Matchup To Watch: Steelers Vs Bengals

Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time.  For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player.

Where They Stand

There are just six regular season games left and despite numerous injuries to key players on both sides of the ball the Steelers are in the hunt for a playoff spot. Its quite incredible when the Steelers have been above average in only one area of the game that being the defense.

The special teams portion of the game has been a noticeable issue but those issues can become somewhat hidden with good play on offense and defense.

Good play on offense has been, to put it nicely, limited this year for the Steelers and there are obvious reasons to point to as possible causes. Injuries started early in the season and have reared its ugly head over and over up to this point in the season forcing numerous changes to the starting lineup and to the roster as a whole. The Matchup to Watch usually puts the focus on an us versus them scenario but this week it’s going to be internal.

The QB and The OC

Mason Rudolph and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner now have had 9 weeks and 7 starts to become accustomed to each other and the results have not taken a step forward. I think we call agree that we aren’t looking for comparable numbers to a Ben Roethlisberger led offense. That’s a lot to ask. However, what they have produced to this point is far below what may have been anticipated.

The Steelers offense ranks 28th overall in total yards (2,835) overall, in average yards per play (4.8) and first downs (170).

They rank 27th in passing yards (2,028), 30th in yards gained per passing attempt (6.2), 30th in adjust yards per attempt (5.5) and 31st in yards per completion (9.9).

Up until the last two games the offensive line was doing well when pass blocking. They are currently ranked second allowing just 1.5 sacks per game. They gave up nearly half of their total sacks (7) against the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns.  Some of that is on the blocking but some of the blame goes to Rudolph as well.

A Read on Rudolph

As with all players there are good points and bad points. Rudolph’s toughness is evident showing a willingness to stand in the pocket and take shots from defenders. He has pushed the ball down field more in recent games and has thrown many catchable balls that were not caught. However the bad has outweighed the good.

Pocket Awareness – As I said he’s willing to stand in the pocket but he hasn’t shown a great deal of awareness to feel the pressure to move within and outside of the pocket to create space for him to throw. Far too often he’s throwing off his back foot or hitting players with his follow through because he has no room to step into his throws.

Reading The D – He has struggled going through his progressions to find the open receiver. There have been opportunities for completions that he just doesn’t see and it is costing the offense the chance to keep drives moving.

Accuracy – This issue is partially due to the two issues above. He has struggled to throw an accurate ball often throwing behind the receivers. In fact the receivers have given him a lot of help just to get a hand on the ball to save him from interceptions. If he’s going improve, he needs to start putting the ball in front of the receivers to give them a chance to run with the ball after the catch.

A Read on Randy

I’ll start by saying it hasn’t been an easy situation for him this season. Roethlisberger played just 6 quarters with and injured arm and didn’t pay well. This was a chance to see how Fichtner performed under some adversity and how he could handle bring Rudolph along in his offense.

The results haven’t been good.  His play calling throughout this season has left us scratching our heads time and time again. I personally feel he goes between overthinking situations and overusing plays in other situations.

The overthinking issue has led to the Steelers difficulties on third and fourth down conversions which have been extremely low. On third down, they have converted 34.5% of their opportunities which is 24th in the league. Fourth down they converted 2 of 11 plays which has them ranked 30th in the league. Short yardage is at a baffling level of ineptitude in part due to the choice by the staff to not use the most successful short yardage play, the quarterback sneak. As a coach, how can you feel you’re giving your team the absolute best chance to win but won’t use a successful plays due to philosophical issues.

There are plays that seemed to be used often that aren’t successful.  Here is a couple that caught my eye against Cleveland.

This play they essentially ran three times in the first half. The ran it out of 3 X 1 and 2 X 2 formations but the routes are basically the same.  Two Out routes on the outside, and In route to the middle of the field, a shallow Cross and a Sneak route from the running back. If a play is successful by all means run it but they got a total of 11 yards on the 3 plays. The timing seems off. Rudolph should be able to hit his drop, take a step and get the ball out. When he hits his spot not one receiver is looking at the QB. There is no rhythm to the play.

The second play is a play where they run triple Curls to the middle and the two outside receivers will either run into the Flat, a Go route or not move off the line of scrimmage. They ran this three times in the first half as well for a total of 9 yards. The timing is better here as the receivers are looking at the QB but they put no stress on the defenders in the middle. They barely have to leave their spot. This was a 2 ND and 17 play with no chance to run after the play.

This is a Big Game

It’s not often when you would state something like that against a 0 -10 team but in this case it is true. The depleted Steelers will need a win to keep pace in the wild card race and will be, again, without key members of the offense. Players who were not going to be relied upon at the beginning of the year, or even last week, are going to have to step up and make plays.

A good player makes those around him better and it’s time for Rudolph to take that role.

Fichtner must be able to take advantage of the healthy bodies they have and come up with something to put them in opportunities to make plays.

These two should be looking at each other and quoting the line from Jerry McGuire. “Help me, help you”. Rudolph and Fichtner need to be on the same page and both must perform their jobs at a higher level or else they may both be looking over their shoulder come Monday.

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