What a week. For a franchise known for maintaining the status quo, the past few days have brought a seismic amount of transition. From the Hall of Fame quarterback going onto the shelf just two games into the season to a bold move by the front office to trade a 1st round pick to acquire a coveted player-of-need, things have been very un-Pittsburgh-like around Pittsburgh this week.
Beneath the headlines, however, likely tucked away in a film or meeting room, an interesting X and O battle is unfolding. With Mason Rudolph set to make his first career start on Sunday at San Francisco, the Steelers offensive staff is no doubt carving out a plan to make Rudolph comfortable and put him in a position to succeed. Across the continent, their defensive adversaries in the Bay Area are plotting to confuse and unsettle the young QB. Major announcements like the Fitzpatrick trade are worthy headline grabbers. But the quiet battle between coaching staffs as each prepares for Rudolph’s debut is the strategic news of the week.
Rudolph was impressive in relief of Ben Roethlisberger against Seattle last Sunday, but how much of that success can be attributed to a defense that spent no time preparing for him? With a full week to scheme, San Francisco should be better positioned to stop the things Rudolph does well. On the other hand, with a full week to take all of the snaps with the varsity offense and to rehearse mentally as the starter, Rudolph will be better prepared too. The coaching staff that uses its preparation time more effectively will likely be the one that comes out on top.
Let’s dive into the details and unpack how this particular chess match might unfold.
Three things are essential if the Steelers are to succeed on Sunday and none of them involve Rudolph, specifically. First, the Steelers must run the football to alleviate pressure on their young QB. Second, the Steelers must be solid in pass protection, especially in blitz recognition and pick-up, so that Rudolph can process information free from duress. Third, the Steelers coaching staff must not simply scheme to Rudolph’s strengths but must find ways to surprise San Francisco and catch them unprepared like they did last December against New England when they designed creative runs for Jaylen Samuels in his first start for an injured James Conner.
Let’s start with the rushing attack. San Francisco surrendered just 26 yards on 19 attempts to the Bengals last week, so running on the Niners seems daunting. The Niners built an early lead in that game, however, and the Bengals made little attempt to run the ball once they did. A better model for the Steelers to follow might be from Week 1, when Tampa Bay rushed for 121 yards on 26 carries against the Niners for an average of almost five yards per carry.
San Francisco plays a base 4-3 defense -- a gap front -- similar to what Seattle played but without as much twisting, pinching and slanting. Their front four contains several good players -- DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead -- but Ford and Armstead are better pass rushers than run defenders and can be moved. Buckner often plays with a high pad level and can be displaced from the line of scrimmage as well. Here’s an example from that week one game:
Tampa is in an 11 personnel single-back set. This should look familiar, as it’s the Steelers favorite grouping and formation. The Bucs offensive line blows the Niners front off the ball on a simple inside zone run. Ford (55) gets turned and can’t hold his gap while Buckner (99) gets driven back so hard he pancakes his own linebacker. Tampa is no rushing juggernaut -- they finished 29th in the league in yards per game in 2018 -- yet they handled San Francisco up front for much of the game. The Steelers have to match that blueprint and then some.
One thing that could help the run game is the fact San Francisco is predominantly a gap front on defense. This means defenders are aligned in gaps between blockers rather than on their heads. These defenders are only required to occupy or penetrate a single gap, which makes their job easier than the two-gap responsibility a 3-4 places upon its defensive front. However, with defenders aligned in gaps, it gives offensive linemen good angles for down blocks. This type of blocking is conducive to aggressive run schemes like sweep, power and counter.
Counter, especially, is effective against ends who run up the field like the 49ers often do. Here’s counter diagrammed from a 12 personnel set, which is a nice way to run it because the second tight end creates an extra gap at the line of scrimmage:
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner ran a lot of these blocking schemes last season, getting pulling guards, H-backs and fullbacks out in front of his young running backs. We’ve seen little of them the first two games this season. It would be helpful if the Steelers went a bit heavier with their personnel groups with Rudolph at the helm so they could run the ball, hit some play-action and reduce the intricate read progressions required in a lot of 10 and 11 personnel packages. Whether they do this depends on how confident they are in Xavier Grimble and/or the health of Rosie Nix. Now more than ever, the Steelers need Grimble to emerge as a solid second tight end to give them better options in the run game.
Next, the Steelers must protect Rudolph when he does throw the football. San Francisco has registered seven sacks through two games. They are athletic and explosive along the front with Ford, Armstead and first round pick Nick Bosa. The Niners often rely on that front to generate pressure. None of their four sacks against the Bengals involved a blitz and only one utilized a line twist. Three were the product of speed rushes and one was caused by a bull rush from Armstead that forced Andy Dalton to step up into the twist. Essentially, they look to beat you one-on-one as their preferred way of getting to the quarterback.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have surrendered just two sacks through two games and are solid in one-on-one pass pro. With the inexperienced Rudolph at the helm, however, they will likely encounter more stunts than the 49ers have shown thus far. The unit that wins the pass protection battle will be crucial in determining the outcome of the contest.
How will the Steelers protect Rudolph, then? One way is to get the ball out of his hand quickly. The Steelers did this well in his debut against Seattle, relying on timing throws to generate easy completions. Rudolph throws the ball well when he’s on time, meaning when he can take a quick drop, plant his back foot, throw to a specific location and know the receiver will arrive there as the ball does.
He’s also proficient with single-read throws. These are throws where the Steelers scheme to get two receivers into an area covered by a single defender. The QB’s job is to read the drop of the defender and throw opposite of it.
Here’s an example from last week. The Steelers run a simple slant-flat concept (the slant converts to more of a square in because of the positioning of the deep safety). The Seahawks are in a combo coverage, playing cover-1 to the boundary and cover-2 to the field. Rudolph knows the field corner is squatting on the flat route so he throws the in cut to James Washington over top of the alley defender (#24). It’s a perfectly-placed throw into a tight window for a first down.
Timing routes and single-read throws have never been Roethlisberger’s strength but Rudolph excels at them. This is most likely because the Air Raid offense Rudolph executed in college is littered with timing routes that stretch the field horizontally while Roethlisberger has been trained more as a vertical passer. The 49ers may crowd the line and play a good deal of man coverage in order to disrupt these timing throws, in which case the Steelers will have to pick and rub to create separation as well as take some shots down the field. When the Niners go zone, however, I’d expect an abundance of quick throws.
In addition to protecting Rudolph with the quick game, the Steelers are likely to mix in a variety of screens to both the running backs and receivers. Some play-action wouldn’t hurt either. Both are great ways to disrupt an opponent’s pass rush. When the Steelers want to push the ball deeper down the field, I’d expect them to work their five-step drops and leave a back or tight end in to help with protection.
Consider this throw, a 3rd and 8 completion to Diontae Johnson to open the fourth quarter last Sunday. It’s not Rudolph’s best throw of the day as he misses inside and requires Johnson to make a fantastic twisting grab to convert the first down. The important thing is the pocket provided him by the offensive line. Rudolph is quick in his drop, sets his feet, steps into his throw and looks comfortable. One thing we know about Rudolph is that he is accurate, so the placement of this throw is likely not an issue going forward. If the Steelers can give him a good pocket from which to throw, he will get the football to his receivers.
The most encouraging thing I saw against Seattle from a protection standpoint was how much time Rudolph had when Fichtner dialed up five-step drops. Notice how in the GIF above the Steelers had Vance McDonald (the tightest receiver in the bunch to the field) chip the defender inside of him as he released into his pattern and how running back James Conner chipped and released late as well. The Steelers are sacrificing receivers down the field when they do this but what they gain in protection will likely be more important for Rudolph. If they can get deeper into the playbook and let Rudolph work some five-step, they can hopefully limit San Francisco’s ability to crowd the line of scrimmage and sit on the underneath routes.
Then there is the role the coaching staff will play on Sunday. The obvious concerns, addressed above, are whether the staff can scheme to generate a rushing attack and how they will structure the passing game. Running the ball, getting it out quickly and protecting Rudolph are essential.
The problem with this strategy is that just about anyone who follows football knows these are the things you do when starting a young and inexperienced quarterback. San Francisco knows it too. They will likely load the box to stop the run, crowd our receivers at the line and blitz Rudolph like they invented blitzing.
Fichtner’s ability to prepare Rudolph for these things will be essential. Will Rudolph be able to recognize blitzes? Will he know the proper hot routes and checkdowns? Will he have the freedom to change pass protections, allowing him to keep a back in when he sees pressure or change from a man to an area protection if the Niners are running a lot of loops and twists? What about the snap count on the road in a hostile environment? Has it been simplified? Have the hand signals between Rudolph and his receivers indicating route adjustments been adequately rehearsed? Rudolph has been lauded by his teammates as a hard worker and a grinder so it’s likely the young man will do everything in his power to properly prepare. Whether or not Fichtner provides him the right material to study looms as one of Sunday’s biggest questions.
Finally, there is the factor of the unknown. What will Fichtner do that the 49ers are not expecting? The game-plan for New England last year and it’s use of Samuels was creative and unexpected. To succeed on Sunday, Fichtner will probably have to find an equivalent for Rudolph. One idea might be to move the pocket with bootlegs and sprint-outs, something the Steelers do not do with the immobile Roethlisberger. This would serve the dual purpose of showing the Niners something they haven’t seen before while also getting Rudolph away from the pass rush. Another suggestion would be to use play-action to throw on run downs, like 1st and 10, and to break tendencies by running the ball from spread sets and throwing it from heavy ones. Whatever Fichtner does, he will have to get the Niners on their heels so defensive coordinator Robert Saleh doesn’t get comfortable and start teeing off on Rudolph.
On a personal note, I’m sorry to see Roethlisberger’s season end so suddenly. I never root for a player to be injured, especially one of our own. But I’m excited to watch Rudolph play. As great a player as Big Ben is, Rudolph feels like a breath of fresh air at the quarterback position. I don’t expect him to lead us to the Super Bowl, or even to the playoffs at this point, but I look forward to an extended look at what might be the next chapter in the history of this franchise. I’m less desperate for the Steelers to win these days than I am for them to be fun to root for. The off-field drama and diva tendencies of some of their best players have rendered the Steelers of the last few seasons less enjoyable than most. They might not be as good with the young Mr. Rudolph in charge but it will be fun watching the kid grow up on the job. I’m tempering my expectations but not my enthusiasm. Truth be told, I haven’t looked forward to a Steelers game like Sunday’s in quite a while. No matter the result, it should be some genuinely compelling football.