It’s June, which means hockey and basketball are wrapping up, baseball is heading into its mid-season slog and football -- GLORIOUS FOOTBALL! -- is on the horizon. To prepare, I’ve assembled a glossary of terms that will be useful as we dissect not tweets nor contract demands but genuine Steelers action. This article will feature offensive terms while a subsequent article will detail the defense. Hopefully, they will help the laymen among us cast a more discerning eye on the Black and Gold this fall.
First, though, I’m honored to announce that BTSC Editor Jeff Hartman has offered me a writer’s position on the staff, where I will focus on film breakdown and analysis. I’ve been a member here since 2009 and it’s been my pleasure over the past decade to talk football and a host of other topics with many on the site.
For those who don’t know me, I’ll be brief: I’ve been living, teaching History and coaching football in southern New Jersey for the past 25 years. I’m married with three kids, ages 20, 6 and 1. That’s not a typo. The oldest is in college and the youngest is in diapers. Much like a Ben Roethlisberger scramble that turns into a big play, the plan for my life broke down for a bit and I had to improvise until I could pull it back together. The one constant through it all has been my love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I am proud to be a fan and proud to have the chance, formally, to write for this community.
Let’s get to it, then. Here are some offensive terms to familiarize yourself with in preparation for Steelers football in 2019:
This is the Steelers favorite personnel group and the closest thing to a “base” they have. If the defense “bases” out of a 3-4, the offense bases out of 11.
The 11 refers to the number of running backs (1) and tight ends (1) on the field. Other groups the Steelers commonly use are 10 (one back, no tight ends), 12 (one back, two tight ends) and 21 (two backs, one tight end). 11 personnel is useful because it allows teams to spread the field with three wide receivers while maintaining six blockers up front in the run game. 11 personnel also lets a team put its run strength to one side of the field (TE) and its passing strength to the opposite side (slot), thus preventing defenses from loading up against one or the other. Finally, in 11 personnel, teams can either line up in or motion to 3x1 formations that force defenses to adjust out of their base in some way. The run, pass and multi-look components available from 11 personnel make it a perfect grouping for today’s NFL.
When the Steelers line up in 11 in 2019, their base group will feature Vance McDonald at tight end, Juju Smith-Schuster and either James Washington or Donte Moncrief split wide and Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer in the slot. James Conner will align at running back. The versatility of a player like Jaylen Samuels or quick progress from rookie receiver Diontae Johnson could provide the Steelers a variety of combinations within their 11 package, however. Who they line up in 11 and where they align will be something to watch for as the season unfolds.
An H-back is a hybrid fullback/tight end who generally aligns off the ball in a two-point stance outside the offensive tackle. Think of a tight end, then stand him up and back him up a step (in the image above, Jesse James is lined up as the H-back just above the “1st and Goal” graphic).
The benefit of using an H-back over a traditional tight end is the ability to motion him around. Because he is off the ball, the H-back can move from one side of the formation to the other, where he can create a numbers or leverage advantage against a defense. The H-back can block like a fullback but is preferable to the traditional fullback because he is a better receiver. He is to the offense what a Box Safety is to the defense: a hybrid player who allows for diversity in both the rushing and passing game.
The Steelers don’t list “H-back” as an actual roster position but they use one a great deal. Last season, tight ends James and Vance McDonald were both employed in the H-back role at various times. This season, McDonald will likely remain while Xavier Grimble or perhaps Jaylen Samuels will fill the void left by James’ departure. Samuels is especially intriguing as an H-back candidate. A running back by trade, Samuels is also a capable receiver and an adequate in-line blocker. He had some experience in the role as a college player at NC State. Using him as an H-back here would allow the Steelers to feature two backs on the field in Samuels and James Conner, which could provide a variety of ways to attack opposing defenses. Samuels was impressive as a rookie and the Steelers will likely want to get him on the field more in 2019. The H-back role may be one way to do so.
Empty is a formation, not a personnel grouping. It can be utilized with any combination of players on the field - from five receivers to 22 sets. “Empty” simply means there is no back in the backfield with the QB. All five eligible receivers are assembled at the line of scrimmage in some fashion.
The Steelers have used Empty increasingly in recent seasons, especially last year once Randy Fichtner took the reigns as offensive coordinator. The thinking behind Fichtner’s use of Empty is that, with five receivers in the pattern, an experienced line providing protection and a Hall of Fame quarterback slinging the rock, odds are pretty good someone is coming open and the QB is going to find him.
The risk of throwing from Empty is obvious: there are less pass protectors and the offense is vulnerable to the blitz. Fichtner trusts that Big Ben will be able to diagnose blitzes pre-snap and will know what to check to and where to go with the football. The traditionalists among us likely cringe whenever they see #7 by his lonesome in the shotgun, especially on 3rd and short. I can practically hear some of you screaming right now: “What’s wrong with running the football?”
One thing I’m sure Fichtner loved about Empty last season was it made it hard for a defense to double-team Antonio Brown. With Brown gone, will we see less Empty in 2019? Or will we see the formation used differently, employing a higher degree of shifts and motions from multiple personnel groups? Big Ben seems to love going Empty but without AB he won’t have the luxury of relying on one guy to get open. Fichtner will have to get more creative if Empty is to remain a big part of the offense.
The RPO, or “Run-Pass Option,” has become all the rage on offense in recent years. Teams from grade school to the pros have incorporated them as a way of manipulating defenses. The RPO gives a quarterback the option to hand the ball to a running back (run) or throw to a receiver (pass) based upon his read of a second-level defender (usually a linebacker or box safety). If the read key steps up to defend the run action, the QB throws the ball. If the read key sits, the QB hands the ball to the back.
One important distinction between the RPO and its predecessor, the read-option, is that the QB does not run the ball on an RPO. The read-option values athletic quarterbacks who can hurt defenses with their legs and is therefore utilized more commonly at the high school and college levels. In the pros, where defenders are bigger, stronger and faster, and where quarterbacks routinely garner $100 million contracts, the read-option is too risky to use with regularity.
The RPO has been useful for the Steelers because it allows Roethlisberger the freedom to diagnose defenses and make decisions as plays unfold. In the RPO below, Roethlisberger reads the Cleveland alley player working out towards Antonio Brown, pulls the football from James Conner’s belly and and whips an inside slant to Juju for a big play.
Plays like these do come with risk, however. Ball-handling, communication between the QB and RB and sight reads by the receivers all must be in sync. If the timing or communication on an RPO is off, the play can be disastrous. Case in point: the ill-fated interception from the 2 yard-line that ended the Steelers chances in Denver last season came on an RPO. So did the fumble that set up Cleveland’s comeback tie in the season opener. The Steelers will likely continue to utilize these concepts in 2019. How much will depend on whether the reward outweighs the risk.
One of the Steelers favorite passing concepts is Shallow Cross. The concept features a combination of vertical routes that stretch the safeties and horizontal routes that widen the linebackers. This creates a void in the middle of the field that is targeted by a “crosser” running anywhere from 6-12 yards depth.
The beauty of Shallow Cross is its multiplicity: virtually any receiver can run the vertical, horizontal or crossing routes, which allows the concept to be employed from a variety of formations and personnel groups. It can also be used against both zone coverage, where it creates a hole at the second level, or man schemes, where a defender is forced to chase the cross.
Below, we see Shallow against cover-1 man. Horizontal routes by the tight end and running back pull defenders towards the numbers while vertical routes from both wide receivers take the free safety out of the play. This allows Juju to operate one-on-one from the slot across the middle of the field against a safety - a match-up he will win just about every time.
Shallow Cross is a great route for the Steelers because they have so many options as the crosser. Juju is a big, physical player who can shake off press coverage and separate as he gets horizontal. Same for McDonald. Rogers and Switzer are shifty route runners and experienced slot players who can locate the holes in a zone. And Johnson looks like a great candidate to run the cross, as his “twitchy” movement makes him difficult to cover in short spaces. Look for a good amount of the Shallow concept from the Steelers in 2019.
This is a term football geeks like to use (i.e. - “The Steelers need to improve in situational football”). But what are they talking about? What situations? And how is situational football different from regular football?
Generally, the phrase “situational football” is used to describe moments that are considered out of the ordinary in some fashion or those in which the result has a significant impact upon the game. Red zone scoring, for example. Or 3rd down conversion rates. Two-minute offense. Offense when backed up inside your own 10.
From a play calling perspective, situational football can mean intangible considerations such as the impact of the wind or the condition of certain parts of the field. The high school at which I coach plays its home games at a stadium located less than two hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, waves were literally rolling into the east end zone. In the fall, Nor’easter storms commonly come ripping down the coast bringing angry winds off of the ocean. Situational football for us in October and November, then, means knowing how to manage our play-calling based on whether we are driving into or with the wind.
As far as the Steelers are concerned, 2018 was a success in several situational areas. They were the best red zone scoring team in the league with a 73.4% touchdown rate on possessions inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. On 3rd downs they ranked 6th with a conversion rate of 44.4%. They were also 6th at converting 4th downs at just over 64%. On two-point conversions they were 5th at 80%. All of this suggests an offense that was well-prepared for these crucial situations. How the Steelers handle situational football in 2019 will again impact the success of the offense.
As an offensive term, zone refers to a blocking scheme whereby linemen are assigned areas rather than specific defenders. Blockers stay on a track and often work in tandem with one another, double-teaming defensive linemen up to the linebacker level. The communication it takes to trade defenders and react fluidly takes repetition and familiarity. It is a scheme best suited for a veteran group who has been together awhile like the Steelers.
There are two dominant zone concepts utilized by the Steelers (and every other NFL team, for that matter): inside and outside zone. Inside zone attacks the A-gaps between the center and two guards. It is a slow-developing play that relies on a back’s ability to be patient while allowing a hole to develop and then to burst through once it does. “Slow to the hole, fast through it” is a common coaching point used for backs when teaching inside zone.
Outside zone, as you might imagine, attacks the edge of a defense. Here, offensive linemen reach-block their defenders and try to pin them inside while the running back aims for the alley outside the tight end. Outside zone is a great compliment to inside zone because it exploits linebackers who are focused on taking away the A-gaps and backside cuts inherent to inside zone and therefore do not pursue as quickly to the alleys.
The Steelers were an extremely zone-heavy team during the Le’Veon Bell years. Bell was a patient runner with great vision and burst, which made him an ideal back for the zone scheme. They ran it less last season with James Conner, whose battering-ram style seemed better suited for power runs behind pulling linemen. Jaylen Samuels proved to be a better outside than inside runner, and the Steelers did run some outside zone with him. But with both Conner and Samuels, the team preferred to run more aggressive gap schemes like traps and sweeps.
Take the following play, for instance. With Bell, this would have been an outside zone run. But with Conner, it’s a pin-and-pull sweep. The running back’s aiming point on both plays is the same but the blocking scheme is different. Outside zone lets the back have more freedom in picking the hole while the sweep concept gives the back a pulling lineman to follow.
It will be interesting to see how much zone the Steelers run going forward. Will the switch from Bell to Conner and Samuels at running back and the change from Mike Munchack to Shaun Sarrett as offensive line coach signal a departure from the scheme as our primary run concept? This will be one of the more compelling things to watch for on offense in 2019.
There you have it - your 2019 Offensive Primer. In the coming weeks, I hope to examine some of these concepts in greater detail to shed some more light on their relevance in the Pittsburgh offense.
Next, though, an examination of defensive terms we should familiarize ourselves with. That will be coming soon. In the meantime, If there are any issues you’d like to see me examine or any scheme-related articles you’d like to read, let me know in the comments below. Your feedback is appreciated.
Thanks for reading. And as always - Go Steelers!