Streaking Steelers relying on red-hot red zone offense
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By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner issues a warning to his wide receivers and tight ends if they happen to get tackled at the 1-yard line.
"There's a chance you might not get it again," Fichtner said. "When you get down there, you better make it count."
Fichtner isn't kidding. The first-year play-caller understands the abundance of options he has while guiding one of the league's most potent offenses. Yet he's also installed a bit of an old-school approach when the Steelers get close to the end zone. More runs. Fewer passes. More big guys doing what big guys do best: pushing players in opposing jerseys out of the way.
The results have been startling. Pittsburgh has turned a league-high 78 percent (22 of 28) of its red zone opportunities into touchdown celebrations, one of the main reasons the streaking Steelers (6-2-1) are on pace to set a franchise record in points.
It's a stark departure from Todd Haley's productive if occasionally volatile six-year tenure as offensive coordinator, when Pittsburgh had no trouble piling up yards but would often bog down with the goal line in sight. The Steelers finished between 12th and 18th in red zone efficiency during Haley's run, one of the reasons the team opted to go in another direction in the offseason when it fired him and replaced him with Fichtner.
Fichtner was given a mandate from ownership to put up more points, and Fichtner has taken a decidedly collaborative approach to making it happen, whether if it's giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more freedom calling plays or picking the brain of offensive line coach Mike Munchak and assistant Shaun Sarrett to see what might work best when space gets tight.
"Coach Randy has been really good in the sense that `Hey, Munch, what do you want to do? What's best in this situation?'" left guard Ramon Foster said. "We all know that Munch is a guy that understands and knows the run. He and Randy have been putting us in really good position to run the ball in too. I say their communication is really high."
Having a running back who seems to embrace the dirty work required near the end zone helps. James Conner set an Atlantic Coast Conference record for touchdowns during his remarkable college career at Pittsburgh. He moved next door after the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2017 draft and was thrust into the starter's roll when two-time All-Pro Le'Veon Bell decided to sit out the season rather than sign his one-year franchise tender.
All Conner has done in his first nine games is score 11 touchdowns, 10 of them on the ground and seven of them on runs from inside the opponent 5. Bell never scored more than nine rushing touchdowns in a season and scored 18 rushing touchdowns total on carries inside the 5 during his five seasons with the Steelers.
The issue for Bell wasn't necessarily production but opportunities. Bell never had more than seven rushing attempts inside the 5 in a single season. Conner already has 11. Roethlisberger ranked second in the NFL in red zone pass attempts inside the 10 in 2017. He's 15th this season because rather than throw it, he's turning around to hand it off.
"I think it's been a shift," wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. "When you have a new offensive coordinator he's going to emphasize some things that he feels like needs to change. I think the past 3-4 years we haven't been great in the red zone. So having that run element has been good but also having (tight end) Vance (McDonald) healthy, having others guys healthy allows us to expand more and do different things and get teams in different personnel so we can run the ball."
And still throw it when necessary. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns to five different receivers in last week's 52-21 dismantling of Carolina, three of them coming from 12 yards or less.
"We got a lot of guys that can make plays in this offense and coach Randy is finding a way to get that done," Foster said. "Whether it's him calling or whether it's Ben calling, we're finding a way to get it done."
Even if finding a way means simply looking at the talent at your disposal and try to avoid the temptation to get cute.
"Sometimes you overthink it," Heyward-Bey said. "Sometimes you're trying to game plan, `Oh this worked for another team, so let's try it.' Sometimes you've just got to play hard-nosed football and I think that's what we've been trying to do. We throw a couple tricks here and there, but we're just going to try and come downhill and try to score."
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Updated November 15, 2018