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Three factors which should tell us plenty about the Steelers during the stretch run

Bennie Snell, Randy Fichtner, and Lamar Jackson and the unpredictable 2019 Steelers season

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Between James Washington’s coming out party, Devlin Hodges’ firework-sparks, Mike Tomlin’s Coach of the Year candidacy (it’s about time), Bud Dupree’s increasing price tag, and the Defensive Player of the Year votes for T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, there’s no shortage of stories for the Steelers at the three-quarter pole of the 2019 season.

As the team heads to Arizona to try to hang onto the AFC’s sixth seed, here are three individuals that I’ve been thinking about lately, and the lessons I think they’re teaching.

The Steelers finally got a closer: Benny Snell Jr.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I keep saying this to anyone who will listen: I think Snell is the fourth quarter wrecking ball this team hasn’t had since Jerome Bettis retired.

Snell is no Bus (let’s not go that far) but so many of the Steelers featured backs over the last fourteen years seem out of their element when the clock needs to bleed. Willie Parker was never a power back. Rashard Mendenhall and James Conner both have had fumbling problems. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer weren’t reliable. It seemed dangerous to overfeed Le’Veon Bell, a three-down, four quarter guy with an injury history. Snell, though seems to be a better runner as the game goes on. In fact, though he’s been a featured back in three games already this season, he wasn’t all that effective in the first half of any of them; he did his damage late.

Against the Chargers, Bengals, and Browns, here’s how Snell’s numbers compare:

First half, composite stats
17 carries, 47 yards, 2.76 yds/carry

Second half, composite stats
38 carries, 189 yards, 4.97 yds/carry

Fourth quarter alone
22 carries, 124 yards, 5.64 yds/carry

That’s a closer if I’ve ever seen one.

Here’s why this matters: in the fourth quarter, bleeding the clock, the running yards are hardest to come by. The defense knows you’re going to hand off; they’ve got the box stacked in the hopes of stonewalling you and making you punt. Meanwhile, as the play unfolds, everyone is clawing for the ball. (Conner has several end-game fumbles on his own resume already, and experimenting with Stevan Ridley last season was such a disaster that Ridley didn’t even make the team this year.) These are the hardest spots for a running back to shine.

And here’s Benny Snell, in that very spot, killing it.

5:35 to go against Cleveland. 1st and 10 from the 1-inch line. Steelers leading 20-13. Snell takes the handoff and goes for 11 to take the team out of trouble. He’ll carry three more times for eight yards as the Steelers bleed the clock and close out the game.

5:11 left against the Bengals. 1st and 10 from the Cincinnati 43, leading 16-10. Snell carries five straight plays, for 35 yards, including a 21 yards blast on 3rd and 1. The Bengals will burn all three timeouts during this sequence. Just after the two minute warning in the same game, he’ll go 13 yards on 2nd and 6, to convert the final 1st down. Only kneel downs follow.

And while the Chargers frantically tried to pull a fourth quarter comeback in week 6, there was Benny Snell, converting three time-eating first downs, killing L.A. by slow, agonizing clock-death.

Gregg Easterbrook (of the now-defunct Tuesday Morning Quarterback columns) used to say “defense starts comebacks; offense stops them.” In other words, a big comeback is usually sparked by a defensive splash play – a pick-6, a momentum stealing sack, etc. But if you’re protecting a lead and the opponent is frantically trying to come back (like the Chargers in week 6), your defense isn’t the key; your offense is. Kill the momentum, kill the clock, kill the comeback. You need a closer for that. I think Benny Snell is the guy.

(P.S. I also think James Conner is a better athlete, a better receiver, and a more effective running in the first half by leaps and bounds. But I don’t trust him in the end-game. It’s oversimplifying to put it this way, but I’d love to see a scheme in which these two split carries through the game, with Conner being the featured back in early on, and Snell being the wrecking ball in the second half. With Jaylen Samuels as a third-down H-back, and Kerrith Whyte Jr. as a change-of-pace speed back, this is a nice four-headed backfield, all under 25.)

Randy Fichtner needs to abandon his scripted “First 15.”

NFL: OCT 06 Ravens at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fichtner has been a lightning rod this season. Many in Steelers Nation believe he’s been dragging the team down with uninspired play calling. Many others remain impressed that he’s getting anything out of the motley crew he’s been stuck with. For my money, I think Fichtner is a better in-game playcaller than he gets credit for; but he’s worse in the first quarter than anyone I’ve ever seen. A graphic I recently saw (but can’t locate now – mea culpa) noted that over the Steelers last 10 games, they’re averaging 1.3 yards on their opening drives. That’s not 1.3 yards per play. It’s 1.3 yards per drive. Holy hell.

The Steelers first quarter woes could be a reflection of their aforementioned rogues gallery of players, but my guess is that Randy also scripts a bad opener most weeks, and is just better at reading the game in progress and making it up as he goes.

It’s remarkable problem to have. Frankly, it’s the exact opposite gripe from what I used to say about both Todd Haley and Bruce Ariens. Those two guys ran fairly different offensive schemes, but both schemes were winning formulas. What drove me crazy about both Ariens and Haley was that they always seemed to dial up the wrong play when it mattered most. You can think of that as situational playcalling, and they were spotty there at best.

Ariens, for example, too often called slow-developing tap-dances at the goal line or dropped Ben deep when the defense was already teeing off on him. Everyone watching the team back then has at least one game where we thought, “we’re going to watch Ben Roethlisberger die on the field today if they keep dropping him back on every play,” but it’s also easy to forget how bad those teams were in the red zone as well (and how many 19 yard field goals Jeff Reed kicked those years). Meanwhile, while Haley’s teams were better in both of those areas, he had the inexplicable habit of calling the same play two or three times in a row, and then getting stonewalled by a defense that clearly saw it coming. Moreover, in his last couple of years, the Steelers seemed uninspired — even bored — for the bulk of the contests, then would suddenly explode when Ben would start calling his own plays in the two minute drill. (Remember all the frantic comebacks in 2017? Most of those games, the Steelers should never have trailed in the first place…) Both of those guys had a lot of success in Pittsburgh, but gave us far too many in-game face-palm moments as well.

Fichtner, meanwhile, seems to do alright with in-game adjustment, but his plans themselves seem sketchy. Case in point: Steelers haven’t scored an opening-drive touchdown in a year, but somehow keep winning. In fact, they’ve posted comeback victories in half of their wins this year, including double-digit comebacks against Cleveland and Miami (and they trailed Baltimore by 10 twice before taking them to overtime as well). Once the game is off and running, Fichtner calls fairly effective deep passing, good up-the-gut runs in the late-game, and keeps these third and fourth string quarterbacks comfortable (even when they have to step in mid-game, which keeps happening). He’s also shown a willingness to throw a change-up, with wildcat plays or end-arounds. As far as I can tell, he’s not bad in-game; he just seems untrustworthy when he’s had too much time to think. (Maybe this is why Roethlisberger – the best sandlot football player of all time – likes him so much…)

Since I’m sure some of you still aren’t convinced, let me throw one more statistical exclamation point at you. Against the Browns last week, the Steelers amassed 323 yards and scored 20 points. At the end of the first quarter, they had 4 yards (four!) and zero points. That means they’d racked up the previous numbers in just three quarters of play. A four-quarter game at that level would be 425 yards and 27 points. (This trend played out against the Chargers, Bengals, and Dolphins too.) If the Steelers were playing the kind of offense in the first quarter that they play in the ensuing three, no one would wonder about this offense at all.

Lamar Jackson should give us confidence in the Steelers defense

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Yes, you read that right. Let me explain.

We all know the Ravens keep on winning. They now hold the 1 seed in the AFC. and are viewed by many as the best team in football. The 49ers roughed them up a bit but couldn’t close the deal. Consequently, the consensus among talking heads seems to be that Lamar Jackson is still unstoppable. The Niners powerful D contained L-Jack as well as anyone could, limiting the presumptive MVP to just 105 yards passing, but giving him 101 on the ground. That’s not how you beat this team.

Listening to all this, you could be forgiven for believing that it takes a powerhouse like the 10-2 Niners to even try to contain the Raven’s star (and even then, good luck).

But I keep thinking – didn’t he look pretty mortal against the Steelers?

Five games into Jackson’s ascent, the Steelers intercepted him three times and sacked him five times, all while coming back from two ten point deficits to lead their arch rivals in the final minute. Despite Baltimore’s two extra possessions in overtime, Jackson was unable to throw for 200 yards or run for 75 (the only game all season he’s been held under both). Square his three picks (along with a fumble the Ravens recovered) against only one touchdown pass (and none of the ground), and you have by far Jackson’s worst performance of the season.

The most telling moment of that game surely came at the end of regulation, when Mike Tomlin (having won the overtime coin toss) elected to kick to Jackson to start the period. Given the way the Ravens offense sliced through the Patriots, Rams, Texans, and everyone else, this seems like insanity. But after four quarters of football, Tomlin believed his D would stop Jackson short, giving his offense a chance to win the game outright.

And then the defense did just that.

The Ravens opening possession of overtime was a pathetic 3-and-out, highlighted by a Bud Dupree sack of Jackson on 2nd down, and a one yard pass on 3rd and 15. Even after JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ensuing fumble, the Ravens went nowhere, picking up just six yards (for a two-possession net of 2 yards), to set up a non-gimme 46 yard field goal attempt. Mutant kicker or not, it would have behooved the Ravens to pick up a first down or two to guarantee a win. And they couldn’t.

Even though Baltimore walked away with the victory, that “revolutionary” Ravens offense we keep hearing about sure looked pedestrian against the Steelers D.

The smart money has the Ravens winning the follow-up game, and right now Vegas has them winning the Super Bowl. But I wouldn’t be so quick to assume. Defense wins championships, as the kids say, and the league is more wide open than it looks.

Go Steelers!