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How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers offense

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The Pittsburgh Steelers go away from Todd Haley and welcome Randy Fichtner. In this first part of a three part series we dive into what Fichtner could do to help evolve the Steelers’ offense.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In a move that has been well-received by the fan-base, Todd Haley has been jettisoned and long-time assistant Randy Fichtner now directs the offense for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Fichtner will be tasked with tweaking a system that, although highly successful, frustrated fans, and at times the franchise QB, with its inflexibility and tendency to out-think itself.

In a three-part series, we will examine just how the offense might evolve under Fichtner. Part One focuses on the philosophy of our new play-caller, in particular how he might employ tempo and “code” plays to both simplify the offense and provide Ben Roethlisberger more freedom within it.

This will be Fichtner’s first stint as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. But as many are aware, he was a successful play-caller in college. Fichtner’s units at the University of Memphis, led by future Steeler DeAngelo Williams, broke numerous school records while instituting an up-tempo style of play that was fairly revolutionary for the early 2000s.

It’s hard to surmise how he might coordinate a pro offense based on what he did at a Conference USA school over a decade ago; however, by reviewing film of his Memphis offense and marrying it with Roethlisberger’s requests, we can make an educated guess, or two.

One of the hallmarks of Fichtner’s Memphis offense was its use of the no-huddle. The early 2000s may not seem that long ago, but stylistically football was very different. The up-tempo spread offense had not yet taken over the college game, and Fichtner’s Memphis squads were some of the first to employ the philosophy. As former Memphis head coach Tommy West told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in an interview, “As a playcaller, Randy never got credit for this publicly, but he was one of the pioneers of tempo.”

A major point of contention between Roethlisberger and Haley was Roethlisberger’s desire to operate more out of the no-huddle, and Haley’s resistance to this. Quarterbacks’ often like the no-huddle because the tempo forces defensive coordinators to be fairly vanilla with their schemes. It’s hard to dial up exotic blitzes, stem fronts or disguise coverages when the offense is lined up right away and can snap the ball immediately.

Ever wonder why Roethlisberger often waits until the play-clock is down to :01 before snapping the football? It’s because he’s trying to get the defense to show its hand so he will know exactly what front or coverage they’re in, or what blitz is coming. In the no-huddle, this information is available immediately because the defense is simplified in anticipation of a quick snap. An experienced quarterback, like Roethlisberger, relishes this knowledge. If you give him something he recognizes, he will likely have an answer for it.

Fichtner’s past tells us he will employ more no-huddle, but what will he do with it?

Tempo doesn’t just force the defense to simplify, the offense must do so as well. It’s hard to shift, motion and sub personnel if you want to play fast. Here we encounter one of the reasons Haley may have resisted its use. His offense was notoriously complicated, and critics often felt his insistence on myriad quick screens and long passes in short-yardage situations meant he was attempting to out-think the opposition. Perhaps, in Haley’s view, a “simple” offense was just too basic. Or perhaps he felt simplification was limiting.

One way the no-huddle solves these problems is by employing “code” plays. These are one-word concepts the QB calls at the line which instruct the offense to line up in a set formation and run a multiple-play scheme. Fichtner used a variety of these at Memphis, and their use in Pittsburgh would give Roethlisberger some of the flexibility he desires.

Here is how one might work. Once a play ends and the ball is set, Roethlisberger will approach the line and yell out a code word. The word is often conceived by the players so they will have an easier time remembering what it means. It could be anything, from “Steeler” to “Mercedes” to “Pizza.” There will probably be an alternative word that can be used so the defense doesn’t hear the same thing too often and anticipate the concept (“Philly/Sixers” or “Georgia/Bulldogs”).

In the diagram below, the code word tells the offense to align in a pro look to the right and a slot look to the left:

Roethlisberger has three options on this play. On the outside, Antonio Brown has the quick concept. He will run a speed out or a slant based on the leverage of the corner. If Ben likes that look pre-snap, he will throw it out there immediately. On the other side, Martavis Bryant has the shot-route. He will run a go/fade or a hitch based on the depth of the defender. If the corner is up tight, Ben might like the deep ball here. If the corner is giving a huge cushion, he might like the hitch. Regardless, he has four potential routes to his outside receivers all designed to make the coverage wrong.

This is a soft Cover-2 look, however. The slant to AB makes sense, but Ben might not want to throw it with a safety sitting over the top. Now he goes to his third option – the Run/Pass Option (RPO). RPOs are all the rage in modern offensive football (we will examine them extensively in a later post). For now, though, here is how this one would work:

Roethlisberger identifies seven defenders in the box. Six of them will be blocked using a traditional one-back power scheme. The seventh, in this case the Will backer (highlighted in orange), will be “blocked” by QB7’s read. If the Will sits in his apex position just outside the box, Roethlisberger will hand the ball off and run power. If the Will flows with the run action, QB7 will pull the ball out and throw a quick seam to Juju, who is easing into his route over top of the Will’s pre-snap alignment. QB7 can make the backer wrong by using his reaction against him.

The beauty of these “code” plays is that they are easy for the offense but hard for the defense. The offense hears one word and automatically knows the formation, the snap count (usually first sound) and the play concept. The defense, meanwhile, must get their call from the sideline, line up to the formation, then defend multiple run and pass concepts that attack both the length and width of the field. As long as the QB diagnoses things properly, they provide solutions for whatever a defense throws at him. Simple, in this case, is by no means limiting.

Philosophically, then, we should be able to anticipate more up-tempo from Fichtner that simplifies the offense and provides Roethlisberger more command and flexibility. This might allow him to check out of plays that are DOA based on the alignment of the defense, or give him options built into the play calls. For everyone who has lost a lung screaming at the television following a perimeter screen that loses two yards, or an incomplete deep ball on 3rd-and-1, it will be a welcome change.

UP NEXT: PART TWO, Fichtner and the Run Game