Steelers fans may recollect that the offense tended to start slowly in 2019. How slowly? 31 of the 32 NFL teams last season scored at least one touchdown on their opening drive. The only team that did not?
The Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s tempting to attribute their opening drive struggles to the well-documented quarterback situation and to assume, with Ben Roethlisberger returning, things will automatically improve. While some improvement seems inevitable, Roethlisberger has not been immune to starting slowly, either. In 2018, with a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers averaged 1.75 points per opening drive (28 points on 16 possessions). This fell below the league average of 2.05. Additionally, nine of the Steelers sixteen opening drives generated one first down or less, with six ending in three-and-outs. Not only did the Steelers fail to produce many points on their opening drives but they didn’t do much to gain field position, either.
Not coincidentally, they were outscored 96-70 in first quarters in 2018. If you discount the games against Atlanta and Carolina, where the Steelers roared out of the gate and outscored the Falcons and Panthers a combined 34-3, their first quarter disparity was an abysmal 93-36.
Why have the Steelers struggled on opening drives the past few seasons, and what are the keys to solving these struggles? These two questions are the focus of this article.
Just about every offensive coordinator from high school to the pros uses some type of script to call the beginning of a game. A script is a list of formations and plays a coach wants to run on his first few possessions. Some scripts are brief, plotting out a series or two based on scouting of the opposition or a desire to open the game with a particular philosophy. Others are much more detailed, including not just openers but calls for every conceivable situation. The detail and devotion to an opening script varies widely. But nearly all coaches understand their value.
In Pittsburgh in 2018, it seems likely that Ben Roethlisberger had a big imprint on the Steelers’ opening scripts. His strong relationship with then first-year coordinator Randy Fichtner is well-known. Both men talked enthusiastically about how the offense would be more of a collaboration between the two than it had been under Fichtner’s predecessor, Todd Haley. It seems odd, then, that they struggled on opening drives.
The chart below examines the best and worst of the Steelers’ openers in 2018. The first column chronicles the six drives where the offense went three-and-out while the bottom column charts their four scoring drives.
The most glaring differential is in the final column - yards per play - where the Steelers averaged 2.3 on their three-and-outs and 12.2 when they scored touchdowns. The passing numbers are interesting as well. On their three-and-outs, Roethlisberger mustered just 37 yards on 10 completions for an average of 3.7 yards per completion (YPC). On the touchdown drives, his YPC was 17.8. Something similar is true for the rushing attempts (1.0 per attempt on three-and-outs versus 7.7 on touchdown drives).
Obviously, successful drives yield strong numbers while unsuccessful drives do not. What made these drives successful or unsuccessful, though? What did the Steelers do, or not do, that determined their success or failure? Here are the two biggest factors that seem to have impacted opening drives.
How sharp was Roethlisberger out of the gate?
Roethlisberger completed 10-14 passes on opening drives that resulted in three-and-outs. Percentage-wise, that’s excellent (71.4). However, these throws were overwhelmingly short, with the longest of his ten completions covering seven yards.
Fichtner and Roethlisberger likely preferred this as an opening approach because the throws were simple and allowed Roethlisberger easy completions that would (hopefully) get him into an early rhythm. Unfortunately, that was not always the case.
Here’s the first drive of the season ending on a 3rd and 2 play where Roethlisberger spikes an RPO to Antonio Brown into the grass:
Here’s another, from week four against Baltimore, where Roethlisberger short-hops Brown on a five-yard hitch on the second play of the game.
The RPO is more forgivable since it requires a higher degree of execution (reading the defense, pulling the ball from the back and fitting it into a tight window). The hitch against the Ravens is harder to explain, as Roethlisberger has a clean pocket to make a short throw to an open, stationary target. That’s a remedial throw that every high school quarterback in America can make. There’s no reason he should miss on it.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Here’s the third play of the opening drive against the Los Angeles Chargers. Roethlisberger drops a dime on a post route fifty yards down the field to Antonio Brown, setting up a touchdown run by James Conner on the following play:
Often, the Steelers’ opening drive went as did Roethlisberger. When he was sharp, they scored. When he wasn’t, it ended in futility. How much Roethlisberger’s elbow issues, which date back to 2018, affected his performance is a legitimate question to ask. Did Roethlisberger have a harder time getting loose or feeling comfortable some weeks versus others? Did certain types of throws trigger discomfort or weakness? Hopefully, those issues are behind him. The Steelers will need Roethlisberger to be ready from the jump to make the most of their opening possessions in 2020.
Was the play-calling predictable or did it break tendencies?
The first four opening drives of the season, against Cleveland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Baltimore, all ended in three-and-outs. Here are the play calls with down-and-distance and result for each of those drives:
1/10: inside run; +3
2/7: screen pass; +5
3/2: RPO; incomplete
1/10: deep sideline route; incomplete
2/10: WR screen; -1
3/12: short out route; incomplete
1/10: flat route; +3
2/7: inside run; -1
3/8: quick slant; +4
1/10: hitch; +6
2/4: hitch; incomplete
3/4: flat route; no gain (fumble)
Besides the deep ball to open the Kansas City game, every play-call was short and quick. The Baltimore series was especially telling, as the Steelers threw the ball on three consecutive plays and never once threatened the first-down sticks. The Ravens had such little concern about the Steelers attacking deep that they rotated out of a two-high safety shell to a cover-3 robber look against an empty formation on second down.
Here is that play. It’s the same one shown above where Roethlisberger short-hops Brown but from a different angle. Watch the safety drop from the left hash to attack Brown’s hitch. This left Baltimore in a three-deep coverage against a five-receiver look from the Steelers. Any four-vertical concept by Pittsburgh would have been effective, especially since the Ravens rushed just four and gave Roethlisberger time to throw. Clearly, the predictability of the play-calling on Pittsburgh’s opening drives left the Ravens confident the Steelers’ would not attack vertically.
(For an idea of how vulnerable this coverage was to four-verticals, look at what would have happened had tight end Jesse James run a skinny post from his alignment in the right slot near the 30 yard line).
The Baltimore game seems to have been a light-bulb moment for Fichtner, who realized that opponents were on to his opening script. The next week, against Carolina, the Steelers came out for their first play in a traditional 3x1 set from an 11 personnel grouping. Banking that Carolina would attack their short routes the way Baltimore did, they ran a hitch to James Washington to the trips side of the formation and paired it with a wheel from Juju Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster released like he was going to run down the seam but kept his route wide and away from the safety. Roethlisberger pumped the hitch to Washington, which caused the corner to bite, and Smith-Schuster sailed right by him. Touchdown, Steelers.
Later that year, the Steelers put together their best opening drive of the season (and the last to result in a touchdown) with a masterful 11 play, 75 yard effort against New England. The key to this drive was how thoroughly Fichtner altered both his schemes and opening-drive habits against a typical Bill Belichick squad renown for exploiting an opponent’s tendencies.
The first interesting twist Fichtner used was that he largely went no-huddle, something the Steelers had rarely done on opening drives. The no-huddle made it difficult for Belichick to substitute situationally, giving the Steelers a preferred matchup of their 11 personnel against New England’s base 3-4 defense.
Next, Fichtner put wrinkles on some of the Steelers’ core plays that made them harder for New England to recognize. On the fourth play of the drive, he ran a counter play. Normally, the Steelers run a counter-gap scheme by pulling a guard to kick the weak-side edge defender and wrapping a second blocker (usually a tight end) up to the weak-side linebacker.
Here’s an example of the Steelers running counter-gap the previous week at Oakland:
The Raiders were all over this play. Fichtner must have suspected New England would be, too. So, rather than pull the guard to kick the edge, Fichtner had the weak-side tackle (Alejandro Villanueva) turn him out. He also motioned tight end Vance McDonald into the formation from outside the numbers, where New England could not account for him as a blocker:
With McDonald disguised by alignment and the absence of a pulling guard, the Patriots struggled to diagnose counter:
The Steelers gained six yards on the play, but had Samuels not cut inside prematurely and followed McDonald instead, it could have been more. Fichtner, to his credit, ran it again the next play. This time, however, he lined McDonald up in a different spot before motioning him across the formation to get in place to execute his block:
This wrinkle again made the play difficult for New England to recognize. Samuels went wide this time and busted it for a 26 yard gain:
To finish the drive, Fichtner added one more wrinkle by splitting McDonald wide and having him execute a double move on the goal line against a New England corner. The whip back inside from McDonald exploited the corner’s leverage to the boundary. It was a nice twist on the traditional flat route the Steelers’ often run.
In summary, the Steelers’ struggles on opening drives in 2018 often emanated from slow starts from Ben Roethlisberger and predictable play-calling from Randy Fichtner. When Roethlisberger started on target and Fichtner broke tendencies, the results were far better. In next week’s article, we will examine how the Steelers might find ways to do these things effectively in 2020.