred to it as a “gimmicky” offense, suggesting it was something the Steelers got away with on that night but that further use might be unsustainable once defenses prepared for the scheme. Sure enough, the Wildcat flopped the next week against Baltimore and now, with Samuels injured, it has likely vanished from the Steelers repertoire for good.

That doesn’t mean they should give up entirely on using gadget plays, especially early in football games. Bill Parcells liked to say that if you were going to use a gadget, do it early because once one team runs one it decreases the likelihood their opponent will do the same since everyone in the stadium will now be on high-alert. The Steelers should heed Parcells’ advice and consider breaking out an early gadget.

What type of gadget might they run? I don’t really know. I’m not privy to the particular skill sets of their receivers and running backs. Can Conner throw the ball? Can Juju or Johnson? Gadgets don’t need to be elaborate trick plays that involve multiple exchanges of the football or exotic formations dreamed up by Madden-lovers. At the very least, the Steelers might run some early reverses as constraint plays for fast-flow defenses that like to run to the ball. Gadget plays prey on overly-aggressive, undisciplined or flat-out lazy defenders. Early in games, when defenses are focused on “stopping the run” or taking away a particular player, or when players might be caught up in the emotion or adrenaline of a ballgame, their chances for success are high.

Run the no-huddle

This might sound a bit crazy, given Rudolph’s inexperience and the fact he’s coming off of a concussion, but if the Steelers really want to change their approach early in games they’ll let him do what he did when they became enamored with him as a college player: run the no-huddle.

The benefits of running without a huddle are many, especially for a young quarterback: the speed at which plays are run simplifies what defenses can do in terms of substitutions, schemes and disguises; the offensive menu is trimmed as well, reducing the number of plays and concepts a quarterback must master; no-huddle pass plays are usually heavy on one-read concepts, whereby the quarterback reads a single defender and throws off of his drop rather than having to scan the entire field as required by full-field reads; and, given Rudolph’s brief body of work to date, defenses have no idea what sort of no-huddle package the Steelers might run with him, leaving them short on preparation.

The glaring disadvantage to going no-huddle with Rudolph is obvious as well. If executed poorly, quick three-and-outs will stress the defense by putting them on the field more than they might be under a ball-control philosophy. That said, Rudolph did pass for over 13,000 yards and lead the nation in that category his senior season at Oklahoma State operating largely from a no-huddle system. The Steelers liked him so much they assigned a first round grade to him and traded up to get him. Why not let him do what he does best, even if just for a series or two? With Miami bringing one of the league’s worst defenses to town on Monday night, it might be the perfect time to pursue a fast start by changing tempo.

It might sound as though a push for play-action passes, gadget plays and up-tempo offense is a call for the Steelers to try to “trick” their opponents early in football games rather than simply out-executing them. I would argue this is a less a call for trickery than it is for creativity. If a fast start is the goal, the Steelers have to break out of the mold that has yielded them five three-and-outs on six game-opening possessions and just 20 first quarter points by the offense.

History tells us the Steelers have been terrible in the first quarter of games following their bye, and with two young quarterbacks set to run the offense for the remainder of the season, finding ways to stake them to early leads is important. It seems logical, then, that they will have to divert from the path they’ve been following if they want to get out of the gate on offense against Miami. Breaking tendencies, playing fast and zigging when defenses are expecting us to zag are all ways they might do so.