Offense will search for balance this season
NFL week 1
Who: Pittsburgh at New England
When: Sunday, 8 p.m.
The line: Steelers are 6-point underdogs.
By Will Graves
The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — No team threw it more times than the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Only the Green Bay Packers ran it less often.
This is the balance offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner talked about when he was promoted to replace Todd Haley in January 2018?
Well, kind of. Fichtner doesn’t see balance as a specific ratio but a mindset.
“It’s the ability to do what you want to do as often as you want, if you can sustain it,” Fichtner said Thursday as the Steelers prepared for Sunday’s season opener in New England. “To me, balance is getting first downs and finding out a way to eke out 10 yards in three plays. I mean, I don’t necessarily think it’s run or pass. We’ve got to get it done some way or another and that’s the job.”
Maybe, but Fichtner allows the way the Steelers go about getting that job done in 2019 might change.
Consider 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger on board. His 675 passing attempts in 2018 marked the fourth-highest total in league history. His 5,132 yards passing led the NFL. His 34 touchdown passes marked a career high.
Yet he’s aware Pittsburgh can’t become too one-dimensional, even in a league that is passing now more than ever.
“Having the ability to change is always huge,” Roethlisberger said. “Maybe not for a whole season, but for a game or a little run when teams are expecting one thing and you can just completely flip the script and become dominant in another factor, another phase of the game.”
Pressed for specifics on what might change, Fichtner is vague.
“I think for certain, every year, your team is different,” Fichtner said. “If (the plan is) scoring less points, protecting the ball more, so be it. If it’s throwing it more, so be it. If it’s running it more, so be it. At the end of the day it’s about finding a way to win for our team and I think our guys are really into that right now.”
Consider it a byproduct of an offseason that included the departures of wide receiver Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Brown and his 169 targets were shipped to Oakland in March after a very public falling out with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
Bell signed a free-agent deal with the New York Jets after sitting out all of 2018 when he opted not to sign his franchise tender, a decision that thrust young running backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels into prominent roles and perhaps forced Fichtner to rely on Roethlisberger even more than he wanted.
Inexperience in the running game won’t be an issue this fall. Conner made the Pro Bowl after racking up 1,470 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns after becoming the de facto starter in 2018. Samuels, a rookie fifth-round pick a year ago after a collegiate career at N.C. State where he set the school record for receptions while working as a hybrid tight end/running back, filled in capably when Conner was slowed by injury in December.
Little known at the time, Samuel ran for 142 yards and added 30 more yards receiving in a 17-10 victory over New England in just his second NFL start. Asked if he put up such big numbers because the Patriots were keying on Roethlisberger, Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Samuels nodded.
“I’m pretty sure,” Samuels said. “That would be my game plan if I was playing against us. I’m pretty sure that’s what it was and when I had the opportunity to make a play, I just tried to make a play.”
Those opportunities should present themselves more often in 2019. Fichtner envisions a scenario where he finds a way to have Conner and Samuels in the backfield at the same time.
“When they’re both healthy, you might be able to use them both to their strengths that they bring to the table,” Fichtner said. “And Jaylen is very accomplished as a possible route runner.”
There are also plans to give Conner a breather when necessary, a luxury Pittsburgh didn’t have in the opening weeks of 2018.
“Last year at this point in time, Jaylen had never lined up in a game and taken a real snap and run the ball,” Fichtner said. “We took him as a rookie. He never played running back. He was a tight end/’fun’ player. … He never got the ball handed to him.”
Samuels shed 10 pounds in the offseason to be help with his quickness and has worked diligently to become better in pass protection, an admitted weakness as a rookie. Conner is intent on proving he can make it through 16 games healthy after dealing with injuries in each of his first two seasons. Together, Conner and Samuels know they will play a key role in diversifying Pittsburgh’s offense.
“It’s our job in the running back room to make the run game go,” Conner said. “We’ve just got to go play our game and adapt. If they try to take something away, we’ve got to have an answer.”
An answer that — no matter what game plan Fichtner comes up with in a given week — will require Pittsburgh to be more careful with the ball. Roethlisberger’s 16 picks led the NFL and the Steelers turned it over 26 times in all, the seventh-highest total in the league.
“We protect it,” Fichtner said, “We’ll be a tough out.”
NOTES: S Sean Davis (ankle) did not practice on Thursday. LB Mark Barron was held out due to a coach’s decision.