We’ve already discussed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ failed fake field goal several times this week, and it’s almost time to switch gears to Week 9 and the Chicago Bears game. But I had to briefly revisit what went wrong on the play one more time. Because when things go as bad as they did for Chris Boswell and company, you have to try to figure out why.
And I get it. Fakes and trick plays fall into one or two camps. Genius if they work, village idiot if they don’t. It’s pass/fail. But I always care about process more than outcome. The question of why means the most to me. If the process is good, even if the execution fails, I can live with that.
To try to understand what compelled Pittsburgh to run a fake in that situation last Sunday, 4th and 9 from the Browns’ ten late in the second quarter in a 3-3 game. Here’s what Mike Tomlin said about it post-game.
“We were just playing to win. Playing aggressively. Ball was on the left hash, we had a look that we liked. We just didn’t execute it very well.”
The “left hash” part were the words that caught my attention. That probably wasn’t Tomlin being overly descriptive. The ball being on the left hash likely mattered in regards to when and why the Steelers ran it. So I went through all the field goal attempts against the Browns this season to find ones on the left hash at a similar line of scrimmage, the +10.
From this season, there’s just one example coming in Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals. 48 seconds left in the half, 4th and 14 from the Browns’ 15 with the ball on the left hash, just as it was for Pittsburgh.
Pre-snap, the Browns are showing a 6×4 look with six rushers on the opposite hash, the right hash. They rushed hard while the hash-side four defenders were contain and did not rush. The only player who dropped out to that side is #4 Anthony Walker, playing about five yards off the ball.
So I am assuming here the Steelers’ assumption was. If the ball is on the left hash, the right/away hash side will rush hard with six. Only one guy will drop out so if the Steelers have two receivers out in the pattern, the linebacker (Walker) will have to choose one, leaving the other man open. Chris Boswell is right-handed, so rolling and throwing to his right is ideal, one reason why Pittsburgh wanted to run this with the ball left hash.
And that’s what Pittsburgh attempted to do. Pre-snap, TE and left wing Pat Freiermuth motioned from the left to the right. The snap was late, as Tomlin’s mentioned several times, and the Browns reacted to the motion, aborting their rush and dropping out. Zach Gentry and Freiermuth were covered and Boswell had nowhere to go. You know the rest.
Here’s a look at the play from each angle.
I have two issues with the process here. As mentioned above, there’s only one left-hash example of this kick against the Browns this season. You could look back to past seasons, the Browns’ ST coordinator is the same guy, but you never know how teams could and would adjust year-to-year. There’s also no examples of this situation in the two regular season games against the Browns last season.
Planning a fake based on what I believe to be just one concrete example is a big risk in itself. It’s just not much information to go off of. To me, I’d run a fake based on something with a larger sample size. Where there are multiple plays and situations that give you complete confidence (as much as possible, anyway) that what you’re seeing on tape is what you’ll see mid-game.
Beyond that, an even bigger issue is the motion. I understand the goal was for the snap to happen quicker than it did. But the most successful fakes are two-field. Ones that look exactly the same or radically different. To the former, a play that offers no hint a fake is coming, that completely catches the opposition by surprise (like this). To the latter, a very unusual formation or adjustment with the goal to create chaos along the opposition, who knows a fake is coming but can’t figure out how to defend it (like this).
This is neither. It obviously doesn’t look the same, and it’s not radical enough for the block team to get confused. Even with the snap being late, #4 Walker was pointing it out as soon as Freiermuth began to motion across. The timing being off only helped Cleveland, but I don’t think the fake works even if the snap is timed perfectly.
Week 8 was a terrible one for Steelers’ special teams and #DannySmithForever. You guys know I’m a fan of the overall body of work Smith has done in Pittsburgh. But he’s not immune from criticism either, something I’ve done time and time again, and there’s no defending this one. Bad process, worse execution, and the Steelers are lucky it didn’t cost them the win.