Like a good football nerd, I had my pencil and notebook at my side, charting each offensive drive, when I finally got to see the first preseason game against the Eagles. Before you attempt to burst my bubble, I realize that you can't judge an offense by it's preseason playcalling. In this article, we will not focus on the particular plays called; instead, we will focus on the formations. I will take a look at each formation deployed by Coach Haley, the disadvantages the formations burden upon opposing defenses, and the advantages our personnel add to the formations. Some of this may seem remedial, but not everyone is as smart as you are. The formations themselves aren't exactly unique, as every offense in the NFL uses similar sets; it's all in how they are used, and how the players are used within those alignments. Without really showing us much, Haley showed us a lot. You may want to grab a sandwich and your favorite beverage; this might take a while.
Since the awkward signing of Todd Haley, after Bruce Arians was, reportedly, "retired" by Mike Tomlin; we, Steeler Nation, have been dying to know what this new offense was going to look like. The entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization pulled no punches, when expressing its desire to return to its roots. Due to the performance of the Offensive Lines, one could understand Arians' lack of faith in his running game; however, he never showed any interest in resolving this issue. Instead, he seemed to focus on finding passing routes, to simulate the effects a running attack can have on a game. After 425,734 bubble screens, Tomlin had seen enough, and decided to find someone who could utilize EVERY offensive player on his roster; not relying on the pass to solve every problem.
Enter Todd Haley. Haley's success with the Arizona Cardinals shows he knows how to use a smart, accurate Quarterback, and more than one capable receiver. In Kansas City, where he suffered a dismal talent pool in the passing game, Haley built a power running game to complement an exceptionally adept defense. In Pittsburgh, he has the opportunity to find a dominant, middle ground; due to the personnel available at his disposal.
First things, first. I have no inside knowledge, and have not seen an actual Haley-Steeler playbook. This is an exercise of opinion, concocted through experience, comprehension, and rationality. As I said before the jump, I will not be breaking down individual plays, though I may reference the types of plays that were called for a formation. As I run through possible formation shifts, unless a specific formation alignment showed itself against the Eagles, I will not guarantee that you ever see that specific alignment, just that it is another possibility made possible by the formation selection. I will keep Formation and Alignment names to a more generic, Madden-esque system; to focus more on what the formation is designed to do, rather than what something is specifically called. Can we get started now? I'm already halfway through my sandwich.
The "I" Formations
Todd Haley wasn't kidding when he said he wanted a Fullback. Fullbacks were used for most of the game. The "I" formation is used, because it is run-friendly. Yet, in its base look, it offers versatility towards run, and pass. An I Form base would look something like this:
In the Eagles game, we only saw the I-Base formation for one running play; and once more, also for a running play, in one of its' variations, the I Form-Big:
We can't really read too much into the scarcity of its use, considering the Offset-I looks, which we will see in a few minutes, are still based on the I-Form philosophy. With the FullBack and HalfBack, queue-ing behind the QuarterBack; a defense must be prepared for runs in any direction. Focus on the FullBack, and the HalfBack will counter back across the formation. Focus on the HalfBack, and the FullBack picks up an important 3rd-and-short. Focus on the running game as a whole, and you get torched by a properly called Play Action pass. Having a TE like Heath Miller, formations like this can be quite effective, because he is like having an extra run blocker, and a 3rd Wide Receiver, in the same body. Motioning a single player across the formation can quickly change the defense's alignment, create mismatches out of defensive assignments, and tip the QB off to whatever coverage scheme the defense had originally planned to use.
The "Strong-I" Formations
The Strong-I Formation carries the same versatility towards the pass, but takes a different approach to the run. By lining the FB up on the same side as the TE, the "strong side"; this formation forces the defense to spy the run on one side of the Center. Because the FB is physically committed to one side, instead of being balanced to both; the running back must rely on WRs and the "Weak"(meaning no TE) side offensive linemen, to block any defenders when running to the "weak" side. However, this formation sets up the offense for more power based runs, due to the FB's proximity in correlation to the TE. Offensive Guards can pull, having their responsibilities picked up by the TE; or the TE and FB can work together as double lead blockers. The alignment shifts available, very closely resemble those of its I-Form ancestor; the most important being the shift to a Weak-I formation, which we will cover next. We saw 9 offensive huddles broken into the "Base" variation of this alignment; although, we saw more pass plays (7), than runs (2). Again, I wouldn't read too much into the playcalling, as it is still preseason. Just an interesting observation, of a run-strong formation. Strong-I sets scream run. Deception is an offense's best friend. Here are the shifts we saw in Week A:
The "Weak-I" Formations
The "Weak-I" form, is the antithesis of its' "Strong-I" form. The Weak-I sacrifices natural run strength, for increased versatility. What separates the Weak-I, from a true I-Form; is the fact that the QB has an extra blocker now, to each side. The true beauty of the Weak-I, is in its' alignment shifts; especially if a "pony" backfield is deployed, as was speculated earlier in the offseason. The Weak-I has its own variations similar to the other "I-sets", but I will also provide some examples of how it transitions into other Formations through singular motions, rather than wholesale changes. We saw 11 plays started in the Weak-I "Base" form, with a much more balanced call of 5 passes, versus 6 runs.
Here are the two other Weak I variants, Haley exposed us to in Week A:
The "SingleBack" Formations
The SingleBack forms are used to stretch out the defense. The formation lends itself to the passing game, due to the substitution of the FullBack for either an extra TightEnd, or an extra WideReceiver, known as the slot. However, because the defense must adapt to the offense's personnel change, the running back has some extra space to start his runs, whether charging ahead to catch a defense unready, or taking advantage of an overanxious pass rush, with a well timed draw. This formation can be transformed through slight alignment shifts, but variations of the formation revolve around personnel changes. I will break down frequency, and play types, by each alignment. Here are some examples:
- SB-Big = This set substitutes the FB, for a second TE. (Unless your name is David Johnson, then you were both, already) Two TE, SingleBack sets are the closest relatives to the run-first, I-forms; however, they are really nothing alike. These forms are used to stretch out the O-line; creating more gaps to defend, or outnumber defenders with blockers at the point of attack. Against the Eagles, we only saw this specific form, once; and it was a running play. The playcalling ratio for this form leans more towards the run, but opens up great Play Action opportunities. Haley only called one running play, from the SB-Big set.
- SB-TwinTE/WR= This set is used to polarize the defense. With the TEs paired up on one side of the O-line, and WRs paired on the opposite side; the defense must decide quickly which aspect of the formation to concentrate on. Runs tend to operate like a Strong-I. The nice part of this form, as with either of the previous 2 singleback forms, is you're only one motion away from any of your "I" sets. This alignment was called for 2 passes, against the Eagles.
- SB-TripsBunch(2TE/2WR) = Previously, under Bruce Arians, this formation was widely used, although in his offense, it revolved around 3 WRs, and 1 TE. Against the Eagles, we saw two versions of this formation. The first, used 2 TEs to cap the line, with one WR on their outside, and another WR on the opposing, far side. The second, utilized a WR in the TE slot, closest to the line. This is a great way to sneak in an extra receiver, while keeping your TE up on the line, for Point of Attack blocking. Haley ran 2 plays from the 2TE version, both runs. The 3 WR set was used twice, with one pass and one run.
- SB - 3TE = OK. I have been one pulling for us to dump the 3 TE set; at least, from the 20 to 20 playchart. This is a very run heavy offense. Arians believed in this formation for short yardage. Unfortunately, with no FullBack, defenses usually just stacked the line, and tried to beat the snap count. I personally feel this formation is the reason we have found ourselves failing so many 3rd-and-shorts, under Arians. It's too predictable in those situations. The most redeeming factor to using this set, was Mike Wallace. A well-timed Play Action, out of this look, can result in some wide open deep balls. However, based on Wallace's "situation", we can't rely on one player to save our 3rd down offense. Wallace's field stretching speed, also, doesn't help in Red Zone opportunities. However, against my pleading, we saw this set rear its head; but this time, its different. Haley called 2 runs out of his version of a 3 TE set, but his TEs all lined up on the same side of the O-line, with a WR split wide to the opposite side. One play was simply a counter run, away from the TE's, which had attracted the defensive front's attention; the other motioned a TE into a H-back spot on the opposite side, leaving the defense confused on which gap the runner would be targeting. However, this type of set does not require 3 "true" TEs. Should someone make this roster as a "true" FullBack, like Will Johnson, they would be able to act as the 3rd, or motioning TE; because they would be matching up with DB's, or leadblocking from their natural position. I may not be sold on this formation's necessity, but I do like Haley's point of view, on it.
- SB-SlotWeak = SlotWeak, and SlotStrong, SingleBack formations provide a pass look, while still allowing run opportunities. Some teams in the NFL, revolve their offenses around 3 WR looks, because of the respect it forces the defense to afford the pass. These formations can be augmented through motion, outnumbering zone defenses with receivers; and through HalfBacks like Chris Rainey. Rainey in the backfield, suddenly turns these sets into a 5 target, passing attack. There were 11 plays called from the SlotWeak set; but 2 went for pre-snap penalties, only 1 was a pass, and the rest were runs. The SlotStrong set was called once, for a pass.
- SB-SlotStrong = The evil twin of the SB-SlotWeak set. Haley called one pass from this formation:
The "ShotGun" Formations
Sometimes, the QB needs to be able to read and react to a defense, without having to perform a drop. These forms can also be used to buy a QB time, against a persistent pass rush, giving the defenders more ground to cover to create pressure. These sets scream Pass at the defense, sometimes allowing runs like draws and sweeps to catch defenders overrunning the ball carrier.
- SG-2HB/2WR/1TE = This formation finds a TE capping one end of the line, a WR split to each sideline, and a HB on either side of the QB in the backfield. This formation can provide extra pass protection, running opportunities, and balanced pass targets. Haley only called one play from this set in Week A, a run by Rainey that resulted in a big loss. We will see more from this set in the regular season.
- SG-TwinWR/TE+HBstrong = This formation substitutes the second RB from the previous set, for a second TE. The TEs line up on one side of the O-line, the WRs split out to the opposite side. The HB, for the purpose of maintaining run options, lines up beside the QB, on the TEs' side. Motion can do wonders for this formation; so can Play Action. With TE's like Miller and Saunders, and RB's like Batch and Rainey; the look this set brings to the line of scrimmage, can force mismatches in coverage. This set only made the field for one pass play, which resulted in a sack.
- SG-SlotStrong/HBWeak = Now, we are getting into the 3 WR formations. In this set, a TE caps one end of the line, the HB takes the side of the QB opposite the TE, and the 3rd WR lines up between the TE, and the WR already split wide on that side. The nice part with these 3 WR looks, is that motioning the HB out of the backfield, finds the defense suddenly trying to defend a 5 target pass attack. This particular SB variation, happened to result in our 5 biggest gains of the night, out of 5 play calls.
- SG-SlotWeak/HBWeak = For this form, both the RB, and the slot WR, line up in their respective spots, opposite the TE. This form can make for some outside running opportunities, if your WRs can run-block. Haley called 5 plays from this set, all passes.
- SG-SlotWeak/HBStrong = Again, very similar to the previous alignment, except now, the HB is lined up on the TE side of the QB. Another very balanced, versatile SG set; however, Haley called only running plays against the Eagles(3). 2 went for 23 yrds, while one picked up 5 yrds, due to a defensive offsides.
- SG-TripsBunch(3WR) = This set mirrors its SingleBack cousin, except that the HB lines up on the weak side of the QB. A set like this would be perfect for a guy like, Baron Batch; especially if he can pass block in the NFL, at a 3rd down back level. Defenses often get fooled by the run in these sets, because they get so focused on the pass. Bruce Arians was never one to run, when you can pass; but these sets saw the most level ratio of pass-to-run under his control. Arians and Haley differ in where they like to line up the TE; but Haley's interpretation would allow the slower TE to garner attention on quick routes, while decoying for the WRs, who use the TE like a pick. We only saw this SG set 3 times, once for a run and twice for a pass.
- We saw zero 4 WR sets; and zero 5 WR sets. I'm sure he has some of these sets worked up, but he didn't call any against the Eagles. Considering the way the game played out, there was little reason to; although there were a few 3rd-and-longs, and still no 4/5 WR looks.
- Haley wasn't kidding when he said he wanted a true FB, his first half offense used the FB a lot.
- There was a TE and RB on the field for every, single, offensive play. This is most likely related to the ongoing battle for those positions requiring player evaluation; but it's still interesting, considering the lack of 4/5 WR sets, with decisions needing to be made there as well.
- I warned against reading into the playcalling. Prime example: We primarily passed out of our "Run-first" formations; and we ran primarily out of our "Pass-first" sets.
- We didn't see any "hurry-up". I am guessing these situations will normally rely on the most versatile formations, though possibly with abnormal personnel packages, to allow the chance to vary the formation calls.
If you're still awake, I hope you enjoyed it. I will be charting the offense through the next 3 weeks; however, further episodes of this series will leave out the things we've already covered, and focus on newly introduced formations, and any variations in pre-discussed formations, through personnel or motions. I may even add in some breakdown on the playcalling, as we get closer to the season opener, attempting to recognize our strengths and weaknesses within the system; but, I promise they won't be near this long. I will be interested to see our old offense, when we play the Indianapolis Colts in preseason Week B; and, how it contrasts to the offense we are running now.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off for sandwich #3, and one of Homer's sweet beers.