When the Pittsburgh Steelers are 10-0, there's not much to complain about.
Especially, on the offensive side of the ball, where the Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in points scored per game (29.8). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's revival has sprung much-needed life into the scoreboards of Heinz Field, aided by a superb surrounding cast of pass-catchers and a stable of running backs that all present different strengths.
Although much of the season still remains to be played before a Super Bowl champion can be declared, that hasn't stopped the conversation of potential bumps in the road the Steelers may need to overcome to hoist a seventh Lombardi trophy. Whether it be a shootout with Patrick Mahomes or a third test of containing Lamar Jackson, numerous roadblocks exist for Pittsburgh to overcome in order to reach the final destination of Tampa Bay later in February.
Yet as the 2020 regular season begins to inch closer to its conclusion, I'm here to say Pittsburgh's greatest roadblock doesn't exist in Kansas City, nor does it play/coach for another team.
It's offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
I've debated writing this piece for a handful of weeks. How could I say this with the Steelers rolling in their current form? It appeared almost asinine to put something such as this into the ether, as I'd either come off as someone incredibly hateful towards Fichtner (I've spoken with him in person, nothing short of a tremendously nice man) or I'd simply fall in line with every other Yinzer who waves their terrible towel a little too hard every Sunday.
In a recent film article discussing Pittsburgh's run game problems, I pinpointed Fichtner has one of a handful of problems working against the Steelers' ability to run the ball effectively. While not at sole fault, the team has been all too complacent in trying to establish a ground game against heavily stacked boxes.
The truth is, Fichtner hasn't cost Pittsburgh a game yet this season. However, the Steelers have had a few games that have been too close for comfort thanks to conservative play-calling. Contests against the Titans and Eagles serve as examples of Fichtner taking his foot off the gas too early as a play-caller, as the Steelers nearly blew 17 and 20 point leads in the third quarter of each game.
Sure, Pittsburgh's defense should own some of that responsibility. However, when your defense is on the field with little to no rest thanks to consistent three and out's from the offense, play-calling should also take ownership of those issues as well.
Even in last Sunday's 27-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fichtner's love affair with screen passes, draw plays on second and long, and the ultra-inefficient usage of the jet sweep grew to be frustrating. Often times, it felt like the Steelers were all too predictable in the typical run-run-pass sequence of plays dialed up by Fichtner.
Sooner or later, Fichtner's lackadaisical efforts may cost the Steelers. That's in my opinion, however, as AllSteelers Publisher Noah Strackbein sees things a bit different:
"Do I think Fichtner's play-calling can cost the Steelers a game? No. But that's not about him," said Strackbein.
"What works so well in the Steelers offense is Ben Roethlisberger's ability to make up plays as he goes and the offense's intelligence to know how to work on the fly. Fichtner's conservative play-calling has haunted the Steelers for years, but it's been saved time and time again by the work of Ben. Those two together work exactly how Roethlisberger wants his offense to, but Fichtner isn't doing any good for the Steelers offense."
Perhaps that might be the problem: Fichtner's problems have been largely overshadowed and even covered up at the end of the day by stellar play by a mixture of Roethlisberger and defensive stops near the final whistle.
Is Fichtner going anywhere? Not at all. Like Strackbein mentioned above, Fichtner and Roethlisberger are two peas in a pod, whether myself or Steelers fans wish to acknowledge it. Roethlisberger has all the freedom in the world under Fichtner, and the organization isn't going to jeopardize upsetting their franchise quarterback.
Combine the above reasoning with Pittsburgh's perfect start, and there's little reason to believe Fichtner isn't set to roam the sidelines for however long Roethlisberger has left.
Simply put, things are working. Yet there may come a point in a pivotal game for the Steelers, when the lights shine brightest and decisions are magnified, where the team won't be able to overcome the guy sending plays through the headset.
Is Fichtner the worst offensive coordinator known to man? Absolutely not, and I hope this piece doesn't come across that way. The Steelers can do far worse than Fichtner (Todd Haley anybody?) Yet Fichtner has room for improvement. A lot of room. The Steelers' offense is one of the most talented groups in the league, yet it feels as if Fichtner may be the biggest person to hold them back.
Pittsburgh's offense is a Lamborghini. Randy Fichtner's play-calling are the best brakes money can buy.