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How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ offense (Part Two: The run game)

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

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Quick, let’s take a quiz.

It’s 3rd-and-1 on the Steelers opening drive of the 2018 season. New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner sends in the play to Ben Roethlisberger. Fichtner calls:

A. An outside zone play

B. A bubble screen

C. A post route

D. A smash-mouth run between the tackles

If you answered A, B, or C, you may have Stockholm Syndrome after being held captive by Todd Haley the past six seasons. Haley’s offense, despite its impressive numbers, had a tendency to fail in short yardage and red zone situations. Part of this has been attributed to his reliance on “cute” playcalls designed to out-smart the opponent when old-fashioned muscle would have likely done the trick. Beneath this, however, is a deeper issue – the philosophy of Haley’s run game in general. How Haley structured the run, and how his successor may do so, is the subject of the second installment of this series on the impact Fichtner might make on the evolution of the Steelers offense.

According to nflgsis.com, the Steelers ran the ball on 41.6% of their plays in 2017. This put them 18th in the league, or right in the middle of pack, in terms of run percentage. A deeper dive into the numbers tells us more about the nature of those runs, however. The Steelers ranked 8th, 14th and 5th, respectively, in frequency of runs over left guard, up the middle or over right guard. These are generally inside zone runs, which target the A-gap, which Haley favored due to Le’Veon Bell’s patient running style. The inside zone play benefits a runner like Bell because it gives the back an area, rather than a hole, at which to run. The back has an aiming point (often the inside leg of the playside guard), but if that aiming point is clouded by defenders, he is encouraged to cut to the backside, where linebackers moving laterally with the initial flow have likely created a seam. The more patient the back is, and the longer he allows his linemen to cover up defenders and take them where they want to go, the better the cutback opportunities become. So, many of Bell’s inside zone runs to the right wound up hitting over the left guard, and vice versa.

Provided the Steelers retain Bell, Fichtner would be wise to keep the inside zone as a core running play. However, in reviewing films of his Memphis offense with DeAngelo Williams, one thing that jumps out is the number of pulling guards and gap blocking schemes he employed. Gap plays involve playside linemen using angles to block down on adjacent defenders while backside linemen pull in order to wrap and kick the playside linebacker and force player. These plays, most notably sweep, power and counter, epitomize “power” football. Offensive linemen must get off the ball and displace defenders along the line to create holes for both wrapping linemen and the running back. They also tend to hit wider than the inside zone play. Under Haley in 2017, the Steelers ranked 31st, 21st, 21st and 23rd in plays that hit over left end, left tackle, right tackle and right end, respectively. Less B-and-C gap run plays likely meant less sweep, power and counter.

So, will we see more gap runs, aka more “power” football, from Fichtner? That depends. Gap schemes often require 12 or 21 personnel sets, meaning sets that use either two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback, in order to have enough physical players on the field to block down, kick out and wrap to the second level. Gap runs are still viable out of 11 personnel groupings, provided the team has a receiver who can bloody his nose in the box. Ken Whisenhunt would often use Hines Ward like an H-back, and Ward played an integral blocking role in one of the Steelers most famous gap plays of all-time, “34 Pike,” which is diagrammed below. Fichtner may have a similar player in Juju Smith-Schuster, whose size and toughness make him a logical candidate for the Ward role. If Fichtner doesn’t want to use Smith this way, he will have to decide if the gap running game is important enough to his offense to use a heavy amount of 12 and 21 groupings. The addition of a fullback or an extra tight end means the subtraction of a wide receiver. How often will Fichtner want to take Juju, Antonio Brown or Martvais Bryant off the field? The answer to this question will figure into how gap-heavy his run game becomes.

Finally, there is Le’Veon Bell to consider. Given how heavily Haley favored the inside run, one could logically conclude that Bell does his best work between the tackles. But does he? Nflgsis.com shows that the Steelers have consistently been one of the best teams in the league at attacking the edge. In 2015, they led the league by averaging a gaudy 8.8 yards per play on runs that targeted the left end. In 2016, they were 3rd in the league attacking the right end at 6.7 ypp. In 2017 they improved that average to 7.4 ypp, good for 2nd in the league. Bell is not a typical speed back but clearly he can get outside. Why didn’t Haley utilize more run schemes that attacked the edge, then?

One explanation could be that he used the inside run to set up the outside game. This reasoning would suggest his high propensity of inside runs condensed defenses and made outside runs more effective. Another is that he simply loved the inside zone play because of its versatility (it can be run from just about any formation and personnel grouping). We don’t know how Fichtner will structure his run game, but chances are we’ll see more outside run from him than we did from Haley. The film shows that he loved attacking the edge with DWill at Memphis. Williams was both quick and explosive, and Memphis appears to have had some athletic linemen who could pull and block in space. That combination proved highly effective, as DWill rushed for over 6,000 yards in his four years with Fichtner.

So how might Fichtner attack the edge with Bell as his feature back? Traditional sweep and stretch plays will likely remain. But anyone who watched the Super Bowl saw Philadelphia RPO the heck out of the Patriots (RPOs, or run-pass options, will be covered in a later post). The Steelers employed the occasional RPO under Haley, but given the league-wide trend towards their use and Ben Roethlisberger’s request for more flexibility in the offense, I’d expect a heavier dose under Fichtner. Below is a diagram of the classic power sweep that Vince Lombardi popularized with the Packers in the 1960s. Fichtner ran a version of it at Memphis, and Todd Haley had his own version, which sometimes utilized center Maurkice Pouncey as a puller, in Pittsburgh. The classic version of the play features pulling guards leading the running back to the perimeter, but here we’ve added an RPO on the back side to slow the pursuit of the defense. QB7 would read the backside linebacker (highlighted in orange) for his give or pull key. If the backer sits, he gives to Bell on the power sweep. If the backer flows, he pulls the ball and flips a quick seam route to the TE. This scheme is effective because the full flow of the linemen and the back encourage the linebackers to get aggressive while the RPO uses that aggressiveness against them. Expect schemes like this from Fichtner that provide QB7 options while forcing defenses to simultaneously defend both the length and width of the field.

With a Hall of Fame quarterback, a stable of dangerous skill players and a desire to operate more up-tempo, it’s a safe bet the Steelers will put the ball in the air often in 2018. However, given that Fitchner’s offense at Memphis ran the ball on 54% of its plays over his six seasons as OC, don’t expect him to abandon the run. If his Memphis film is any indication of what he might do here, expect more gap schemes and less inside zone; expect more RPOs built into the run game; and expect, come short yardage, the Steelers to play some old-school smash-mouth football before they resort to quick screens and deep shots. The authorities have freed you from your captor, Steelers fans. Let the healing begin.

In case you missed it:
Part One: How Randy Fichtner will impact the evolution of the Steelers’ offense