Big Ben's System, Lack of Kelce, Browns Run In Place

Thursday November 6th, 2014

Welcome to the first installment of “Settle This.” How it works: You send a topic about which you and a buddy are arguing about, or maybe a subject you don’t quite understand, and I go diving into the film to find your answer.

There’s no agenda here, I only go where the film and/or numbers send me. During my career I’ve taken a lot of pride in not being swayed by sentiment or emotion, and just giving readers my opinion, presented as straight as possible. Yeah, I can be a downer sometimes (some Boston Globe readers dubbed me the “Wet Blanket of Reason” during my time there), but I feel it’s my duty to give you the straight answer, whether it’s what you want to hear or not.

This can only work with your input, so please, if you and a friend almost came to blows during a game on Sunday, send me the topic at talkback@themmqb.com and let me settle it for you.

And away we go…

Has something changed with Todd Haley's offensive play calling/philosophy or relationship with Big Ben that has led to this dramatic turnaround? For weeks this season, many people were calling for Haley’s job after mediocre performances the past couple of seasons. Now he's looking like a mad genius over the past two weeks. I welcome your thoughts.

—Jay

It’s a great question, Jay, and one that I and many others have had while watching the Steelers’ offensive explosion the past three weeks. Ben Roethlisberger is in a zone like few others have ever been.

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To answer your question, I watched the all-22 films of both matchups with the Ravens games, the 26-6 loss in Week 2, and Sunday’s 43-23 victory. It’s not perfect (I’d rather watch all the games), but I figured that would be a good comparison considering the common opponent.

The first thing I noticed was a different Roethlisberger in each game. He just looked much more comfortable, confident and in control in the victory. In the loss (the Steelers really didn’t play as poorly on offense as the score indicates, they just made some key mistakes at the wrong times), Roethlisberger looked a little frantic to me, like there was too much on his plate. That led me to look for reasons why.

To me, it looks like the Steelers offense had been stripped down a bit as the season has gone along. It seemed, at first glance, that Pittsburgh was doing a lot with personnel, formations and deception in the loss, and that a lot of it was eliminated in the victory.

But was that the truth? After going back and tabulating some numbers: yes. I did not count the Steelers’ final drive in Week 2 because they were out of the game at that point. The biggest difference to me was the lack of deceptive plays in the victory. What I mean by deceptive plays are a variety of screens, option motion, jet sweeps (fake and carried through), end arounds, rollouts, etc. In the loss, the Steelers ran deception on 13 of the 49 snaps (26.5 percent), and all of them came in the first 28 snaps (46.4 percent). In the victory, they did it just five times in 67 snaps (7.5 percent).

Other differences:

  • The Steelers junked the no huddle. They used it on 32.7 percent of the snaps in the loss.
  • They have increased their usage of two tight ends by about 25 percent, and put Roethlisberger under center closer to 45 percent of the time (was 26 percent).
  • Pittsburgh is also using motion much more now (43.3 to 18.4), especially with the receivers and Antonio Brown.

What this says to me is that through some sort of meeting of the minds between Mike Tomlin, Haley and Roethlisberger, the Steelers decided at some point to quit screwing around just let Ben be Ben.

It’s not as if those deceptive plays and the no huddle didn’t work, and they certainly were achieving their purpose of keeping the defense off-balance. But it also seemed to have a negative effect on the Steelers and Roethlisberger in terms of rhythm. They were getting too cute for their own good.

Now the Steelers have stripped it down and simplified everything for everybody, including Roethlisberger. They are running motion more to give Roethlisberger a coverage indicator before the snap. If a defender goes with the motion, it’s man to man. If he doesn’t, it’s zone. And not having to call plays on the fly with the no huddle, and instead running what Haley is calling, is giving Roethlisberger more time to survey the field, change plays if need be and pick out advantageous matchups to target. Letting Ben be Ben and not trying to trick the defense as often has allowed the Steelers be much more workmanlike in their approach, and it’s working very well.

* * *

Travis Kelce is the top receiver on the Chiefs. He's having a great year for a tight end, a blossoming superstar who can seemingly do everything in the passing game... and yet he plays only half the offensive snaps every game. Why does Anthony Fasano start over him? Is Fasano THAT MUCH better at blocking? Or just better at catching while seated on his rear

Thanks,

Jake

Why doesn't Travis Kelce play more? (David E. Klutho/SI) Why doesn't Travis Kelce play more? (David E. Klutho/SI)

Didn’t understand that last line until I watched the film (Fasano’s touchdown from his butt against the Jets), but well played.

The short answer is yes, Fasano is that much better of a blocker. He’s one of the better two-way tight ends in the league, and the Chiefs are a run-first team that also uses a fullback (another guy Kelce is losing his snaps to), so Fasano is the man for the foreseeable future.

I wouldn’t say Kelce is a terrible blocker, but remember that he originally went to the University of Cincinnati as a quarterback, and even after the switch to tight end, the Bearcats aren’t exactly an I-formation team. You can tell a lot about how a team views a player by how they use him. When he’s inline, Kelce is basically window dressing. The Chiefs don’t run behind him very often. He’s basically a big receiver, playing the slot on third downs and in the red zone. From watching him on film, Kelce’s got a ways to go as far as understanding blocking assignments and leverage, but he’s certainly far from a lost cause. He’ll get stronger and refine his technique in due course. Not sure where the pre-draft comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten and Jeremy Shockey came from though. He doesn’t hold a candle to those guys in terms of blocking.

* * *

Is an injury to one player (Alex Mack) the real reason the Browns have been unable to run the football the past three weeks?

—Joe

Is the Alex Mack injury the reason Cleveland can't run? (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Is the Alex Mack injury the reason Cleveland can't run? (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Well, when that one player is as good as Alex Mack, one of the top three centers in the league, and his replacement is a journeyman like Nick McDonald, then… yeah, pretty much. And it’s why I wrote this after seeing Mack lost for the season in Cleveland’s big win over the Steelers.

In the three games since Mack was hurt, the Browns have gone from averaging 146.4 rushing yards per game to 52.7 heading into tonight’s Battle of Ohio against the Bengals. Right guard John Greco got the start in the first game, and McDonald was given the nod in the next two as the Browns decided not weaken themselves at two spots (center and right guard). It was a nice notion, thinking that McDonald could survive between left guard Joel Bitonio (an offensive rookie of the year candidate) and Greco (a very good guard), but it’s been a disaster. The Browns have to be thinking about going back to Greco at center and Paul McQuistan at right guard against the Bengals, who have Geno Atkins and Domata Peko on their interior. I’ve covered McDonald in two spots (Packers and Patriots), and every new coaching staff falls under the same spell with him: He’s a very good athlete and can play every position on the line, but in the end they realize he’s neither physical nor tough enough to be more than an emergency fill-in.

Five Thoughts on Week 9

1. Outside of J.J. Watt, I’m not sure how many defensive players in the league are more valuable than Colts CB Vontae Davis. He played just 11 snaps against the Steelers, and the Colts were torched. In the games around that debacle (vs. the Bengals and Giants), Indianapolis was great. It’s similar to the end of last season, when an obviously injured Davis gutted it out in playoff games against the Chiefs and Patriots. He was not his usual self, and because of that the Colts couldn’t stop anybody.

2. For a guy who was basically hidden all season long, Rams second overall pick Greg Robinson showed a lot of promise in his debut at left tackle against the 49ers.

3. If the Broncos continue to be relatively healthy and don’t win it all this season, there is going to be a lot of negative attention on defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. He was owned (again) by Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday. (The only time he’s beaten them was in last year’s AFC title game when half the Patriots’ roster was out with injuries). Broncos fans have to hope they were just holding back the real gameplan for the rematch, because allowing Rob Gronkowski a free release off the line is not much of a plan at all.

4. Good to see a player like Vikings DE Everson Griffen get his big payday after toiling in the shadows, and then not have a letdown. He’s again been impressive this season, and he made Washington LT Trent Williams look bad on Sunday (a rarity).

5. Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Browns CB Joe Haden tonight. Get your popcorn ready.

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