Ryan Fitzpatrick might be the most baffling quarterback in NFL history. I’ve never seen a guy in any sport be so consistently inconsistent. On one hand, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards in 3 straight games. On the other hand, he had an awful first half, as he threw 3 interceptions, including one of the worst pick sixes you will ever see. He’s probably the only guy who makes Jameis Winston look consistent by comparison, and the fact that his name rhymes with magic and tragic is really just the icing on the cake. But there’s far more to talk about than just Fitzpatrick, so let’s get into what actually went down on Monday night.
One weird stat right off the bat was that both teams averaged 6.89 yards per play. Kind of crazy that they both averaged the exact amount of yards per play, but I guess it just goes to show how evenly matched these teams were on Monday. Pittsburgh was coming off a game where they passed the ball out of a standard personnel set for an even 50% of their plays, which is pretty insane. They looked to tone that down a bit, by only using a standard set once in their first two drives. Instead they leaned pretty heavily on a two tight end set, and used two tight ends for 5 of their first 8 plays. Pittsburgh ended up using a multiple tight end set 18 times, which is kind of surprising considering they only gained 3.46 yards per play against Kansas City. However it worked out for them decently well, as they gained 6.22 yards per play against Tampa Bay when they had multiple tight ends in the game. On the surface, using standard sets less frequently worked for the Steelers as well, out of those set they gained 7.23 yards per play, a full 1.20 yards per play more than they had last week against Kansas City. However looking a little closer, one thing that throws off the numbers a bit was the 75 yard touchdown pass which was thrown out of one of those sets. Without that Pittsburgh averaged just 4.90 yards per play from those sets. It might not be totally fair to take out their best play, but I felt like it was worth mentioning.
As for Tampa Bay, they had a three and out to open the game, but fooled Pittsburgh a couple of times on their subsequent drive. The Buccaneers are a team that loves to run the ball on first down, and they lined up in a three tight end set to start off their second drive. Pittsburgh was expecting a run, but Tampa threw the ball instead, and gained 14 yards. Two plays later they did a slimier thing, throwing out of a two tight end set and gaining 13 yards. On the very next play they used a standard set, but ran the ball and had an 18 yard gain. To cap things off, they put a fullback and two tight ends on the field, and threw the ball for a touchdown. While most teams will rarely throw the ball when there’s multiple tight ends or a fullback in the game, Tampa Bay has no problem doing it. In the 13 plays they ran with multiple tight ends, 10 were passes (having 2 good tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate is probably part of the reason for this). It worked out pretty well for them too, even though Tampa Bay only gained 6 yards total on their 3 rushes, they averaged 7.70 yards per passing play out of a multiple tight end set. They also threw the ball on 3 of the 4 plays they ran with a fullback, but averaged just 4.75 yards per play out of those sets.
Heading into this game, I was fully expecting Tampa Bay to use a large amount of 5 wide sets. Last week against Kansas City, the Steelers gave up 12.69 yards per play when facing a 5 wide set. And with the numerous weapons Tampa has, it seemed logical. However it didn’t really work out too well for Tampa Bay, as they gained just 5.29 yards per play from a 5 wide set, and ended up only using it 7 times. However what the Buccaneers continued to use was a 4 wide set. In fact, they used it more frequently than they used standard sets. They used a 4 wide set 24 times (33.3%) however they only gained 5.46 yards per play out of that set. 5.46 yards per play isn’t bad by any means, but it’s 1.43 yards less than they averaged throughout the game, which kind of makes you wonder why that was their most common set. In fact, 15 of their last 26 plays were from those sets. It really becomes head scratching when you factor in how well Tampa Bay played out of a standard set. Out of those sets they gained 8.24 yards per play, and 10.07 yards per passing play. It’s easy to look back after I’ve crunched the numbers and say that Tampa Bay should’ve used more standard sets, and they did end up with a 24 yard touchdown out of a 4 wide set, so it’s not like they were ineffective from that set. But still, when the game was on the line, the last two plays Tampa Bay ran were out of 4 wide sets, and both were incompletions. It’s hard to say whether using a standard set could’ve made a huge difference, but it probably would’ve been the better call there. (Also, they probably shouldn’t have punted the ball away when there’s less than 3 minutes left, to a team that only had 1 three and out since their first drive of the game. That probably would’ve helped).
One thing I thought Pittsburgh did well was their willingness to continue using sets typically reserved for passing, even when they went up big. They only had 4 drives in the second half, and while they didn’t put any points on the board, they still got 8 first downs which helped them kill a lot of the clock (they also did get in field goal range, however Boswell missed the kick). They changed things up on their final two drives, as they used a fullback on 4 of their final 9 plays. Using a fullback got then a decent 4.00 yards per play, but they also had a game sealing 17 yard run that put the game away, and got Pittsburgh their first win of the season.