(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
On Monday, Michael Silver of the NFL Network reported that JuJu Smith-Schuster said the Colts' defensive players were calling out their plays pre-snap, giving a lot of people the impression that Fichtner's play calls were incredibly predictable.
Minus Roethlisbertger's heroic second-half performance against the Colts on Sunday in which he completed 23 of 29 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Steelers to a come-from-behind 28-24 win, the offense has been abysmal in the last 18 quarters of play. And many in Steelers Nation have pointed the finger at Fichtner for being the main cause for the issues.
Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron also stated that Roethlisberger was calling the plays in the second half when they scored 21 unanswered points. This news added even more outrage for Steelers Nation toward Fichtner, as Roethlisberger was throwing the ball downfield more and connecting with his receivers for chunk plays once No. 7 was calling the shots.
Roethlisberger had his offensive coordinator's back on Wednesday when he spoke with the media though.
“I saw that (Fichtner) was taking a little bit (of criticism), and he shouldn’t be,” Ben Roethlisberger said during a Zoom interview with the media on Wednesday. “The players (should). He calls the plays; we have to execute them.”
Roethlisberger even went as far as saying that Fichtner deserves more credit than him for the second-half comeback against Indianapolis.
“In the second half, it’s not just me,” Roethlisberger said. “(Fichtner) is telling me stuff in my ear, we are talking on the sidelines. So he should get as much — if not more; in my opinion more — credit than anyone else for the second-half performance, because he’s the one that’s really kind of giving us the insight and the direction and keeping it moving.”
As far as the Colts' defensive players calling out the Steelers' plays. Tomlin along with Roethlisberger both think that's just a part of playing games in empty stadiums due to fans not being allowed to attend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomlin said what the Colts were doing was no different than what they were doing on the defensive side of the ball.
"We were calling out their plays, too,"Tomlin said. "Philip Rivers was calling out our adjustments. I think it's one of the things that kind of goes on in 2020 during the global pandemic when you're playing in crickets, in eerily quiet stadiums.
It's an abnormal year with no fans at stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the hub of communication is a lot different, which sometimes makes things more obvious.
"I know other teams have talked about that some," Tomlin said about defenses calling out plays pre-snap. "I think it's just one of the adjustable things that we all globally have to deal with in the 2020 environment because of the level of communication and the amount of communication that's heard between units prior to a snap in 2020's environment."
Playing in empty stadiums also has its advantages, however. And one of those positives aspects came on Roethlisberger's 39-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson in the third quarter against the Colts on Sunday. The touchdown gave the offense a spark to their 17-point comeback win.
"For instance, on Diontae (Johnson's) touchdown, they were yelling 'slant, slant, slant,'" Roethlisberger said about defenses calling out plays. "Their sideline was to my right, right by where Diontae was. They were yelling 'slant, slant, slant!' The coverage that they gave us, actually, we should have run a slant. I almost changed the play but I didn't because they were yelling it. I heard them. Diontae heard them. Their DB heard them. So I was like, 'Good, we want them to think we are running a slant because we're running a fade. This could end up working really well.'
"So I think it can hurt and help, if that kind of makes sense. There are absolutely times in games where you hear a defender say, 'Hey, watch this,' and you're like, 'Man, that's what we called.' Some of that is dumb luck. Some of it, maybe it's tendencies. We can hear stuff that they talk about. It is one of the most unique years when it comes to strategy, when it comes to trying to trick people."
On Thursday, Fichtner echoed what Tomlin and Roethlisberger said. It really just comes down to defenses communicating as normal, but it's more apparent with empty stadiums.
"We ran our first 'ISO' play of this season, first one we ran," Fichtner said via Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. "We put Derek (Watt) in, he went in to 'ISO' (isolate on) the linebacker. We didn't have success with it. We didn't win the down.
"But it was funny because young Chase Claypool ran off, he said, 'Hey, they were calling out that we were going to run the ball.' Well, it was third down and 1 and generally, we run the ball (on third-and-1). 'Hey, watch the run,' and at the same time the safety's yelling over at that corner, 'Hey, I got your back in case they go deep ball to you.' There's just so much communication."
Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Fichtner's explanations are certainly plausible in regards to empty stadiums and hearing more things than they would normally hear on a Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field with 68,400 fans in the stands. However, with the offense struggling to score points of late and the slow starts becoming a common theme coupled with Roethlisberger's excellent performance in the second half against the Colts when he was calling the plays -- fans will continue to speculate Fichtner's play-calling abilities until proven otherwise.
Just put it this way, if a recurrence of the Colts game happens in the playoffs and the Steelers end up falling just short of a victory, fans will be calling for Fichtner's job, and wonder why they didn't begin the game with Roethlisberger orchestrating the offense.