Mr. Fix-It  

 

How to improve Steelers' run game; Pack's use of Jimmy Graham

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Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.

Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!

Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, he reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like him to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 16. Now, let's get to the first response:

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a setback Sunday night when they lost to the Buffalo Bills, 17-10. In a game that never had more than a one-score margin, fans were certainly critical of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's play-calling. How could he let an undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges throw the ball 38 times? Those are true fans who simply check the box score and see a bad run-pass ratio. It's OK, Kevin, nearly all of us do the same thing at times. The fact is, the Steelers dropped back to pass 42 times(!), while running it a mere 14 times. Why?

The Steelers were up against the No. 2-ranked defense in the Buffalo Bills, who are very sound and do a lot of things defensively to give nearly every quarterback fits. Look back to their Week 4 meeting with Tom Brady, when the Bills held Brady to his lowest QB rating in over a decade. His abysmal 45.9 rating wasn't much better than Duck Hodges' 43.9 last Sunday. Let's take a closer look at the game Coach Fichtner called. Trailing 17-10 with less than four minutes to play, the Steelers threw the ball on their final 11 offensive plays, resulting in two interceptions, two sacks and zero points. That cuts the pass-run ratio down to 31:14.

Still, why throw it so much? Especially in a close ball game? I remind those unhappy fans that the Steelers' only touchdown came on a second-and-11 connection between Hodges and James Conner. The reality was they didn't run the ball well from the beginning. Of their 14 runs, eight went for 2 yards or less, including a fumble. On first-and-10 on the Bills' 10-yard line with two minutes left in the first half, the Steelers down 7-3, Fichtner called a Wildcat play for Conner. When Hodges shifted with wideout Diontae Johnson, Conner took a poor snap from Maurkice Pouncey and ran an option with Johnson. The handoff never looked smooth, and Bills defensive end Trent Murphy poked the ball out and safety Jordan Poyer recovered it. What a missed opportunity for the Steelers.

That's the play fans should be bothered by. Why would Fichtner call that play in that situation? The Steelers ran a deceptive run play when they haven't been a good running team all season -- not one of their top three backs are averaging 4.0 yards per carry this season (the cutoff for successful runs. Instead, even if they failed to score a go-ahead touchdown on three downs, they at the very least could have logged a field goal and gained some momentum heading into halftime.

The Steelers hold the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture and remain there because the defense has forced the second-most turnovers in the NFL, regularly sacked opposing QBs and forces passers into negative situations a high rate. Duck had a poor showing Sunday, but after watching the game film, the Bills made his life miserable. The Steelers were 0-8 when trying to convert third-and-10-plus situations. Conversely, they converted all five third downs when facing 8 yards or less.

What's been done is done, and there are two big games remaining (at Jets and at Ravens). Two wins and the Steelers waltz into the playoffs. If only it was that easy.

The Steelers must figure out a way to run the ball this weekend against the Jets, who have the second-ranked rush defense. It's not a good idea for Hodges to throw it 40 times on the Jets or Ravens, especially when the defense is playing so well. The Steelers have to give Fichtner more confidence to run the ball on second-and-long. Perhaps, rookie Kerrith Whyte deserves more carries, as he rushed five times for 41 yards (8.2 yards per carry) in Week 14.

Lastly, the Steelers boast one of the more decorated offensive lines in the league (15 Pro Bowl nods between the starting five). It's time the big guys up front step up and play together as a group to open bigger holes for the ball carrier. I realize teams will stack the box to make Hodges beat them, but so what?! Teams run successfully against stacked boxes all the time. It's time the Steelers found runs -- like "counter trey" and "power O" -- to combat stacked boxes. The running back on the opposing sideline this weekend (Le'Veon Bell) made a handsome living for a number of seasons rushing behind much of this same line. It's a good time to dust off that attack, as a trip to the playoffs hinges on it.

I was at Lambeau Field last weekend when the Green Bay Packers took another step toward claiming the division title, while eliminating the Chicago Bears from postseason consideration. Oh how the NFC North has turned upside down in one year. Kudos to Matt LaFleur for getting the Packers to the playoffs in his first season at the helm, something his acclaimed predecessors (who all have streets named after them in Titletown) couldn't do. You'd never know it after listening to the Packers fans on postgame shows. They're not happy with Aaron Rodgers, the offense or the play-calling. And where is Jimmy Graham? (As Mike pointed out.) I must admit that I am a little bewildered by his lack of production in this offense -- 33 receptions, 382 receiving yards and three TDs in 2019. In Sunday's game, he was targeted a total of four times and had one catch for zero yards. Not much production from a tight end who has 74 scores this decade.

So what's the issue?

The Packers had a total of 59 offensive plays against the Bears -- certainly not as many as they would've liked. But what's alarming to some is that Graham only played 25 of those 59 snaps. The Packers are a team that routinely plays four tight ends, and this is significant because the liability of Graham has always been his blocking. He was only on the field for five run plays last week, and never once was he at the point of attack. In fact, they put Marcedes Lewis (32 offensive snaps) and Jace Sternberger (14 snaps) at the point of attack in an attempt to open holes for Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. So in this new offense, Graham is purely a situational player. He doesn't have a TD reception in the last seven games -- that's nearly two months.

The fact that Graham isn't on the field as often changes how he gets used. When looking at one of the biggest plays of the game last week, a fourth-and-4 at the Bears' 29-yard line, the Packers easily could have put the sure-footed Mason Crosby out there for a field-goal attempt, a distance in which the kicker has been nearly automatic. Instead, Rodgers convinced his rookie head coach to stay on the field, then changed the play LaFleur had called. (It seems the head coach has learned to defer to his veteran QB in many situations.) The Packers ran a "3x1" formation that had Davante Adams, who was in the middle of the three receivers, run a "spray fade route." The completion resulted in the first touchdown of the game, and it was classic Rodgers with a deft touch to his favorite target. On the other side of the field, Graham ran a 5-yard out route against man coverage. Rodgers never considered the tight end an option.

Rodgers has attempted 1,071 passes in his last 30 regular-season starts and has a grand total of four interceptions. Rodgers is precise in his throws and isn't prone to attempting 50-50 balls to his receivers. Before Graham came to Green Bay, Graham caught 51 touchdown passes in New Orleans and another 18 in Seattle -- many of them on contested 50-50 balls. Rodgers also seems hesitant to throw the ball down the middle of the field where there's a lot more traffic, which is an area where Graham has excelled in the past.

There is a place for Graham in this offense as a big-bodied player who runs well, has good hands and is dependable, but he has to have the right matchup for Rodgers to look his way. Graham has caught five TD passes from Rodgers over the last two seasons -- only three in this new offense -- which tells me that he isn't a priority in the pass game. And the fact that he's a liability in the run game, he isn't going to be on the field enough to be targeted. He must capitalize on target to build trust with Rodgers. Maybe then, the veteran passer will get Graham more involved.

Yet with a huge game against the Vikings on Sunday, I would never rule out a player who has been one of the best at his position at times in the last decade.

Perhaps all one needs to know about the current state of the Chiefs' run game is what happened two weeks ago in Foxborough. The Chiefs led 10-7 with nine minutes to go in the second quarter and were faced with a third-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Kansas City shifted into a reverse wishbone formation with Travis Kelce taking the snap. He ran a read-option with Tyreek Hill to score standing up for his first rush TD in seven NFL seasons. It's telling that the Chiefs resorted to this play in order to run the ball into the end zone.

The Chiefs' rushing attack has been the ultimate committee. In that monumental victory over the Patriots, the Chiefs used six runners to amass 78 yards on 26 carries -- just enough runs and production to keep the Patriots' top-ranked defense off balance.

Since the midseason departure of Kareem Hunt last season, the Chiefs have looked near and far to replace his production. Darrel and Damien Williams were holdovers from a year ago, but both have sustained a variety of injuries. The Chiefs added LeSean McCoy, who Andy Reid drafted in Philadelphia 10 years ago, and still looks like his former Pro Bowl self at times. He has run well over the course of the season but has slowed down over the last three weeks with 65 yards on 22 total carries. Remember, Andy Reid made Shady a healthy scratch before their Week 10 game against Tennessee in an effort to save the veteran for later in the season and/or postseason. It might have been the right move and we could see Shady become the go-to guy in January. In the meantime, Kansas City recently re-signed Spencer Ware, who has totaled 89 yards on 23 carries in the past three weeks. To me, though, the Chiefs' ideal one-two punch (if they're healthy) is McCoy and Damien Williams. That could be enough in the postseason to complement Patrick Mahomes.

But let's face it, Reid has been criticized for most of his years as a play-caller for being too dependent on the pass game. (He scoffs!) Built into the fourth-ranked Chiefs offense is a variey of screens, bubble screens and fly sweeps that on the stat sheet are passes, but to Reid are only long handoffs. They will attempt to win this postseason by riding the talented right arm of Mahomes and an improving defense. Reid has always believed in the formula that you throw to get a lead and run late to preserve it. It doesn't appear that philosophy will change.

With two games remaining (at Chicago and vs. the Chargers), the Chiefs would love to finish 12-4 for the second year in a row and lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Regardless, the Chiefs must keep Shady fresh and get Damien Williams as healthy as can be. With that rotation at running back in the postseason, the Chiefs will be good enough at a position that will always play second fiddle to the receiving corps that is as crazy good as any aerial circus in the league.

Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.

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