One thing that was clear in Monday’s loss to Cincinnati was an uptick in the Steelers’ use of playaction. For years, under Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner, Pittsburgh has been at or near the bottom of the league in PA usage. But there’s a clear benefit to it and Fichtner said that’s an element their offense needs to lean on more. Even if it means taking Ben Roethlisberger out of his comfort zone.
“Every week, we evaluate what can be done from a play action standpoint, from a protection standpoint of Ben Roethlisberger first,” Fichtner told reporters via a team transcript. “He is going to always be most comfortable in drop back pass. He can see in front of him. He can see his sides. He can be prepared for sight adjusts and hots and things like that. Some of that is his comfort level.”
Being under center and running playaction has its downsides. A quarterback who has to get away from center quicker. A higher risk of someone stepping on the QB, a botched snap (the latter which happened against the Bengals, batted forward by David DeCastro and recovered by the defense) and the inability to read a defense if your back is turned. Quarterbacks generally like working out of shotgun because it’s easier to see and read a defense.
But playaction is an obvious weapon that most of the top offenses in football use. And Pittsburgh attempted to run it more in Week 15. Eight of their 41 dropbacks, 19.5%, were playaction. All but one of those came in the first half when the game was still close. As Pittsburgh attempted to rally in the second half, playaction went out the window. Still, that 19.5% overall PA rate was more than twice as high as the Steelers’ playaction rate their first 14 weeks. Prior to Monday, they ran playaction 9.4% of the time. A big difference.
For Fichtner, it’s finding the middle ground between using playaction enough while also keeping Roethlisberger as comfortable as possible.
“Like I said, I have to get him out of that some and take advantage of some opportunity play action where he may have to turn his back to the defense then regather his sight line.”
He attempted to find that balance by utilizing more pistol formation than game’s before. That’s a shorter shotgun that allows for downhill action in the run game with playaction. On the first play of the game, the Steelers ran playaction out of pistol with Roethlisberger rolling to the right. Unfortunately, his pass to an open James Washington down the right side was underthrown and incomplete.