Mason Rudolph is not allowed to audible into a quarterback sneak.
Neither is Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t big believers in the play — offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner in particular.
The topic came up at Steelers practice on Thursday after the team failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 play Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals that saw running back James Conner stuffed in the backfield.
When asked if Rudolph missed an opportunity to call a quarterback sneak, Fichtner told reporters that he wasn’t allowed to.
“No, he did not have that option at the time,” Fichtner said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We actually just made some critical errors we shouldn’t have made. But he didn’t have that option, no.”
The same policy was in play under previous offensive coordinator Todd Haley in a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars two seasons ago. Roethlisberger declined to audible into sneaks on a pair of fourth-and-one situations in the 45-42 loss. The Steelers got stopped on both plays.
He said after the loss that head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t give him the freedom to call a sneak audible, even if he sees an opportunity from the line of scrimmage.
Fichtner appears to be on the same page as Tomlin, explaining on Thursday that he’s concerned about player safety with quarterback sneaks.
“People that know me know that it’s not been one of my favorite things in the world to do,” Fichtner said. “I wouldn’t mind in certain situations, but when it’s obvious situations — fourth-and-1, third-and-1 — it really isn’t something I’m interested in doing.
“I value our quarterback. There’s a lot of stuff going on in those piles. Just the truth be known, if we can’t hand it to one of our backs and we can’t block them, then we don’t deserve to win that down.”
Quarterbacks are exposed to full-speed blindside hits and myriad other dangers on passing plays every time they drop back. Deciding that a short-yardage run in a high-leverage situation is the time to be concerned about quarterback safety seems an odd place to get conservative.
Also, eschewing the sneak because “we don’t deserve to win that down” if a running back can’t get the score or first down is something that should never come out of an NFL coach’s mouth.
Ruling out a high-percentage play in the name of pride is not a good enough reason at the sport’s highest level. Even in obvious situations. Sometimes the obvious situation is obvious for a reason — it gives your team the best chance of converting.
And when an opponent is aware you’re hesitant to run one, that’s an advantage for the other side.
Teams like the New England Patriots have run the sneak with great success over the years. Tom Brady — the poster boy for quarterback health — runs it with regularity and has rushed for 26 regular season and playoff touchdowns over the course of his career.
Rudolph told reporters that he’s game to run sneaks.
“But obviously, I would love to do that,” Rudolph told reporters. “I tell him that every week. ‘If you want to call it, go ahead. I’ll get it for you and we’ll keep the chains moving.’”
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