Well that was impressive.
Three drives. Six first downs. 19 plays. 108 yards. 5.7 yards per play. Six points.
Those are the numbers compiled by the Steelers starting offense in their ten-or-so minutes of work against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday night. The numbers are good but not what they could have been. A steady rain that dampened the football led to a couple of drops and a few errant throws. Without those, the first unit may have produced points on every drive.
What’s even more encouraging than the results of those drives were the concepts offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner employed. In short, Fichtner was in full command of the play-calling, spreading the ball around and having his first unit take what Tennessee was giving them. In an Antonio Brown-less world, this socialist approach to sharing the football is the exact strategy many here at BTSC have been hoping Fichtner would take. Let’s break down the offense’s three Ben Roethlisberger-led drives and see how Fichtner did it.
1st Drive (6 plays, 23 yards, punt)
1st and 10, Steelers 23 yard line; 11 personnel with Juju, Moncrief and Switzer joining McDonald (TE) and Conner (RB) at the skill positions.
The Steelers, in a 2x2 set, open with inside zone to Conner against Tennessee’s base 3-4, cover-2 look for a gain of three. They immediately go to the no-huddle and run an RPO from the same 2x2 formation, with Roethlisberger faking the inside handoff to Conner and hitting Moncrief on a slant for a gain of four. The RPO is expected to be a staple of this Steelers offense and they waste little time getting to one.
On 3rd and 3 they go to the first of a variety of Trips (3x1) looks they will show. This one features their three receivers to the left with McDonald split wide to the right. This is a matchup nightmare for defenses as the Steelers get the 6’4-260 pound McDonald isolated on a corner (in this instance, 5’11 Kevin Byard).
As you can see above, Tennessee presses McDonald and rolls out of their cover-2 shell into a cover-1 look, with the strong safety sitting almost eight yards off of Donte Moncrief, who the tightest receiver to the Trips. Rather than force the ball to McDonald, who runs a slant, Roethlisberger takes the easy pitch and catch on a quick out to Moncrief for a first down. It’s a nice job by Fichtner of using McDonald to dictate coverage and get an easy throw for Roethlisberger.
(Side note: had the Titans elected to go press across the board, Roethlisberger would have almost certainly thrown the slant to McDonald or a fade to Juju).
(Side note #2: it’s interesting Roethlisberger targeted Moncrief on his first two throws. Reports out of camp indicated the two developed solid chemistry during the off-season. It will be worth watching how this affects the battle for the starting receiver position opposite Juju, since Ben was openly critical of James Washington last year).
With a new set of downs, Fichtner stays in the no-huddle and gets into an empty set with Switzer in a bunch to the field with McDonald and Juju. They run a bubble screen to Switzer against a two-defender surface from Tennessee. With two physical blockers out in front, this is going to be a chunk play. Consider:
Unfortunately, the ball slips out of Ben’s hand and sails over Switzer’s head out of bounds. If the throw is accurate, Switzer will catch it and hit the alley between the two perimeter blocks with room to run. The important thing here isn’t that Ben missed the throw. It’s that Fichtner saw Tennessee in a soft shell to the Trips, knew he had a numbers advantage and immediately exploited it. This, for me, was the theme for the first unit: whatever Tennessee showed, Fichtner produced an answer for it. Pretty impressive stuff, considering coaching staffs rarely do much preparation for pre-season games.
The drive sputtered after this when McDonald dropped a Stick route that Ben put right on the money and a receiver screen to Conner, who was aligned in the slot, came up just short of the sticks (nice wrinkle by Fichtner on this play, using Conner, a better runner than Switzer, in the slot to get him the ball quickly in space). The drop and the overthrow killed what was otherwise a sharply scripted drive.
2nd Drive (4 plays, 27 yards, punt)
1st and 10, Steelers 20 yard line; same 11 personnel group with Rogers in the slot for Switzer.
The Steelers open the drive in a Trips set with Juju, McDonald and Rogers in a tight bunch and Moncrief singled up on the opposite side of the formation. This is something I expect to see a lot of this season, as the bunch look gives the Steelers a great run strength with the physical Smith-Schuster and McDonald as blockers while Moncrief or Washington, both legitimate deep-ball threats, get singled up backside. Any defense that plays two-high to use a safety to help on Moncrief or Washington will be a defender short against the run to the bunch; any defense that rotates down to the bunch will have to single up on Moncrief or Washington. It’s a great look for this offense and one Fichtner should rightfully employ.
Here, Tennessee shows two-high, blitzes the playside backer and inserts the safety into his run fit at the snap. Watch what happens:
The impressive thing on this play are the blocks of the three receivers. McDonald and Rogers both wall off defenders to the inside while Juju climbs to get a piece of the safety. Left guard Ramon Foster pulls to kick out the edge but smartly redirects to pick up the blitzing linebacker. This leaves Conner one-on-one with the corner, which is no sweat for James. The combination of solid perimeter blocks, smart in-line play by Foster and smooth running from Conner make this play a thing of beauty.
Unfortunately, this drive also falters as the rain picks up, causing a rare drop from Juju and a poor throw by Ben to an open Rogers for what would have been a first down. Fichtner stayed in the bunch look but flipped it to the other side of the field. The no-huddle remained as well.
3rd drive: (9 plays, 58 yards, TD)
After a free kick following a sack for a safety by Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers take over on their own 42 yard line. They remain in 11 personnel, with Switzer back in for Rogers.
Following an incompletion on a quick throw to McDonald, the Steelers come back to an RPO from another Trips set and gain nine yards on an outside zone run by Conner.
On this RPO, the offensive line blocks outside zone to the left while Switzer runs a bubble and Juju a fade to draw their defenders away from McDonald, who is the inside receiver to the trips. Roethlisberger is reading the defender lined up over McDonald (circled). If he flows with the run, Ben will pull the ball and throw it to McDonald. If he says on McDonald, Ben will hand off to Conner.
As you can see below, the defender sits on McDonald, leaving one less man to pursue the run. Roethlisberger hands the ball off and Conner rumbles for nine yards, setting up a make-able 3rd and 1. It’s a great play design by Fichtner and good execution by the offense.
Following an inside zone run to Conner to pick up the first down, the Steelers gain another first down on consecutive quick throws. First, from a tight bunch set against another cover-2 look, Roethlisberger hits a check-down to Conner for four yards after Conner smartly releases to the flat once no linebackers show in the pass rush. Then, Ben hits Juju for a gain of eight on a mesh route as Juju crosses the field underneath Switzer. The Steelers have made extensive use of the middle of the field in the passing game this pre-season and Sunday night was no different.
Ben comes back to Juju on the next play, faking run to Conner then booting out to his right and dropping the ball in the flat. Juju, aligned tight to the tackle in yet another Trips set, delays to block the back side before releasing and catches the dump pass for a gain of six. This was another wrinkle on an old standard by Fichtner, as traditionally a tight end or H-back plays the role Juju executes. Here, it was the Steelers star receiver.
On 2nd and 4 from the Tennessee 23, the Steelers run inside zone to Conner for a gain of three. That sets up 3rd and 1. Interestingly, Trey Edmunds comes into the game as the short-yardage back, not rookie Benny Snell, who largely occupied that role for the first two pre-season games. Whether there is something to be read into this remains to be seen. Regardless, Edmunds gains three yards on a nice run where he squares his shoulders and pushes the pile to keep the chains moving.
On each of the previous two downs, the Titans, perhaps sensing run or perhaps desiring to crowd the Steelers receivers and take away the short throws they’d been living on, dropped a safety down and played cover-1. Fichtner sees this. Now, on 1st and 10 from the +17, he has Roethlisberger, who hasn’t yet thrown a ball more than ten yards in the air all night, go over top of the dropped safety. Ben hits Juju on a beautiful skinny post for a touchdown. With the Titans blitzing the trips formation, bringing their nickel and rotating the free safety into coverage on McDonald, there is no one to help corner LeShaun Sims in coverage on Juju. It’s not a fair fight.
The starting unit gives way after this, and Mason Rudolph comes on and promptly throws a long touchdown pass to Washington on another post route. Fichtner wasn’t quite done picking on the Titans, it seemed.
What Did We Learn?
Plenty. First, the offensive line looks tremendous. James Conner had ample room to run and totaled 41 yards on five carries for an average of just over eight per. The line got a great push on Trey Edmunds’ third-and-one conversion just before the touchdown throw to Juju. And no Titan defender came within an area code of touching Ben Roethlisberger, which allowed the veteran QB to play through the rain and rust towards a productive outing. Granted, Fichtner scripted throws that allowed the ball to come out of Big Ben’s hand quickly. At a glance, however, it looked like he had plenty of time to survey the field should he have so desired.
Next, Fichtner continued to make ample use of his favorite formation group, 11 personnel. All 19 snaps run by the varsity offense came from 11p. The focus this week was on Trips formations, of which Fichtner showed a variety. I counted five separate Trips looks with 14 of the 19 total plays run from one incarnation of Trips or another.
The benefit of Trips sets are many. Defenses can defend the pass against Trips in a variety of ways but they are limited in how they can align to it. They must pick their poison by either playing two-high and being susceptible to the run or dropping a safety into the box and being vulnerable against the pass. Tennessee tried to have their cake and eat it too by aligning their strong safety at about eight yards where, ideally, he could defend both. Fichtner had answers for that look, too, including the bunch sweep to Conner that gained 21 yards and the touchdown pass to Juju.
We also saw the offense work some no-huddle, which is not surprising since they often try to get Ben some no-huddle reps in his limited pre-season action. Every year I clamor for more no-huddle than we actually run. I won’t hold my breath that there will be more this year. But I can hope.
One new tempo wrinkle I did see was the introduction of the “sugar” huddle commonly used at the college level. This is a loose huddle that gathers near the ball in which the quarterback relays a single code word that includes formation, snap count and play. He might say “Boston, Boston,” which could mean something like Trips right, Zone left with a Stick RPO to the Trips side on first sound. The offense then breaks the huddle, lines up quickly and runs the play.
Sugar huddle is a good way to run a quick tempo while also disguising formation or making it hard for the defense to line up. Because the offense is huddled so close to the ball, they can turn, get set and snap the ball quickly while the defense scrambles to line up. Fichtner didn’t do anything exotic out of the sugar huddle Sunday night but he may have introduced it just to get the players conditioned to the tempo. Traditionally, teams have used it to run unbalanced or unusual formations or plays their opponent has not yet seen on film. We may see some of these things from the Steelers out of the sugar huddle during the regular season.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Fichtner and Roethlisberger each seemed content to take what the Titans gave them. This is a great sign. In the absence of Antonio Brown, whose desire for stats and/or status seemed to create pressure to get him touches, the ball was spread easily around the field depending on which looks were open. Eight different players either touched the ball or were targeted on the 19 plays run by the starting offense. That’s an incredibly effective use of the talent at Fichtner’s disposal. If the Steelers can find that sort of balance and mix it with Fichtner’s creative use of formations, this may be one of the best units in recent memory.
Was it a perfect night for the starting offense? Of course not. They didn’t execute perfectly and they left some meat on the bone. It was an excellent performance by Randy Fichtner, however, who was a step ahead of his Tennessee counterparts all night. In the absence of perfection, an excellent night by the offensive coordinator will do just fine.