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Labriola on the 'new' offense, kickoffs, Conner

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Randy Fichtner might be the new offensive coordinator, but he might not be a different offensive coordinator.

• There was a faction of Steelers Nation that celebrated the change earlier this calendar year, when Coach Mike Tomlin decided not to renew Todd Haley’s contract and instead promoted Randy Fichtner from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator shortly after the end of the 2017 season.

• Fichtner has been on the job for going on six months now, but when he took some time following a minicamp practice earlier this week to field some of the same old questions from the media, what he offered were some of the same old answers. And it’s not so much that Fichtner was being uncooperative or deceptive on purpose, but that solving the issues actually will be accomplished through the tried-and-true fundamentals of the sport.

• He said that success in the red zone was dependent upon execution, on the players being on their details more so than at any other spot on the field. That game plans, and play-calling within those game plans, will be designed based on winning a particular game against a particular opponent during a particular week of the season.

• When asked about how much the offense will change in 2018, Fichtner said, “I don’t know how much it’s changing. Offense changes in general just because of the people. The dynamics every year are different. Bodies are out here now who are different than we had last year and the same for the year before that.”

• And about play-calling: “There are things that happen in-game, but I think it boils down to players being able to make things come alive and you putting them in the best position to make a play. That’s what the whole game is about to me, in professional football. In college football, you might win with tempo and you might win with a spread and you might win by creating a larger field for the opponent to defend because of the hashmarks. (In the NFL) what it boils down to is players. You put them in the best position to make a play, and that’s where the whole game is to me.”

• About his philosophy as an offensive coordinator: “When we talk as a staff, you may have 70 plays in a game. One week, you may throw it 40 times and run it 30. One week you might have to throw it 50 times to try to win a game. It’s going to be about trying to win a game, and always keeping in mind that the guys who can put the ball in the end zone and convert third downs – running it or throwing it – are the guys you’re trying to put into position to have some success.”

• About being efficient in the red zone: “In general, it’s the details, the assignment details and fundamentals that come into play, and now you’re talking about coaching. And to me, if you’re going to talk about being on the screws, you better be on the screws down there, because everything gets magnified. Decisions, throws, everything down there is so tight, and you have a defense that’s not going to back up because it has nowhere to go.”

• And don’t get overly excited about the likelihood of more quarterback sneaks: “Oh, I don’t know. We’ll have to figure that out. I don’t want to see (Ben Roethlisberger) getting hit.”

IMPACT OF NEW KICKOFF RULES

• There will be changes to how kickoffs are handled this season, and teams still have a few months to try to figure out how to use the rules changes to their own benefit, or at least learn how to mitigate the potential damage.

• Rather than detail all of the changes, here are some of the expected effects of those changes. Players covering the kick won’t have a running start to get downfield, and based on the new alignment restrictions there are going to be more players closer to the point where the ball is to be kicked. And there will be no more wedge blocks by the return team.

• From a player deployment standpoint, these changes are expected to take some of the bigger players off the field, because there is going to be more ground to cover. There also is the very likely outcome of most kickoffs being touchbacks, because the yard line where the ball will be placed on the tee will not change.

• But there also is this to consider: Typical punts travel around 45 yards with a hang-time of around 4.5 seconds. Kickoffs might travel 65 yards with a hang-time of around 4.1 seconds. More ground to cover, and the ball isn’t in the air as long. Players are more spread out and get no running start.

• What all this could mean is that on those occasions when a kickoff doesn’t go for a touchback, the receiving team could find some open spaces and some alleys for the returner to get up the field. If these changes end up putting excitement back into the play while removing some of the big collisions, the NFL might have given fans some reason to stay in their seats for the kickoff.

CONNER ON THE COME?

• Mike Tomlin never has been shy about demanding significant improvement from players entering their second seasons, and based on what was on display during the offseason program, James Conner has a chance to meet Tomlin’s expectations in that regard.

• Where a soft-tissue injury last year at this time rendered Conner a spectator for virtually all of the offseason, he has been healthy and participating this summer, and he has been looking good doing it. There is an obvious burst each time he has the ball in his hands, and Conner has adopted the Franco Harris tradition of running all the way into the end zone to complete every practice rep in which he ends up with the ball in his hands.

• Having completed the offseason, Conner’s next challenge will be staying on the field once the pads go on at Saint Vincent College. Last summer, Conner injured a shoulder during the first day of padded practices, and he was sidelined until the second preseason game.

AND FINALLY, WORDS OF WISDOM FROM VINCE

• “What everybody needs to understand is this: Ryan Shazier is an amazing player,” Vince Williams told Dale Lolley. “If anyone thought we could pick a linebacker this year who was like (him), that’s idiotic. Ryan Shazier is a tremendous talent. You don’t have linebackers who run 4.3s in the 40 and jump 40-something inches in the vertical, who can cover tight ends … you don’t have that in every draft. So just to pick a linebacker to say you picked a linebacker … that’s really not going to accomplish much. You either needed to find somebody that talented, or you need to do it by committee.”

• Remember that, Steelers Nation, as training camp and the preseason unfold.

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