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5 plays that show how Randy Fichtner has adapted the Steelers offense for Mason Rudolph

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Looking at the Steelers passing game in Cleveland.

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

In the first 5 plays film room of this week I tried to show how James Conner’s skill set and one of his chief flaws have caused him to struggle this year with other teams being able to focus more energy on stopping the run. If you missed it, check it out here.

Today we are going to look at the passing game, and how the Steelers designed plays for Mason Rudolph to have simpler reads and progressions. Kind of like training wheels for young QBs, or what I would like to call “The Rudolph Rules.”


Give him a simple read

Mason Rudolph doesn’t have a lot of experience, and as many people have stated, argued and showed on film, isn’t processing the game at high speed. A great way to balance for this is giving a simple read that let’s him know where to go with the ball.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

A nice, simple read here. The LB follows JuJu in this zone play, but that LB is responsible for targets outside, so when James Conner comes out and heads into his zone, the LB follows Conner. Rudolph does a good job looking to the deeper routes to his left, and seeing it is zone, goes to the underneath route combo, where his #1 WR is wide open for a quick gain on first down.

Things to take away from this play:
1-Those out/in routes are man beaters.
2-The combo route underneath is attacking a zone defense.


Split the field into easy to read chunks

The play above was a short gain, but it was 3 seconds from snap to throw, and asked Mason to make 2 reads. First, if it was man defense, and second, after looking to the short route combo, who was open. His progression would be the in/out routes(likely looking at James Washington’s out route->JuJu Smith-Schuster->James Conner. He only had to go to step 2.

Here we see a similar strategy in a very different play. Vance McDonald is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, Jaylen Samuels is the sidecar back.

Another simple read, but this time McDonald is in a crossing route, while Samuels is going to leak out to the left flat. Before we dig into the result of the play, let’s talk about the design.

Rudolph has already thrown the ball at this point, but if you look at how the Steelers attack this play, if it is a zone, they have 4 routes on the right side of the field, and one of them would be open. It would take a very smart, experienced defense used to playing together to cover all 4. It is important to note that the Steelers were set up to be able to attack zone defense.

But the Browns were running a man defense, and that’s fine, Fichtner had a man-beating route combo in the play. An important part of how this play attacks a man defense is how the Browns respond to James Washington and Vance McDonald lining up tight to each other. McDonald’s defender is Morgan Burnett, and Burnett starts the play more than 5 yards off the line of scrimmage, to give James Washington’s defender room to play tighter defense.

The Steelers run Washington straight up field, forcing Burnett to go around Washington and his defender, giving McDonald lots of space between him and Burnett. This simplifies Mason’s read to one player, Joe Schobert. If Schobert follows Jaylen Samuels McDonald is wide open in the middle of the field, if Schobert stays in the middle disrupting the pass to McDonald, Samuels will have room to catch the ball and run with it.

Mason Rudolph misreads the play, and throws to Samuels for a 7 yard loss. His progression goes from his right to his left, and for this play would be:
1-Look right, check for zone/man. (It’s man)
2-McDonald.
3-Samuels.

But what I want you to take away from this play is how the field is divided up into chunks. The right side of the field is attacking zone, short center and left is attacking man. The first play the deep routes were attacking man, the short routes attacking zone. This makes it easier for Mason Rudolph. Make the man/zone read, and then look to the corresponding section of the field, find the open player.

In this particular play, Rudolph misreads Schobert and throws to Samuels, I think he may have felt the pressure of Alejandro Villanueva getting pushed into his pocket, and either interpreted that as a sign he would have Samuels open, or it distracted him and he made a bit of a panic throw.


Don’t rush Rudolph’s progression

One thing you may have noticed is that both the previous plays the man routes resolve before the zone routes. The first play the throw was 3 seconds after the snap, JuJu Smith-Schuster runs his route slowly and Conner breaks from the pocket late. The second play the zone routes are making their breaks after Rudolph has already thrown the ball. The next play shows this really well on a successful play against a zone defense on the play immediately following the 7 yard loss above.

Tevin Jones is the outside receiver in the bunch to the top of the screen.

Mason Rudolph’s first read is Vance McDonald heading into the flat, Tevin Jones is running that defender off of McDonald, if there’s a man-blitz, that’s Rudolph’s panic button. He could also see man there and go to Diontae Johnson on the other side of the field running an out route. But it is zone, and as you watch the play develop, you should again notice 4 players making a diamond-esque shape, once again attacking deep, short, outside and inside.

This time they are pulling the defense to open up the middle of that diamond for Tevin Jones, as soon as the LB reacts to Samuels slipping out of the pocket Tevin Jones is an easy target to hit. This pass gained 16 yards on 2nd and 17, and the Steelers would convert with a QB sneak on third down.

Again notice that the man reads resolve first. I expect this was intentional because the Browns rely on man defense in most of their blitzes, so the Steelers didn’t want Rudolph waiting for the man-beater routes to come open with a blitz on. This play took 4 seconds from snap to throw. That’s a lot of time. This offense is leaning heavily on the offensive line because Rudolph can’t make reads at the speed Ben Roethlisberger does. He’s one of the slower to throw QBs in the league, last year Ben was the fastest.


Don’t allow pressure

With an offense re-geared for the QB getting Rudolph better reads and getting open receivers, why didn’t the offense have success?

Jaylen Samuels is the sidecar, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the WR on the outside to the top of the screen.

This is against man, and you see JuJu Smith-Schuster’s defender has to get around the vertical route of McDonald and Smith-Schuster is open. But as he is coming open Rudolph is evading pressure and cannot make the throw. This time it was Jaylen Samuels completely failing to see and block the edge rusher. Before the snap McDonald was waving his free hand (he was in a three-point stance) and it looked like he was trying to warn of the outside rush, Samuels was pre-occupied by Joe Schobert showing blitz up the middle and committed to helping inside, but Schobert wasn’t coming.

There were a lot of blocking problems in Cleveland, Samuels was particularly bad, but Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, Matt Feiler all had struggles against a tough Celeveland defensive line on a short week.


You can’t afford mistakes

Too many drops. Too many errant throws. Too many missed chances.

This is third and 1 on the second Steelers drive of the game. It was the longest drive of the first half, and the third longest of the game.

JuJu Smith Scuster is to the bottom of the screen, second from the bottom, behind the line.

Again a simple read, a rub against man, James Conner sneaking out late into an area already attacked by two players if it is zone. This play was against man defense and Mason Rudolph makes the right read, but misses the throw. He’s under pressure, but he isn’t touched until after the throw is released.

I used this play out of the many failures to connect because this slow-motion clip is fantastic and really sums up the struggles of the Steelers passing attack. The offensive line giving barely enough time to make the throw, Mason Rudolph and JuJu Smith-Schuster unable to complete the play and extend the drive.


The takeaway

The point I want to make with this film room and the last one is that when it comes to the Steelers offense there is very little room for error. This team isn’t loaded with talent, and in the next game or two it will be even shorter on talent. There’s no Le’veon Bell turning a tiny crack into 3-5 yard gains, there’s no Antonio Brown pulling defenders toward him and away from other receivers, defenders aren’t backing up for fear of Ben Roethlisberger putting them on the highlight reel for the wrong reason.

James Conner isn’t turning small chances into gains, Rudolph isn’t able to step up and make big throws under pressure. Rudolph’s receivers aren’t bailing him out when he misses on throws and are throwing in some awful drops when his throws are good. The offensive line isn’t able to dominate the game enough to make sure the run lanes are nice and big, and Mason Rudolph has 3-4 seconds on every play.

Every mistake every player makes matters more, because no one is playing well enough to cover for other player’s mistakes. I’ve been a big critic of the Steelers offensive design last year and early this year, but the offense’s struggles really can’t be put on Randy Fichtner’s designs anymore. The players need to execute better.

I have hope there, because crappy execution is a hallmark of Thursday night games. The Steelers and Browns both made mistakes, the Browns offense made plays as well, the Steelers offense didn’t. Rudolph looks much more confident in this offense, (at least in the first half he did, the second half got ugly) let’s see if that can start translating into production against a bad defense after a longer off week.