Tim Benz: Wildcat worked, but let’s hope Steelers don’t have to use it again
During his weekly press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was gruff, dismissive, generally terse and a bit on edge.
Even more so than normal, I mean.
It was almost as if his team had fallen to 0-4 against the Cincinnati Bengals as opposed to trouncing them, 27-3, the night before to salvage their season.
You can’t blame Tomlin, though. He probably only got a few hours of sleep after the Monday night affair. He has one less day than normal to prepare for a huge game against the hated Baltimore Ravens.
And he had to admit to all of us in the press, what he, no doubt, was internalizing all week.
“Man, we are so desperate we had to resort to a tricked-up offense to beat the stinkin’ Bungles! What have we become?!”
Well, Tomlin didn’t quite say that. But he came close.
Tomlin assessed his team’s use of the wildcat offense — and similar unconventional, misdirection-based sets — as “somewhat gimmicky.”
The direct snaps to running back Jaylen Samuels and James Conner sure seemed to keep the Bengals off balance.
Plus, Tomlin admitted the coaching staff felt the need to dig deep into their bag of tricks to protect first-year starting quarterback Mason Rudolph. The franchise last used the wildcat extensively with Le’Veon Bell in a 2015 win at San Diego when Mike Vick was at quarterback.
“It limited Mason’s exposure to the defense,” Tomlin said.
“When you’ve got a young quarterback, sometimes you can assist them by turning a 70-play game into a 50-play game. And sometimes a bunch of exposure is not good exposure. So I thought it was helpful to him to chew up some of those snaps to limit his exposure to the defense while putting the ball in the hands of some capable men and produce some plays.”
In other words, they are still scared to death of having Roethlisberger’s replacement do too much.
Or, should I say, do much at all.
Not even against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals.
Resorting to trickery is one thing. Feeling obligated to do so against a woeful opponent who is also 0-3 is something more. That had to hurt Tomlin’s ego.
Truth be told, as limited as Rudolph may be at this stage of his development, the Steelers probably would’ve been superior enough to have won Monday night playing straight-up.
The Steelers defense was so good (eight sacks, two forced turnovers, 175 yards against and three points allowed) — and the whole Cincinnati squad was so bad — that Rudolph should’ve been able to win a conventional game by at least a score of 6-3.
Unfortunately, desperate times call for desperate measures. At 0-3, Tomlin wanted to make sure he put his club in the best position to win. Therefore, the decision was made to catch the Bengals off-guard, and it worked.
The Steelers ran the Matt Canada-esque offense of pitches, dump offs, shovel passes, wildcat snaps and jet sweeps to perfection. Samuels and Conner totaled 208 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
As a result, Rudolph only needed to push the ball in excess of 10 yards downfield three times. According to ESPN.com, Rudolph’s 28 passes averaged 3.5 air yards. That’s the fewest for a Pittsburgh quarterback since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006.
Correction from our stats dept, fewest for a Steelers QB RT @JFowlerESPN: Mason Rudolph came into the season wanting to let it rip. But in his first home start, the QB was asked to play it safe. Rudolph’s 28 passes averaged 3.5 air yards, fewest since ESPN began tracking in 2006.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) October 1, 2019
But how long can that approach last in the NFL? Based on what Tomlin said, perhaps just those four quarters against the Bengals.
“I acknowledge that it could be very different from what you saw Monday night,” Tomlin said of Sunday’s game against the Ravens.
As Tomlin pointed out, “the nature and the function” of what the Steelers did versus Cincy is present in the Ravens offense because of mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson. So trotting out that wildcat against the Ravens may not be wise, given that Baltimore’s coaches are intimately familiar with that look.
“You can’t run it every week,” Tomlin continued. “But it was effective Monday night. We’ll see if we utilize it, or utilize it in a different way this week.”
What I prefer they utilize is a traditional run game. Former head coach Bill Cowher tried to shield Roethlisberger when he was a first-year starting quarterback, too. He did so by having Big Ben hand the ball to Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.
Based on how the line has blocked and how poorly the backs have carried the ball this season, Tomlin was more willing to resurrect the 2014 North Carolina State playbook.
I can’t criticize. The Steelers are 29th in the NFL in rushing. So it’s probably best to underhand shovel the ball to Conner and Samuels instead.
That’s a hidden story here, too. Forget for a moment what dredging up the wildcat said about Tomlin’s insecurity throwing the ball in a professional-offense fashion.
What does it say about his faith running the ball with a Pro Bowl back and a bunch of highly paid Pro Bowl linemen?
“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,” Tomlin said.
So the wildcat was fun. It succeeded. And I’m glad they did it.
But if we never see it again, that may actually be a sign of progress.