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.
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.