Tim Benz: Should Steelers bring back wildcat vs. Bengals again?
It felt a little dirty, didn’t it?
Digging that deep into your bag of tricks. To beat that team. At home.
That was my reaction after the 0-3 Steelers frequently busted out the “wildcat” look en route to beating the 0-3 Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football back on Sept. 30.
“We are just in a fragile state right now. And we just need to do, whatever it is we need to do, to move the ball and win football games,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said in the days after that victory.
Still feeling “fragile” now, Mike? Based on how your team played against the Cleveland Browns last Thursday night—and who got injured along the way, you should.
So I wouldn’t rule out implementing the same offensive approach this Sunday against the still struggling Bengals in the annual divisional rematch.
And based on what Tomlin and the players are saying, that’s not out of the question. Even with running back James Conner potentially out of the game.
“It could definitely be used in the game plan this week,” running back Jaylen Samuels said. “It was so effective the last time we played these guys. I’m sure they are game planning for the wildcat. But if we do come out in the wildcat that many times (as) we did last time, that would be good, too.”
Of course, Samuels feels that way. He was one of the guys featured as a result of implementing the wildcat. When the Steelers lined up in that formation, it was Samuels who got the direct snap from center.
Jaylen Samuels makes it a ️ score game out of the wildcat! #CINvsPIT
— PFF (@PFF) October 1, 2019
That night Samuels and Conner combined for a so-so 20 carries and 68 yards. But they also combined for 16 receptions and 140 yards.
That’s because the wildcat-based look was much more than the seven total snaps the Steelers ran with Samuels playing the de facto quarterback.
It was all those jet sweeps, shovel passes right at (or even behind) the line of scrimmage, misdirection, backwards and sideways throws which featured the running backs. That helped insulate quarterback Mason Rudolph in just his second start replacing Ben Roethlisberger.
It worked. Enough.
Enough to the point that the Steelers managed to beat the worst team in football, 27-3.
Since then, the Steelers won four more games to improve to 5-5. Meanwhile the Bengals remain winless at 0-10. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Steelers wouldn’t need to go back to that “somewhat gimmicky” offense, as Tomlin himself described it.
However, as Tomlin and some of the players intimated following that game, there were fundamental matchup advantages against the Bengals that the Steelers could exploit with those sets, independent of their desire to ease the burdedn on Rudolph.
The Bengals were perceived to be deficient at linebacker back in Week 4, and that’s one area the Steelers attacked. That still may be true. But the Bengals have tried to address that hole in recent weeks by waiving veteran Preston Brown and replacing him in the starting lineup with rookie Germaine Pratt.
“There are some schematic things that are available there,” Tomlin said during his Tuesday press conference. “But they face those issues week in and week out. They have seen jet sweeps, and so forth, every week since we have played them. So I am sure it won’t be anything new to them.”
No. The element of surprise won’t be there this time. Yet, after Rudolph’s disastrous four-interception outing in Cleveland last week and with receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster potentially out with knee and concussion issues, it may be worth it for the Steelers to try that look even if Cincinnati knows it is coming.
“At that time, it was something that was game-specific,” running back Trey Edmunds said. “But it’s something that provided us a lot of success.
“Getting guys out on the perimeter. Getting the ball in our playmakers’ hands and allowing them to make plays.”
If Conner is on the shelf with his nagging shoulder injury, Edmunds may need to be one of those playmakers. Rookie Benny Snell could be, too. He hasn’t played since his five touches in the win over the Dolphins back on Oct. 28.
That may hamper Tomlin’s willingness to dust off those offensive packages. The likely absence of suspended center Maurkice Pouncey may come into play as well.
As Tomlin has so often said, though, “Whatever it takes to get out of the stadium on Sundays.”
With the offense in the state of disarray that it is, revisiting the wildcat may not be the worst idea ever.
Now, throwing out of the wildcat again, that would be the worst idea ever.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 6, 2019
Maybe leave that page out of the game plan this week?