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Bad decisions and a curious game-plan doom the Steelers offense vs. the Bills

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The Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Buffalo Bills due to a bad plan, and poor decisions.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In last week’s preview of the Bills game, we examined some ideas on how the Steelers might find success on offense versus a very good Buffalo defense. Running the ball between the tackles (and not to the edge), throwing the football in the middle of the field (and not at Tre’Davious White) and making positive plays on 1st down to stay ahead of the chains were all cited as key elements of the game-plan.

Evidently, Randy Fichtner does not read Behind The Steel Curtain on a regular basis.

The Steelers ignored all of these ideas on Sunday night, to disappointing results. They allowed four sacks, produced five three-and-outs, turned the ball over five times and amassed a paltry 229 yards in a frustrating 17-10 loss. Despite the fact that Buffalo featured a much stronger pass defense than run defense (the Bills ranked 5th in the league in pass DVOA as opposed to 22nd versus the run), the Steelers elected to put the game largely on the not-so-strong arm of Devlin “Duck” Hodges, throwing the ball 38 times against just 15 runs. Not surprisingly, Hodges turned in his worst game as a pro.

I was hesitant to submit a piece critical of the game-plan because, foremost, I think Fichtner is a much better coordinator than most at BTSC. I also feared it would summon the pitchforks. I am not here to bury Fichtner. Far from it. I think he’s done a remarkable job considering the hand he’s been dealt this year. Still, there were some puzzling decisions on offense Sunday night that raised questions, particularly this one: why did the game-plan play to the strengths of a stout Buffalo defense? Let’s take a look.


THROWING AT WHITE

The most surprising element of the game-plan to me was how aggressively they attacked White. Coming into the game, the budding star corner was yielding less than a 50% completion percentage on targets in his direction, had surrendered no touchdown catches and was among the league-leaders in interceptions. His companion on the other side of the field, Levi Wallace, was yielding a 67% completion rate on his targets. Wallace seemed the likely candidate on whom the Steelers would focus. Yet Hodges attacked White brazenly, throwing at him early and often. White punished him for those decisions, producing a pair of interceptions and a tackle for loss on a perimeter screen.

White’s first interception came on a sideline heave against a cover-2 zone on a 3rd and 15 play that functioned like a punt. It wasn’t exactly a smart throw by Hodges but it did flip the field by 35 yards, which, given Jordan Berry’s performance on the evening, was probably a better result.

The second pick was not as innocuous. It featured all the elements of why the Steelers should have stayed away from White - an inexperienced quarterback making a bad decision at a crucial moment and a talented defender responding with a momentum-changing splash play. It was a dreadful turn of events for the home team.

Leading 10-7 with 1:24 left in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers had a nice drive going. They had moved the ball from their 31 to the Buffalo 43 by mixing short passes with inside runs to James Conner. Now, on 1st and 10, they aligned in an 11 personnel set with tight end Nick Vannett and receiver James Washington in a wing alignment to the short side of the field and receivers Diontae Johnson and Tevin Jones in a stack to the wide side. Buffalo aligned in a 4-3 cover-2, with White (circled below) playing off of Johnson.

The Steelers ran a variation of the popular Drive route concept, with Vannett running a shallow cross, Jones running a deep in (or “Dig”) behind him and Johnson an out cut. Washington, meanwhile, stretched the safety on his half of the field with a nine-route. The patterns looked like this:

The idea behind Drive is to expand the two-deep safeties with the vertical and out routes and to isolate the horizontal routes against linebackers, who are forced to run laterally. If you focus on the middle of the field in the GIF below, you can see how Vannett and Jones have a two-on-one against linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds is chasing Vannett’s shallow route and Jones is about to pop wide open behind him on the dig. If Hodges waits a beat, which he can because the protection is solid, he will have an easy throw to Jones for a first down.

Instead, he does this:

It’s clear, from the way Hodges locks on to Johnson from the moment he receives the snap, that he is making a pre-snap read. With White playing a loose technique, Hodges believes he has the out-cut in front of him.

There are several problems with this read. One, it’s still cover-two, which means White will carry any vertical route until he sees something threaten the flat, at which point he will break off to play that route. Even if this is a sight-adjustment for Johnson, meaning he will carry the route deep if White is in press coverage or break it off if White is loose, Johnson’s out cut is the first thing to threaten the flat. This means White is staying on Johnson no matter what.

The second problem is that the out-cut to Johnson breaks at twelve yards to the wide side of the field. Buffalo’s Josh Allen, whose strong if not-always-accurate arm was on full display Sunday night, might have the ability to make that throw. Hodges does not. It’s just too far and requires too much zip for him to complete. The result is a weak throw that misses inside, is picked off by White and, if not for an incredible effort by tackle Matt Feiler, would have wound up in the Steelers’ end zone.

Whether White baited Hodges into making that throw is uncertain. He did, however, show enough confidence in himself to align in a manner that would discourage a deep ball while betting he could close effectively on any out cut. White’s gamble paid off, much to Pittsburgh’s detriment.

More than anything I saw on Sunday night, this play demonstrated how much development remains for Hodges as an NFL quarterback. The fact the Steelers could not take advantage of Buffalo’s biggest weakness in the passing game — their linebackers — can be attributed to how Hodges can not yet read the middle of the field in his passing progression. Overwhelmingly, the Steelers have thrown the ball outside the hashes with Hodges, where the quarterback has a cleaner line of sight, less clutter to sort through and an easier read progression. The fact that Hodges is (maybe) 6’1 might make seeing over his linemen difficult, thereby muddying the picture in the middle of the field. Whatever the issue, his decision to make an exceptionally difficult throw to Johnson, who was matched up on one of the best cover corners in the league, rather than make a simple hi-low read of a linebacker, indicates how uncomfortable Hodges is throwing between the hashes.


RUNNING TO THE EDGE

When the Steelers did run the football, they made the confounding decision to run to the edge, where Buffalo’s speed made them pay. Of the Steelers 15 runs, eight were either off-tackle or outside. Those eight runs gained 11 total yards. When the Steelers ran the ball between the tackles, they produced 40 yards on seven carries. The sample size is small but it begs this question: why, in what was never more than a one-score game, didn’t the Steelers lean more on the inside run?

Here is their first offensive play of the game:

The Bills are a movement front, meaning they almost always stunt or slant along the defensive line to create penetration or confusion. Here, they pinch their right defensive end across the face of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and bring safety Jordan Poyer (24) off the edge. The Steelers run an inside zone concept with Vannett inserting into the B-gap to block the linebacker. Villanueva washes the end, Poyer gets up the field and Conner winds the run back for a nice gain.

Watch the interior blocking, however. The way to handle a movement front is by covering up interior gaps at the line of scrimmage and running right at it. Conner was correct to cut the play back but if Poyer had settled and taken away the cut, he still could have squared his shoulders and run behind Vannett for four or five yards. This is how Philly ran for 218 yards against Buffalo in their game in late October - by hammering away at the interior of the Buffalo defense.

Now watch what happened when the Steelers ran outside:

This is a power sweep where the Steelers block down on the play-side and pull back-side guard Ramon Foster to kick the edge. Buffalo slants to the strength, with back-side tackle Jordan Phillips (97) beating center Maurkice Pouncey across his face and linebacker Matt Milano (58) getting over top of a climbing Matt Feiler. Conner cuts inside Foster’s kick-out but Phillips and Milano are there to swallow him up. They are simply too fast. Any scheme that calls for backs and offensive linemen to turn their shoulders and run laterally plays into the strength of Buffalo’s defense.

I’m not sure why Fichtner wasn’t patient with the inside run game. Granted, Buffalo was loading the box at times and daring the Steelers to throw. But 40 yards on seven carries between the tackles tells me the line was handling the extra defender(s) well enough. In a close game with a young quarterback against an excellent pass defense, it feels like Fichtner should have kept chipping away inside.


FAILING TO “STAY AHEAD OF THE CHAINS”

Finally, on 1st down, where it was imperative for the Steelers to find success in order to stay ahead of the chains and protect Hodges, the results were boom or bust. The Steelers ran 25 1st down plays for 143 total yards, which is an impressive average of 5.7 yards per play. However, 90 of those yards came on just four plays - two strong runs by Conner on inside zone calls and two nine-routes. On the remaining 21 first-down snaps, they garnered just 53 yards for an average of 2.5 yards per play. This put the Steelers in a lot of 2nd-and-long situations, allowing Buffalo to get aggressive and put pressure on Hodges.

Two first down plays were particularly troublesome. We’ve looked at one - the second interception by White that flipped the momentum late in the third quarter. That mistake was on Hodges for his poor coverage read. The second one is on Fichtner.

Trailing 7-3 just before halftime, a Steven Nelson interception set the Steelers up with great field position. Following a (phantom) face-mask penalty, they had 1st and goal from the Buffalo 10. Fichtner opted for a wildcat play with James Conner taking a direct snap and running a power-read concept with receiver Diontae Johnson. The snap from Pouncey was low and Conner, rather than eating the ball, attempted to carry out the read element. The exchange with Johnson was sloppy and the ball ended up on the ground, where Buffalo recovered.

Power-read is a staple of just about every spread high school and college play-book in the country. It has even infiltrated the NFL recently, where Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have run it with great success. These quarterbacks are trained to run the play and they rep it again and again in practice to perfect the timing and the read. With so many moving parts, everything, beginning with the snap, has to be in sync. It’s an expensive play in terms of practice time but when it works it can be a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, with Conner at “quarterback,” it was more like Quasimodo:

There are so many problems with this play I don’t know where to begin. First, the snap ruins the timing of the mesh between Johnson and Conner. It also compromises Conner’s ability to get his eyes on the read key, in this case defensive end Trent Murphy (93). Notice in the photo below where Conner’s eyes are. They are looking at Johnson. To run this play properly, he should be reading Murphy (circled). If Murphy sits at the line, Conner should give the ball and Johnson will run to the edge. If Murphy is up the field (as he is here), Conner should pull it and run behind Foster, who is supposed to be wrapping up to the play-side linebacker.

Here we encounter another problem. Foster, for whatever reason, blocks Murphy rather than climbing to the backer. Had he wrapped inside, Conner may have seen him, pulled the ball and tucked in behind him. Instead, he hurries a hand-off to Johnson who, because Murphy is so far up the field, has to immediately cut inside rather than run to the edge. Nothing here goes as planned.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the play failed, however. Fichtner asked a running back (Conner) to play quarterback and to hand the ball to a receiver (Johnson) playing running back on a read play that takes most actual backfields dozens if not hundreds of reps to perfect. Even with a good snap and Foster executing his assignment correctly, the degree of difficulty here was high. In terms of risk/reward, the risks of running it in this situation with Conner and Johnson as the ball-handlers far outweighed the reward of what was likely a gain of a few yards. Fichtner must have felt good about the way the Steelers had run it in practice or he wouldn’t have called it. Still, it feels reckless considering the situation and the degree to which points were at a premium Sunday night.

All told, the Steelers’ made a few big plays on first downs but also had two huge turnovers and gained less than two yards on 14 of 25 snaps. That put Hodges in too many difficult situations from which he could not recover.


CONCLUSION

I don’t envy Randy Fichtner this season. He could not have been provided a worse hand to play and yet, despite a slew of injuries to many of his best players, has cobbled together enough offense to have the Steelers in the playoffs if the season ended today. Still, the “Fire Fichtner!” crowd has been in full throat for most of the season. It’s probably unfair but it goes with the territory. Fans calling for the head of the offensive coordinator is about as predictable as the sun rising in the east. Just ask Todd Haley. Or Bruce Arians.

Unfortunately, Sunday night didn’t do much to help Fichtner’s case. Too often, he put the offense in a position to fail, either by running risky plays that had little chance to succeed, scheming to the strengths of the Buffalo defense or asking too much of his young quarterback. Fichtner will have to do better, beginning Sunday in New Jersey, if the Steelers are to qualify for the post-season. It may not quiet the critics, but it would be quite an accomplishment in what remains a compelling football season in Pittsburgh.