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:
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.
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.