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How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ Offense (Part Three: the Passing Game)

The Pittsburgh Steelers go away from Todd Haley and welcome Randy Fichtner. In this final part of a 3-part series, we dive into what Fichtner might do to help evolve the Steelers’ offense, especially the passing game.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of this series, we speculated on how new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s overall philosophy might differ from his predecessor, Todd Haley. In Part 2, we looked at how Fichtner might structure his run game, particularly the use of gap schemes and an emphasis on “power” football (re-signing Rosie Nix over the weekend may indeed indicate we’re headed in this direction). Here, in the final installment of the series, we will examine how the passing game might evolve under Fichtner. What concepts might he employ, how might he employ them, and how might Fichtner’s passing game differ from Haley’s?

To begin, let’s address an issue that has been a popular source of angst at BTSC for the past few seasons: the propensity of the Steelers to throw the football in 3rd-and-short situations. In 2017, the Steelers put the ball in the air 43-percent of the time on 3rd-and-1. Only a trio of teams from the NFC North, the Lions, Packers and Vikings, aired it out more.

One could argue the Steelers threw so much on 3rd-and-1 because Haley didn’t trust his run game to pick up that tough yard. He may not have thought the offense was physical enough up front, or that Le’Veon Bell’s patient running style wasn’t beneficial in a situation that called for a back to hit the hole against an aggressive defense. That argument doesn’t seem to hold water, however, given the Steelers had four Pro Bowlers, three linemen and the aforementioned Nix, to pave the way for Bell, not to mention 230-pound James Conner as a viable option at running back.

Why, then, did Haley throw so much on 3rd-and-1, and what did it say about his approach to play-calling?

Many of the 3rd-and-1 throws Haley employed were either quick perimeter screens, or deep shots to his wide receivers. In theory, both of these concepts make sense. On 3rd-and-1, defensive coordinators like to get aggressive. They load the box, bring pressure and challenge teams to beat them in coverage. The one-back power run I’ve diagrammed below is not effective against the 4-3 cover-0 look because there aren’t enough offensive players to block all of the defenders in the box. The Will backer (highlighted in orange) cannot be blocked from this formation. If the H shifts into the backfield to block him, the strong safety ($) will come down and now he will be unblocked. So, rather than slam the ball in there and gamble that the running back will be able to beat the unblocked defender, Haley preferred one of two courses: trying to beat man-coverage with a deep route or, as shown below, throwing the ball to the perimeter and betting he could cover up the DBs with his edge-blockers long enough for his athletic receiver to get that yard.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this philosophy. One, deep balls at any level are low percentage throws. It takes flawless execution for a quarterback, with pressure bearing down on him, to heave a ball 30+ yards to a receiver being covered by a man who has been coached to anticipate this exact route. The DB knows in this situation he’s going to get a hitch, slant or vertical concept. If the receiver hasn’t throttled down after about five steps there’s no mystery to what route he’s running. Any DB who can flip his hips and run turns this into a jump ball. Most defensive coordinators will take their chances with that.

As for why Haley’s perimeter screens often failed, the answer is simple: speed. In today’s NFL, safeties run like corners once did and linebackers run like safeties. It might look easy to throw the ball out to the numbers and expect the receiver to be an athlete and get a yard. But the men bearing down on him are FAST. Coupled with the tendency the Steelers showed to utilize quick screens in these situations, defenses were often prepared to run them down.

The more interesting takeaway here isn’t whether these plays worked but what they say about how Haley called his offense. Haley liked the favorable coverages he got in these situations, and he trusted his Hall of Fame quarterback and his stable of talented wide-outs to make plays against them. Other OC’s with franchise quarterbacks weren’t nearly as liberal. The Patriots threw 30% of the time on 3rd and 1 with Tom Brady. The Saints and Chargers each threw 28% of the time with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. And the Falcons put it up just 19% of the time with Matt Ryan.

Haley, then, looked for the big play in these situations because he believed he had a big-play offense. Consider this: in three of the past four seasons the Steelers finished in the top two in the league in plays of 40+ yards. They have also been among the leaders in yards per pass play, finishing 3rd in both 2014-2015 and sixth in 2017. Haley’s passing game was geared towards deep throws and chunk plays and he believed 3rd and short provided opportunities for each. In Haley’s offense, the Steelers threw it down the field.

The question going forward is, will Fichtner subscribe to the same philosophy? Given Haley’s success in the passing game and the weapons that remain at his disposal, I would expect us to continue to air it out under Fichtner. The nature of those deep throws may change, however. When reviewing film of his Memphis teams, one thing jump outs that immediately differentiates the two OCs: Fichtner was much more committed to play-action than was Haley.

According to Football Outsiders, in both 2015 and 2016, the Steelers used play-action on just 14% of their pass plays. This ranked them next-to-last and last in the NFL in terms of usage rate, respectively. However, when you turn on Fichtner’s Memphis film, you see play-action utilized a great deal. Part of this may have been that the record-setting run game he had with DeAngelo Williams lent itself nicely to play-action as defenses sold out to stop the run. Another part may have been how well play-action meshed with Fichtner’s up-tempo offense. Tempo stresses a defense by forcing them to line up quickly. They have less time to relay calls and information and less time to analyze situations. The pace at which the offense is moving conditions defenders to react faster. These reactions set up play-action passes nicely as linebackers get aggressive on run fakes, freeing up crossing routes and seams for receivers to exploit.

Below I’ve diagrammed one of the play-action concepts Fichtner used at Memphis. It is a version of the classic “Shallow Cross” popularized by Dennis Erickson, who is often credited as being the father of the 11 personnel offense (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) so widely utlilized in the NFL today. Shallow Cross is a great play-action concept, especially against cover-2, because it widens the safeties and then exploits linebackers who create voids in the middle of the field by reacting to the run fake. The outside receivers take the top off of the coverage by drawing the safeties to their vertical routes. The TE runs a shallow cross at 4-6 yards and the slot runs a deeper cross somewhere between 12-15. The quarterback will peek at the post first in case the near safety has bitten on the run action (post is a good option vs cover-4, where safeties tend to be more aggressive against the run). If the safeties don’t bite, the QB looks to the crossing routes, where he reads high to low. That high cross is almost impossible for a LB to cover if he’s reacted at all to the run fake. It just hits too deeply for him to recover. A receiver like Juju Smith-Schuster is perfect for this route because he’s fast enough to get deep and across the field and big enough for the QB to locate. With speed on the outside in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, which is sure to draw the attention of the safeties, and big, athletic underneath receivers like Smith and Vance McDonald (or Jesse James), this is a great play-action route for the Steelers.

Play-action is also great in short yardage, and we may see those quick screens Haley favored replaced with play-action passes out of power formations where receivers like Nix, McDonald or even Juju pose as blockers and instead slip to the flat or up the seam for simple throws from Ben Roethlisberger. Whatever the situation, look for Fichtner’s passing game to incorporate more play-action than his predecessor.

Finally, there is this to consider: the NFL has long been a copycat league, and the hiring of a new offensive coordinator means an opportunity to study new trends and examine some of the schemes that are working. This year’s Super Bowl featured two teams who made considerable use of the intermediate passing game. Philadelphia and New England combined to throw 96 passes, an astounding 73 of which, or 76%, traveled less than 10 yards in the air. What’s remarkable about that statistic is there were 879 yards of passing in that contest. 879 yards of passing when 76% of the throws traveled ten yards in the air or less. What does that tell us? It tells us Philly, New England, and many other teams have gone to more of a college-style horizontal passing game that attacks the width of the field rather than the old-school vertical approach once favored by bomb-throwing teams like the Raiders and Redskins. Todd Haley aside, teams are opting against low percentage throws deep down the field. Rather, they are looking to put their athletes in underneath coverage against safeties and linebackers and having their QB’s get them the ball quickly so they can run in space. The rules banning contact with receivers in these underneath zones have opened them for business and modern NFL offenses are cashing in. I’d be willing to bet that Fichtner, who was on the cutting edge of tempo with his offense at Memphis, will not be left behind when it comes to the horizontal passing trend.

So, to summarize, what might we get from Randy Fichtner? My best guess is we’ll see more use of tempo, more code plays and RPOs, more power run concepts, more play-action pass and a greater emphasis on the horizontal passing game. I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Ben Roethlisberger will become the de facto offensive coordinator. However, considering the nature of their relationship, I suspect Fichtner will include QB7 on more game-planning and will provide him greater leeway to adjust play calls than did Haley. Based on what I saw of Fichtner’s film from Memphis, I’m excited for the 2018 season. Given the talent that returns and the wrinkles I expect Fichtner to add, I think an already dangerous Steelers offense could be more explosive than ever.

In case you missed it:

Part One: How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ offense
Part Two: How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolutionn of the Steelers’ running game