LATROBE, Pa. — Jarvion Franklin breaks past the line of scrimmage, the 239-pound rookie runner briefly hopping before giving a defender a “Madden”-style side-to-side-to-side shimmy. The defender collapses to the ground, Franklin blazes past him, and the throng of black-and-yellow clad fans erupt on the nearby sideline.
What’s more, given the heavy emphasis on physical football and downfield passing that takes place throughout the practice, you’d also never guess the Steelers’ explosive offense — which ranked third in the NFL last season in total offense — is being guided by a new coordinator, Randy Fichtner.
That’s because this is Pittsburgh, where the more things change, the more they stay the same. And here at St. Vincent, one of the last true training camp sites in the NFL, there is an undeniable reliance on familiarity, a comfort that comes from knowing the Steelers’ last Super Bowl title — in the 2008 season — was forged by many of the same coaches in the same sun-drenched, gorgeous, rolling hills of Latrobe.
“There’s tradition and history here that’s outstanding,” the 54-year-old Fichtner, who has been on the coaching staff since January 2007, told Yahoo Sports. “And having been a long-time college coach, you understand the importance of alumnus and ex-players coming back and giving back. This is how a lot of that tradition still lives.”
The latest Steeler to return and impart wisdom is Super Bowl XLIII hero Santonio Holmes, though Fichtner says he has seen at least seven other former Steelers drop in to see the team’s latest iteration. It’s a tradition that helps ease the fact that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the only player remaining from the 2008 championship squad, though the Steelers’ well-heeled — and amazingly long-tenured — staff is arguably the club’s most consistent link to the past.
And while head coach Mike Tomlin can still be spotted 40 yards behind the defense, spryly shouting words of encouragement the same way he always has since he was named the Steelers’ head coach in January 2007, it’s now up to Fichtner — who last called plays in 2006, when he directed a high-scoring offense at the University of Memphis — to improve upon the high statistical standard of his predecessor, Todd Haley.
Under Haley, the Steelers finished at least seventh in the NFL in total offense the past four seasons. Having bona fide stars like Roethlisberger, Bell and receiver Antonio Brown didn’t hurt, and neither did having a big, strong offensive line, as Pittsburgh averaged 377.9 yards per game last season, when it went 13-3 and won the AFC North.
But Fichtner was moved from the coaches’ booth to the field midway through the season, with Haley — who was reportedly dismissed due to a contentious relationship with Roethlisberger — going from the sideline to the booth.
A 45-42 home loss to Jacksonville in the divisional round was punctuated by a few questionable calls on fourth-and-1 that only added to fans’ ire, and shortly after the season, Tomlin fired Haley and promoted Fichtner, who once instituted and oversaw a record-setting, up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense at Memphis from 2001-2006.
Fichtner’s offense, which surpassed 5,000 total yards in 2003 and 2004, included many of the run-pass options that now run rampant throughout the NFL.
“I was a wild-eyed coach when he was a play-caller, man,” said Tomlin, who was 34 when he hired Fichtner as his receivers coach, seven days after he became the Steelers’ head coach. “Yeah, I’ve seen that show before. It’s going to be fun.”
And when asked by Yahoo Sports if it’s safe to assume the hankering to call some of that stuff still lives inside him, Fichtner grinned.
“No doubt — you’re gonna fall back to a comfort zone,” Fichtner said. “[At Memphis], we were in the beginning of doing a lot of that no-huddle and things like that, but the base fundamentals of what we’ve got to do here is utilize our people the best we possibly can and create mismatches.
“Putting our guys in the best position to make plays is a little bit more critical than it might be in college.”
So for Fichtner, that means sticking with what works — i.e., what Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Famer, is most comfortable with. That likely means again relying upon downfield passing concepts, perhaps with an even healthier amount of the up-tempo plays Roethlisberger prefers and the Steelers have mixed in so effectively over the past few years.
“I think there’s a happy medium somewhere — in past years, we’ve gone somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the season being no huddle,” Fichtner said. “Why would you go away from things that he does and feels very comfortable with?”
But if Fichtner’s history is any indication, another area he figures to differ from Haley is his willingness to use play-action. Last season, the Steelers were the least-reliant team in the NFL on play-action, calling it only 11 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. That’s 3 percent less than the New York Jets, the next closest team, and a staggering 19 percent less than the league-leading Minnesota Vikings.
What’s more, when the Steelers did call it, they weren’t great at it, averaging only 6.5 yards per play, which ranked 24th in the league.
“You’ve got to do some of it,” Fichtner said. “I think you potentially have a chance to be a little more solid potentially in protection and possibly push the ball down the field and create chunk plays.
“It’s so hard to go 80 yards in 12 plays — you’ve got to get 12 plays that are perfect. But if you go 80 yards in two plays because of one chunk play, that’s a lot easier.”
But there’s a balance to that, Fichtner added, just like there’s a balance to how much he gives the ball to Bell, who is skipping camp due to a contract dispute for the second straight season.
“As much as I want to give Le’Veon the ball as much as he can handle it,” Fichtner said, “you’ve still got to be intelligent about it.”
Despite Fichtner’s history, don’t expect the Steelers to turn into the 1994 run-and-shoot Atlanta Falcons or anything like that.
Reliance on up-tempo and play-action could easily increase, but a better example of the type of change he’s made is his recent decision to tweak some of the terminology on offense, just so things can’t get lost in translation during a crucial moment on the field.
“We’re so reliant on words and numbers and signals and stuff like that— code words — that you better make sure that one term doesn’t sound like another term,” Fichtner said.
And for what it’s worth — which is a lot, if Haley’s ouster is any indication — Roethlisberger seems to like how the offense is shaping up under Fichtner’s direction.
“Those of you that [have] been around him … know the passion he brings to the game is infectious and it’s fun and everyone kind of feeds off it,” Roethlisberger told reporters this summer. “So we don’t want Randy to change.”
From that standpoint, the Steelers have nothing to worry about. Over the past 11 years, Fichtner has come to appreciate the vast amount of institutional knowledge that is passed down in Latrobe, even making it clear that coaches like himself aren’t exempt from accepting advice that will help this year’s team end the Steelers’ 10-year title drought.
“I’ll take every guy off that ’08 team and shoot, we’ll reminisce and pick their brains and think about something we did then we might need to do now,” Fichtner said.
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