Play-action is a quarterback's best friend.
But shotgun and empty-set backfields are quickly gaining popularity.
According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback threw out of play-action less often than Ben Roethlisberger. Considering the Steelers' passing numbers were in the top third of the league in rating, completion percentage, yards and touchdowns, one might argue it doesn't really matter.
No QB used play-action less than Ben Roethlisberger at just 11.6% in 2013. Russell Wilson led NFL at 34.1% PA.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 7, 2014
There are two primary culprits involved with the Steelers' lack of desire to use play-action; 1. The Steelers ran the ball worse than nearly every team in the league. 2. They often utilized Roethlisberger in shotgun and motioned running back Le'Veon Bell out of the backfield to utilize his ability as a receiver.
This blends the argument into one of the classics surrounding the team since the days of Bruce Arians - do the Steelers want to primarily be a running team? The top five teams in terms of percentage use of play-action are Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina and San Francisco. Four of those five teams are in the top five for rushing yards in 2013 - in order, Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Carolina is 11th.
Connection easily made. These are running teams, and while the 49ers, Seahawks, Redskins and Panthers have the added element of quarterbacks with the ability to gain the edge and get down field, it's obvious why they would utilize play-action while leaning on their running game.
The Steelers didn't have that in 2013, and won't have it in 2014 - barring a radical and shocking change in philosophy.
Pittsburgh used 11 personnel (meaning one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) as its primary package in their no-huddle offense. Bell shifting out turned it into more of a 01 personnel package, which exploits underneath passing, and won't run the ball unless the quarterback takes it on a draw.
Certainly, a more conservative approach, with Bell in the backfield and two tight ends and two receivers (12) could give them more versatility as far as play-action passing would go.
The question for 2014 would be how much the Steelers would want to incorporate that into their game plan. Their wide receiver group will be a key position to watch this offseason, with both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery set to hit free agency. Reducing depth at that position, whether that's through keeping one or neither of the free agents, and not finding a player to fill the void, could be an indication they intend to utilize two tight ends more often, thus suggesting their intentions to run much more frequently.
Getting both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth back for a full season would be a big step in that direction. Miller was coming off an ACL tear at the end of the 2012 season, and wasn't fully healthy until the second half of the season. Spaeth missed all but three games after suffering a foot injury in training camp. The instability at the tight end position may have dictated a lot of what the Steelers wanted to do offensively.
But it's hard to argue with the results. The offense was scoring around 28 points a game in the second half of the year, the highest total they've had in several years. There are many areas to which credit should be given for that turnaround, but their ability to throw the ball, and their 11 personnel packages are right up there.
With another year of experience, and minimal losses on offense (All other key contributors with the exception of Sanders should be expected to be on the Steelers next year), it would seem the Steelers could do both - run 11 and 12 personnel, and have success throwing with and without play-action.