Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley currently finds himself jobless as training camps around the league begin to commence.
Haley, the team’s offensive coordinator from 2012-2017, arrived to Pittsburgh with expectations of pushing the Steelers over the hump with creative play-calling and unique personnel deployment. With a franchise quarterback, one of the best offensive lines football can offer and a mix of All-Pro talent at several positions, the Steelers were well equipped to make some serious noise for a solid stretch of time.
However, Haley (along with the rest of the team) failed to live up to the annual expectation of bringing home a Lombardi Trophy. Fans grew tired of questionable play-calling and very apparent differences Haley possessed with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even after dropping 42 points on a feisty Jaguars defense in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2017, change was needed. The Steelers announced Haley’s contract would not be renewed, and the sides went their separate ways.
Enter Randy Fichtner, Steelers quarterback position coach since 2010. Fichtner received the call for promotion to offensive coordinator shortly after Haley departed, for a handful of reasons, but his experience within the organization and trusted relationship with Roethlisberger being the two biggest factors in the decision. Many expected Fichtner to revamp the Steelers offense by reverting back to his spread offense that was run during his college days at Memphis. Expectations were to also allow Roethlisberger more freedom within the offense, with the fairly successful no-huddle offense to return to relevancy.
Fast forward to present day, where Fichtner now enters year two of play-calling duties. If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re well aware of how last season panned out. Le’Veon Bell played hide and seek, Antonio Brown joined him before the last week of the season, and the Steelers failed to reach the playoffs despite starting 7-2-1. As a whole, the organization viewed 2018 as a year with too many opportunities left on the table. Yet in Fichtner’s first campaign as the Steelers offensive coordinator, did he meet individual expectations?
It’s difficult to evaluate an individual coordinator’s success and determine whether expectations were properly met, for a few reasons. What goals did we as football consumers set out for Fichtner in 2018, and were these aligned with Fichtner’s personal marks? How much weight did Mike Tomlin carry in the offense?
In an attempt to compare Fichtner’s offense to Haley’s, data was compiled between the Steelers’ 2017 and 2018 campaigns. Although some variables are inevitable (Haley’s last season featured a full season of Bell for example) the main components of the team remained largely unchanged, and thus provide a considerable playing field to pit the two offensive coordinators against each other.
Breaking down the similarities, differences and everything between Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner:
Statistically speaking, the general offensive output under Fichtner and Haley mirrored each other. In 2017-18, both offenses totaled over 6,000 yards (ranking third and fourth respectively) while averaging over 25 points per game (Haley’s team averaged 25.4, while Fichtner’s averaged 26.8).
Both offenses also saw majority of their success throwing the ball, as the Steelers finished as top passing teams under both Haley (ranked #3 with 4380 yards) and Fichtner (#2 with 5008 yards). While Fichtner was able to guide Roethlisberger to a 5,000 yard passing season, Haley nearly did the same with the future Hall of Fame quarterback in 2014, as Roethlisberger fell just 48 yards short of the mark.
In both 2017 and 2018, Pittsburgh managed to convert at an impressive 44% on third down plays. Personnel wise, Fichtner and Haley utilized three receiver groupings more than the league average for that season. Per sharpfootballstats.com, Haley ran three-receiver sets on 71% of play calls (league average was 60%), while Fichtner ran them 69% of the time (league average was 66%).
Both coordinators also saw a negative turnover ratio in their first season with the Steelers, as Pittsburgh finished with a -11 difference in 2018, compared to Haley’s -10 difference in 2012. While Haley and Fichtner did share some similarities in the consecutive seasons they reigned as play-callers in Pittsburgh, the differences between the two speaks to the true nature of both coordinators.
Both 2017 and 2018 were successful in terms of moving the ball through the air, yet Fichtner relied heavily on the arm of Roethlisberger. The Steelers attempted a league high 689 passes in 2018, 45 attempts clear of the second-highest team and 99 attempts ahead of Haley’s last season as offensive coordinator in 2017.
As great as the Steelers were able to move the ball last season, not everything went according to plan. Pittsburgh ran the ball just 345 times in 2018 for a grand total of 1,445 yards, good enough for second to last in both categories. The lack of commitment to the running game with James Conner running behind one of the finest offensive lines in pro football raised many questions around Fichtner’s ability to effectively balance his game-plans, questions Fichtner eventually answered himself.
“I probably just need to do a better job heating him up,” Fichtner commented after week four via TribLive.com, “It’s just like quarterbacks, too. You get into a rhythm. And all good running backs, they need that rhythm.”
Under Fichtner’s first season, the Steelers were just one of six teams not to average over 100 rushing yards per game, a mark that last fell short for Pittsburgh in 2013.
Thus lies the main difference between Haley and Fichtner, at least through the small sample size we have from Fichtner. Haley was more willing to balance his offensive attack, as the 2017 Steelers rushed the ball for nearly 100 more attempts than the 345 rushes that proceeded the following year. Perhaps Haley was more keen to hand the ball off to his All-Pro workhorse Le’Veon Bell (Bell touched the ball 405 times that season), a luxury that wasn’t afforded to Fichtner last year.
The usage of running backs between Fichtner and Haley has also been brought into question, mostly stemming from speculation that Bell would have most likely saw a similar workload had he played last season. Per Pro Football Reference, Haley deployed Bell on 85% of all snaps during 2017. The next highest used back? Conner at 6.15%, who touched the ball a total of 32 times and missed the last two games of the season with an injury. Last season saw a somewhat more balanced backfield approach, with Conner taking 64% of available snaps and Jaylen Samuels taking 20% as the next highest used back.
The personnel groupings also suggest Haley was more driven to run the ball, or at least give the defense that impression.
Haley’s 2017 season saw Pittsburgh utilize multiple tight end sets 26% of the time, nearly ten percent higher than Fichtner’s 17% usage in 2018. The involvement of fullback Roosevelt Nix could also be used as another advocate for rushing the ball, as Nix’s usage under Haley (16%) was notably higher than his usage under Fichtner (10%).
The usage at the tight end position is also something to take note of. Despite using more offensive groupings with multiple tight ends, Haley’s overall distribution at the position is heavily skewed towards one player. Jesse James played on 82% of possible snaps, with Vance McDonald seeing a 24.5% usage rate. Under Fichtner, James and McDonald were both used on 50% of plays ran, with McDonald playing just two more snaps then James. It’s also interesting to note Xavier Grimble was used at a 15% usage rate under both offensive coordinators.
With the data suggesting Haley was more aggressive in not only running the ball but scheming to do so as well, it would be reasonable to assume Fichtner’s offense was tailored towards the opposite of Haley’s.
Fichtner’s spread offense was brought to Pittsburgh once the offensive coordinator position was fully given to him, yet his offensive scheme was setting NCAA school records during his time with the Memphis Tigers before joining the Steelers staff (fun fact: Former Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams played under Fichtner during his college days).
The plan? Get receivers on the field and put them in position to excel. In 2018, 6% of Pittsburgh’s plays were ran out of four-receiver sets, good enough for the second highest usage rate among teams in the league. Three percent of plays were out of five-receiver sets, with the Steelers utilizing that personnel grouping for a league high 30 snaps (the next highest is a tie between Buffalo and Dallas with 6 snaps).
The Steelers failed to record a single snap with either four- or five-receiver sets under Haley in 2017.
While Fichtner was not able to use the services of Bell, he was gifted with the talents of one of the best receivers in the league in Antonio Brown.
Brown was on the field for nearly 1,000 of the Steelers snaps in 2018, equaling out to roughly 90% of plays. This was a significant jump from the previous season, where Haley employed Brown on 80% of all team plays. Despite being on the field more, Brown saw his yardage numbers take a slight dip but made up for it by finding the end zone 15 times in 2018, leading the league in touchdown catches.
Fichtner’s offense undoubtedly benefited from the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who out-paced Brown in receptions and receiving yards last season. Smith-Schuster’s usage saw a significant jump under Fichtner’s first season, as he was used on 86% of offensive plays (JuJu saw just 63% of snaps his rookie season). When comparing the data, Smith-Schuster’s usage as a secondary receiver in Fichtner’s offense was higher than Brown’s usage as a number one receiver under Haley’s regime in 2017.
With an offense tailored so heavily towards passing the ball (Roethlisberger’s 675 passing attempts in 2018 ranks as the fourth-highest amount of attempts in a single season), the overall aggressiveness of the offense has its fair share of benefits and drawbacks. Last year saw Roethlisberger throw 16 interceptions, tied for the second-most in his career and good enough to land the top spot for interceptions thrown last season despite throwing for the most amount of yards.
There is no true way to measure aggressiveness in terms of play-calling. However, data such as passing yards per attempt and fourth down attempts/success rate may give us a better understanding.
Roethlisberger’s yards per attempt were nearly identical between 2017/2018, as he averaged 7.60 yards per attempt under Fichtner as opposed to the 7.58 yards per attempt under Haley. While the two coordinators were even in that category, fourth down efficiency tell a different story. Haley’s 2017 offense attempted a total of eight fourth down tries, converting only three of them. That’s good for a 37.5% conversion rate. In 2018, the Steelers went a cool 9/14 on fourth down plays, earning a success rate of 64.3%. The nine successful fourth down calls were the second highest in the league.
Does aggressive play-calling translate to offensive success? Fichtner’s offense performed better than Haley’s in categories such as total yards, points per game, and first down plays converted. However, moving the ball means little to nothing if you are not able to cash in once you reach the red zone. Fichtner’s offense was the number one red zone offense in the league when it came to scoring touchdowns, as the Steelers were able to score touchdowns on 73.4% of possessions inside the 20 yard line in 2018. Haley’s offense converted red zone trips into touchdowns only 53% of the time in 2017.
Numbers could be thrown around all day, but the real difference between Haley and Fichtner rests off the stat sheet and within their abilities to co-exist with Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger’s relationship with Haley held no secrets: The two were simply on different wavelengths. Scour the internet and you’ll find scores of stories from former players confirming the tension between the two, no matter how cordial either party appears to the public eye. Perhaps that is why the organization decided to roll with Fichtner once Haley was relieved of his duties. Roethlisberger has always held Fichtner in high regards, and with Fichtner having a strong sense of familiarity with Ben after working with him for eight seasons, the Steelers decided it was best to promote from within rather than try an outside guy again.
Roethlisberger’s most crucial trait in all the relationships between him and his coordinators? Trust. Haley was a control freak, resisting the idea to let Roethlisberger handle outside of his own control. If you’re a Steelers fan, you’ve likely seen Roethlisberger march the offense down the field while operating under the no-huddle offense at many points in his career. Roethlisberger appeared to be more comfortable while operating out of the shotgun formation in 2018, as he was given more freedom to make adjustments on the fly while also having more say in play-calling.
Although the Steelers ultimately missed their goal of making the playoffs, Roethlisberger managed to speak about Fichtner’s first season as offensive coordinator with some high remarks during his weekly radio segment with KDKA.
“There were growing pains for us in terms of relating to each other and learning situational things, and those things just come with a new position and a new guy,” Roethlisberger said, “But if you look at how we had to move some guys around and with some of the injuries we had and with new running backs, I thought it was an awesome first season with Randy and I, and I’m excited for next year with him.”
Going into his second season, Fichtner will have expectations of revamping the rushing attack with a young stable of running backs that are ready to carry the load. If the Steelers can successfully maintain a rushing attack while limiting turnovers, Pittsburgh should really like their chances of returning to the playoffs in 2019.
So how comparable are Fichtner and Haley?
On paper, the generalized statistics don’t heavily deviate from each other. Both offenses were able to put up over 6,000 yards and average over 25 points per contest. Additionally, both coordinators led top five offenses in terms of converting first downs and third down success rate.
However, the two begin to drift apart in ideology. Although still wanting to reside as a pass-first team, Haley was content with riding a workhorse back such as Bell until the wheels fell off. Fichtner, on the other hand, often times failed to appropriately acknowledge the ground game despite employing a diverse personnel group. Haley appeared to be more “creative” with frequent screen passes and draw plays, yet Fichtner appears to be the more aggressive coordinator while also being better at situational play-calling.
Most importantly, however, Fichtner’s offense plays better to the strengths of Roethlisberger’s gun-slinging style of play, whereas Haley’s offense at times appeared to frustrate the star quarterback.
Fichtner most certainly has his work cut out for him. While it’s still early in his professional play-calling career, Fichtner surpasses Haley on both the stat sheet and the eye-test.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
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.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
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.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
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.