The Pittsburgh Steelers offense is clicking on an entirely different level. 52 points are the most they scored in a game since 1984. Last week, they went into Baltimore, ran all over their highly touted run defense and used a 12 play, nine-minute drive to show the domination of their rival, extending a lead to 20-6 in the second half.
This is an offense that many regarded as the best in the NFL over the past three years. What could have been with Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell many have said. However, despite no Bell and trading Bryant only to replace him with an ineffective James Washington this offense somehow looks like it is going to be better than the best offense in the league on paper in the past. What is the difference?
No, it is not “the loss of a locker room distraction” or any of the narrative stuff. A lot of this credit has to go to the shift from Todd Haley to Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator.
If you recall, Ben Roethlisberger struggled to start 2017. He was not connecting deep down the field and had the offense out of rhythm. Then, after a poor performance that led to a comeback win against a poor Colts secondary, the Steelers made a change.
Ben Roethlisberger reportedly asked for Fictner, his quarterback coach to move to the sideline. While he likely did not take over play calling, it did see a light turn on for Roethlisberger. His final seven games he was a 67% completion passer, with 21 touchdowns to five interceptions and 2,422 yards, 7.7 per attempt.
Adding in the nine games he has played this season to create a 16 game sample puts him at a 67% completion passer with 42 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. 4,982 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt. That 16 game sample would give him a career high in yards, completion percentage, and touchdowns.
While the first seven games may be an anomaly, his nine games this season are a credit to Fichtner. Let’s remember, his first game as a play caller was in a monsoon at the Cleveland Browns. His second was against Pat Mahomes. He punted to Mahomes once and saw his team buried in a hole. Now, we have learned that this is what happens when you play Mahomes, but the Steelers offense was caught off guard in a shootout they were not quite ready for.
Still, the Steelers offense has entirely found their footing since then. The difference between Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner is obvious. They come from different philosophical backgrounds.
Haley has often looked to play to his team’s strengths. He has Antonio Brown, so he is going to highlight Antonio Brown in creative ways. This can work at times, but when you play the Jacksonville Jaguars, and you throw the ball to highlight your passing attack, it can be an issue.
With Fictner, he is looking to attack the weakness of his opponent instead. After losing to the Baltimore Ravens and being shut out in the second half, Fichtner knew he needed a flawless gameplan against the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta was fresh off losing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal on defense. It was devastating. Their entire scheme is built around letting up completions to running backs. With Jones and Neal, they had the speed to tackle the catch and force teams to other areas for big plays. Without the two, running backs were getting loose. On top of that, the two were second level run defenders, and the Falcons still rank 31st against the run today.
What did Fichtner do? He ran the football 21 times, seeing Conner break out for 110 yards and two touchdowns. He also got Conner in space on backup defenders in the passing game. He caught four passes for 79 yards.
The Steelers played four top 15 defenses in third-down conversion rate to start the season. Atlanta ranks 31st in third-down conversions. Fichtner used Conner to put his team in third and manageable situations and then converted those third downs, going 9-12 with smart play calls that attacked the defenses weakness. Outside runs and passes to Conner.
Against the Bengals, Vontaze Burfict was in his second game back from suspension after barely playing the week before to get his feet wet. While some may respect Burfict, Fictner wanted to test the rust and threw to him isolated on Vance McDonald early. McDonald won the matchup, threw Burfict into a mental breakdown and effectively took him out of the game.
The offense also saw Darqueze Dennard leave the game with an injury in the slot. Fichtner went to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the matchup, and Smith-Schuster went for over 100 yards with a strong second half.
The game-winning touchdown was also a great play design by the offense. Knowing that a backup cornerback was in the slot, Fichtner ran the crossing routes, which would force the inexperienced cornerback to communicate and pick up on the rub. He did not, Antonio Brown squirted free, and the Steelers got the win.
The theme continued the following week with the Cleveland Browns. Ranking second against the pass and 30th against the run, it is no puzzle to figure out where to attack the Cleveland Browns. When you have Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett you cannot find success through the air often. However, when you have weaker linebackers, they can be run on. The Browns also rank 30th in success rate allowed to running backs in the passing game as well.
What did Randy Fichtner do? 24 carries for James Conner amounting to 146 yards and two touchdowns, a career game. He also caught five passes for 66 yards. Conners two games against the Cleveland Browns feature 55 rushes for 281 yards. That is how you expose a weakness and attack something until somebody forces you to stop it.
While they only put up 23 points against the Baltimore Ravens, this may have been Ficthners best work. Everybody was in on the act. The Steelers converted ten third downs on 16 attempts. They had the football for over 36 minutes, which included the devastating post-halftime scoring drive. The execution was flawless, but the play calling was on par to match.
Now, we get to the explosion against the Carolina Panthers. On the surface, the Panthers defense looks tough. Then you realize they just have not been tested often. Below the surface, they rank 27th in explosive pass defense and 20th in pass rush. They rely on Luke Kuechly and others to shut down the short stuff, but they have been exposed in the back end by deep passing.
Since Week Three, the Steelers played the number 16, 6, 9, 13, and 16th rated explosive pass defenses. The previous three weeks saw the number nine, 12, and five pass rushes. To move to number 27 and 20 was going to put the Steelers in a spot where they have been tested by more.
Randy Fichtner once against recognized the mismatch and attacked. He knew that his quarterback would have time in the pocket, they barely give up pressure when facing stout competition. Against a weaker foe, Roethlisberger would be able to hang in the pocket and let it rip down the field. The very first play, just how Fichtner drew it up for a 75-yard touchdown.
The Panthers decided to put a rookie in Donte Jackson on Antonio Brown. Brown lined up on the left side, and Jackson followed. The next drive, Brown lined up on the right side, and there was Jackson. Fichtner had established that wherever Brown goes, Jackson will be there. From there, Fichtner got Antonio Brown deep, knowing that the seasoned veteran would burn the rookie corner and knowing that the Panthers wouldn’t have the proper deep coverage.
The Steelers rank top five in third down conversions and rank second in red zone scoring. They rank eighth in time of possession, shooting up those rankings by dominating the clock in recent possessions.
Everyone is so worried about Le’Veon Bell and how he will cut into the playing time of James Conner. The fact is that with Fictner, he would use Bell to cut into the playing time of Jesse James, James Washington and Ryan Switzer. Bell can block, catch and run. Fichtner has already experimented with motioning Switzer into the backfield and even giving him carries in the backfield.
Fichtner knows that a threat to run, catch and block is another threat to be used in specific situations to stress defense in areas where are weakest.
Yes, the defense is playing better. Yes, James Conner is the story of the year. Even Vance McDonald has slowly become a cult hero. However, lost in all of this is that Randy Fichtner has put his team in positions to succeed. Situationally, he has put them in the right spots and has made the right calls at the right times.
This season feels different. That is because it is different. The offense is attacking defenses in ways that it hasn’t in the past. It is time that Randy Fichtner gets credit for putting together consistent gameplans that have put his team in a spot to where they can be the Pittsburgh Steelers offense we have always been waiting for.