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Can Play-Action Be the Key to Success for Steelers Offense Under Rudolph?

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It is not often you can make a case for an offense opening up its playbook when shifting from a Hall of Famer such as Ben Roethlisberger to a former third-round pick in Mason Rudolph. However, for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019, this may be the case.

No, this is not an argument that Rudolph is going to be the better quarterback or force the Steelers to think about moving on. When the play breaks down, you see Roethlisberger at his best, and it will take Rudolph years to learn some of the in-game processing that Roethlisberger has. This isn’t even a conversation.

However, being a veteran for as long Roethlisberger has been, he knows what he likes and what he does not like. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is going to skew towards calling the set of plays that Roethlisberger likes to keep his quarterback comfortable. This may not mean the most expansive playbook, but with a comfortable quarterback who can react fast and make plays after they break down, it is a good deal.

When asked about how the play calling will change going to the younger quarterback, Rudolph was confident that he could do the same things as Roethlisberger.

“It’s just a matter of Randy [Fichtner] asking me what my favorite calls are,” stated Rudolph. “Every quarterback’s got their favorites out of the game plan. I always kind of star my stuff and listen to what Ben likes in our meetings Saturday nights. Just make sure I communicate that stuff to Randy, and I’m ready to roll with my favorites. But I don’t think it’s going to change. I’m a prototypical guy, and that’s kind of our offense and what they ask us to do. I don’t see that changing at all.”

As he did with Roethlisberger, Fichtner will cater a playbook around the likes and skill set of Rudolph. However, while Rudolph may not see it changing, he is likely talking about the idea that the playbook would be simplified for him. However, that may be contrary, as the plays that Rudolph stars and likes may open things up more than Roethlisberger did.

There is no way to argue the fact that Roethlisberger did not like play action. The Steelers were dead last in the NFL last season running play-action just 12% of the time. The next closest was 17%. This year, the Steelers recorded one play-action snap with Roethlisberger. Whether it is turning his back to the defense, selling the fake, or picking up his reads, this is not something he is comfortable with, and the Steelers adjusted.

The issue is that play action is one of the easiest ways to create clean throwing lanes in today’s NFL. Teams who led the NFL in play-action are the Rams, Seahawks, Eagles, and Patriots. The Chiefs ranked seventh in play-action attempts — not bad company. The Steelers are down with the Bucs, Raiders, Lions, and Jaguars as teams who run the least play action.

Play action helps massively because linebackers are taught to defend the run first. You are taught this from Pop Warner to High School. Run keys are instilled in their brains. So, play-action almost always gets them to step up, which creates a split second to complete easy passes.

In the play below you can see Tom Brady suck in Mark Barron and Devin Bush via play-action. He now has an easy throwing lane to Julian Edelman.

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Studies have shown that play-action increases offensive production. Looking at the teams that are ranked top 10 in play-action rate can agree with that. However, even more interesting to note is that play-action typically does not even need a rushing threat to be effective. The act of play-action tends to pause linebackers regardless of how well they have defended the run. It is an easy starter for an offense.

So, the question has always been why do the Steelers not run more play-action? Was this a Roethlisberger thing? Apparently. As mentioned, Rudolph starred his favorite plays, and Fichtner gave Rudolph what he liked. What did Rudolph run? Play action. The Steelers ran play-action on 30% of his snaps. That would have ranked fifth in the NFL last season. To go from the lowest rate in the league by far to fifth in the NFL by making halftime adjustments shows that Roethlisberger does not like it, while Rudolph wants to run more play action.

Rudolph was 5-7 for 53 yards and a touchdown on Sunday when doing play-action. There is no doubt we will see more of this on Sunday. Will the playbook be as open on Sunday as if Roethlisberger were playing? No. Roethlisberger can call any play and check to any play at the line. Rudolph will not have nearly that autonomy and will play within a smaller version of the playbook. However, that version will have wrinkles that Roethlisberger did not use. Look for play action to protect Rudolph, give the Steelers offense a chance to succeed with a young quarterback.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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