Wildcat formation might be band-aid for ‘fragile’ Steelers offense
Pulling the wildcat formation out of hibernation wasn’t Mike Tomlin’s preferred method of jump-starting an inconsistent Pittsburgh Steelers offense.
With his team mired in an 0-3 start and facing a familiar opponent Monday night, the 13-year coach felt he had little choice than to get creative.
“We’re in a fragile state right now,” Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon, about 13 hours after the Steelers used the wildcat to produce a 27-3 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. “We need to do whatever it is we need to do to move the ball and win football games.”
Circumstances dictated Tomlin take an unconventional approach to getting the Steelers out of last place in the AFC North. With the offense minus its franchise quarterback and top two tight ends while also losing All-Pros Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in the offseason, Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner dusted the mothballs off the Wildcat formation.
Seven times in the game, quarterback Mason Rudolph split out wide, and running back Jaylen Samuels — like Rudolph, a second-year player — took the direct snap in the shotgun. Samuels ran the ball four times for 15 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown, and he threw three passes — all completions — for 31 yards.
Samuels and James Conner finished with eight receptions apiece, and they combined for 208 of the Steelers’ 326 total yards.
Tomlin conceded that desperate times called for appropriate measures, particularly with the Steelers dressing one tight end playing in his second NFL game and another who had just three days of practice before debuting with his new team.
“We wanted to get guys on the field that we thought were varsity playmakers,” Tomlin said. “That’s why we moved in the direction we did with James and Jaylen.”
The strategy also was used to lessen Rudolph’s responsibility in his second career start and first in prime time.
“Sometimes a bunch of exposure is not good exposure,” Tomlin said. “I thought it was helpful to him to chew up some of those snaps and limit his exposure to the defense while putting the ball in the hands of capable men and produce some plays.”
Rudolph embraced the conservative game plan, which called for array of shovel passes and short throws. He completed 24 of 28 attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
“We are still working toward maybe taking some more shots, and that is on me and that is what I am comfortable with,” Rudolph said. “We are still moving toward that. It was only Week 2 of me and Randy kind of being together.”
The Steelers hadn’t used the wildcat since they played on a Monday night at San Diego in 2015 when Todd Haley was offensive coordinator and Fichtner the quarterbacks coach.
Like this season, Ben Roethlisberger missed that game because of an injury, with Mike Vick getting the start. Bell took four direct snaps in the game that gained 9 yards. The most pivotal yard was on the final play of the game, when Bell got into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 24-20 victory.
Tomlin said the Steelers “very loosely” had that game plan against the Chargers in mind when they were preparing for the Bengals.
“We were down tight ends and a fullback. We have a young quarterback,” Tomlin said. “How about the wildcat to take a few snaps off the game? I think conversations start like that.”
Tomlin is aware the wildcat isn’t a long-term fix to the Steelers’ offensive problems. Despite the success of Conner, Samuels and wide receiver Diontae Johnson (six catches for 77 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown), star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had three catches for 15 yards, and James Washington didn’t have a catch and was targeted just once. And the Steelers will take the NFL’s 29th-ranked offense into Sunday’s game against Baltimore.
“We did what we had to do to win that game,” Tomlin said. “We were given circumstances with the players available to us. We’ll shape a plan that puts us in position to win this week with the current mix of players and under the circumstances. I acknowledge that it could be different. I acknowledge that it could be very different, quite frankly, than what you saw Monday night.”
Tomlin conceded the Ravens won’t be fooled by the wildcat because their defense faces arguably the NFL’s most mobile quarterback in practice every day. Lamar Jackson ranks No. 15 in the NFL in rushing with 238 yards, averaging 6.6 yards per attempt.
“Because it’s on video,” Tomlin said, “I’d imagine that Baltimore is going to be prepared for it.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .