When most Steelers fans think of defensive schemes, they think of the 3-4. The Steelers were one of the first NFL teams to switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 back in 1982 and they have run it as their base scheme ever since (calling the 3-4 their “base” these days might be a bit antiquated, but that’s a conversation for a different article. Like this one). The 3-4 conjures images of stout nose tackles, quarterback-hunting linebackers and a certain safety with a wild mane of hair flying around the field like a banshee. It has been as integral to the Steelers identity these past thirty-some years as the three perfect diamonds on their helmet.
What about the Steelers offense, though? What is their base scheme? That’s a much harder question to answer. In professional football, offenses tend to be less system-based than at lower levels. In high school, teams often run easily identifiable schemes like the Wing-T or the Veer. In college, systems like the Air Raid, the Urban Meyer Spread and the Navy Triple Option are in vogue. In the NFL, however, teams are often said to run a “pro-style” scheme. This essentially means a zone and gap-based run game and a multitude of passing concepts out of various personnel groups and formations. In the NFL, being “multiple” is the scheme.
A more useful way to identify offenses is by studying their personnel groups. In Pittsburgh, that means 11 personnel. In 2018, 68% of the Steelers offensive snaps came from this grouping. The Steelers like 11 so much that just three teams in the entire league - the Chargers, Bengals and Colts - had a higher percentage of snaps from it than the Steelers. The focus of this article, then, is to examine why the Steelers use 11 personnel so frequently, how they utilize it and how our off-season personnel changes might alter the deployment of offensive groupings in 2019.
WHAT IS 11 PERSONNEL?
As discussed recently in our Offensive Glossary, 11 personnel puts one back, one tight end and three receivers on the field (the numbering system refers to how many running backs and tight ends are employed in a particular grouping). Other personnel groups the Steelers used with some regularity last season included 22 (two backs, two tight ends), 12 (one back, two tight ends), 13 (one back, three tight ends) and 21 (two backs, one tight end). Those groups were used sparingly at best. 22 personnel was deployed 13% of the time, while 12, 13 and 21 were used just 8, 4 and 2%, respectively. These were situational groups or groups used to create favorable matchups. 11 personnel was clearly our base.
WHY DO THE STEELERS PREFER 11 PERSONNEL?
11 personnel is perfect for today’s “pace and space” offensive football because it allows teams to spread the field with three wide receivers while maintaining six blockers up front in the run game. By stretching defenses from sideline to sideline and still maintaining a six-man blocking surface, 11 puts maximum pressure on defenses to police the entire field. 11 personnel also lets a team put its run strength to one side of the field (TE) and its passing strength to the other (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 an ideal grouping for today’s NFL.
The Steelers are not alone in preferring 11 as their base. Every team in the league in 2018 except San Francisco took more snaps from 11 personnel than any other grouping (the 49ers, perhaps under the delusion that this was still 1995, took 54% of their snaps from 21 personnel with an actual fullback on the field). The league average for snaps from 11 personnel was also 54%. This nearly tripled the next most popular grouping, 12, which accounted for 20% of total snaps.
There are several reasons why 11 personnel makes sense as the base group in Pittsburgh. The difference between 11 and the next two groupings used most commonly in the NFL, 12 and 21, hinges on whether a team wants a fullback, a second tight end or a third wide receiver on the field at that fifth skill position. The Steelers have, over the past decade at least, been deeper at receiver than at tight end or fullback. Players like Eli Rogers and Jerricho Cotchery have typically been more useful than guys like Jesse James and Rosie Nix. Notice I said useful. I’m not suggesting Rogers, for example, is a better football player than Nix. Rather that, given the evolution of offensive football, his skill set provides better options than an athletic third guard in the backfield (no offense, Rosie).
11 personnel also makes sense for the Steelers because of Ben Roethlisberger. With a future Hall of Famer in QB7, spreading the field with receivers and giving Roethlisberger options is a logical strategy. A grouping like 21 compresses the field and minimizes the horizontal passing game, thereby depriving Roethlisberger of zones in which to throw. The Steelers would rather give Big Ben the ability to make full-field reads than add a fullback to pound the rock.
On the flip side, the tight end component of 11 still allows for an in-line run game. This makes it preferable as a base to a 10 grouping with four wide receivers and limited run capability. When the tight end is aligned off the ball like an H-back, he can function as a lead blocker the way a fullback does while providing better field-stretching ability in the passing game.
WHAT CONCEPTS DO THE STEELERS FAVOR OUT OF 11 PERSONNEL?
For the most part, a team can run its entire playbook out of 11 so it’s difficult to say what specific plays the Steelers like from this grouping. We can, however, identify the concepts they employ.
In the run game, the Steelers use a zone and gap-based scheme. They were a heavy zone team with Le’Veon Bell, whose patience and vision was perfect for slow-developing zone runs. Last season, with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels in the backfield, they gravitated more towards power runs that featured pulling linemen. These often require a tight end/H-back to function as a puller, thus increasing the importance of 11 personnel in the offense.
Below we see the Steelers running the toss-counter concept that served them well against New England last November. They zone block the play to the right and Roethlisberger pitches the ball to Samuels in that direction. Samuels catches and counters back to his left, following the kick-out block of tight end Vance McDonald through a seam in the New England defense:
The Steelers ran a host of sweeps, counters, traps and iso plays in 2018 using variations of this blocking scheme. Some featured pulling guards. Others assigned tight ends as the lead blocker. The zone scheme so prevalent in the Bell years was phased out in favor of a more power-oriented run game. 11 personnel was the perfect group to accommodate the switch.
In the passing game, the Steelers often seek to apply both vertical and horizontal pressure on a defense (for the sake of brevity, let’s just call this a “stretch” concept). Stretch is an appropriate term because it pairs underneath routes that extend the defense from one sideline to the other with vertical routes that take the top off of the coverage. By stretching a defense both vertically and horizontally there is often a void in the center of the field or a hole in coverage along the sideline. Routes like Mesh, Shallow Cross, Three and Four Verticals and Smash all adhere to the stretch concept. The Steelers run them all.
Here is a classic stretch concept versus a Cover-2 defense. The Steelers run a fade-flat combo to top of the screen with Antonio Brown taking the vertical route and James Conner the horizontal one. At bottom, Jesse James runs horizontally to the flat while James Washington works a Dig route (a deep in cut) at about 18 yards. Slot receiver Juju Smith-Schuster runs an OTB (over-the-ball) and settles down about five yards over the center.
The spacing here is excellent. The Steelers stretch the field horizontally with the flat routes and vertically with the Fade and the Dig. They also attack the middle of the field with the OTB, allowing the athletic Smith-Schuster to operate against a linebacker. Roethlisberger initially looks at Juju, doesn’t like the look and scrambles outside the pocket. This is an easy read for James, who converts his flat route into an out-an-up. The linebacker in pursuit is unaccustomed to covering so much ground and turns the wrong way as he works upfield, allowing James to break free. The result is a big gain.
Here’s another one. On this goal line play against the Saints, the Steelers run a nice combination of horizontal and vertical routes to create space for their receivers. At the top of the screen, inside receiver James Washington runs a corner route (vertical) while Brown and Smith-Schuster run double in’s (horizontal). To the bottom, McDonald pulls the safety away from the ball with a corner of his own while Samuels slides out of the backfield to the flat. The New Orleans blitz leaves no one to cover Samuels, who scores easily. Even if he had not blitzed, the inside backer assigned to Samuels would have had a difficult time running with him to the flat. Again we see the pressure these concepts put on defenders to cover the entire field.
On both of these plays, we see the Steelers exploit linebackers in coverage. Because 11 personnel provides a run threat, defenses have a hard time replacing linebackers with safeties or nickel corners. This creates the opportunity for mismatches in the passing game when athletic backs or tight ends can get those backers in space.
Speaking of, having running backs who can catch the football is one of the key factors in making the stretch concept work. Horizontal routes (swings, flats, arrows and crosses) are often provided by running backs and tight ends, allowing speedier wide receivers to work the vertical routes or the middle of the field. These routes are extremely important in protecting the more productive vertical concepts in this style of passing game. Without backs who can catch the ball, underneath defenders like linebackers and cover-2 corners can carry vertical routes longer, thereby closing the windows between them and the safeties where deeper balls are often thrown. A receiving threat out of the backfield forces those underneath defenders to come off the vertical routes more quickly. Downfield windows are bigger as a result.
The Steelers, fortunately, have had some very good receiving backs in recent years. Le’Veon Bell was so good as a receiver he thought he should be paid in part as one. Current backs Samuels and Conner are solid receivers too. In the GIF above we see how fluidly Samuels catches the ball. Conner isn’t bad, either:
That’s a Mesh route, by the way, where two receivers release vertically, two cross in the middle of the field (passing each other at a “mesh” point) and a fifth hooks up in the “high hole” about fifteen yards over the ball. Here, Brown and Justin Hunter run the verticals, James settles in the high hole and Conner and Smith-Schuster run the mesh. The Cleveland backer in the middle of the field runs with Juju, leaving Conner open. Once he catches the football he does what a good back gets paid to do - runs through tackles. A good receiving back puts pressure on a defense by forcing them to close quickly and tackle soundly in space. If they don’t, those flat and checkdown routes can become chunk plays.
All of this is good in theory but without the right quarterback at the helm the stretch passing game is doomed to fail. Having a QB who can read the entire field is critical to its success. The Saints do it with Drew Brees. The Patriots do it with Tom Brady. And the Steelers do it with Big Ben Roethlisberger.
Not every throw Roethlisberger makes involves a full-field read. The Steelers do use zero and one-read routes where Roethlisberger is either pre-determining his throw based on the alignment of the defense (a zero read, used primarily against man coverage) or reading a single defender and throwing to a receiver based on his drop (a one-read route, used primarily against zone). The straw that stirs the drink in their passing attack, however, is the full-field read. Since stretch concepts require a quarterback to read both vertically and horizontally, and since such reads can be extremely difficult given the fact that a quarterback has less than three seconds on average to release the football before a horde of angry defenders descends upon him, it often takes a special player to execute them. Roethlisberger is that player. Without him, the passing game, and perhaps the entire offense, would be structured differently.
Here’s a play that doesn’t look like a big deal but it is. 11 personnel formation, McDonald split wide to the bottom of the screen and three receivers to the top. Tampa shows blitz so Ben knows he has to unload quickly. He wants McDonald, who is one-on-one in press coverage with a smaller corner, but McDonald can’t get separation. Because McDonald is singled up on the outside and running back James Conner stays in to help with the blitz, there is no outlet receiver to McDonald’s side of the field. Roethlisberger now has to come all the way back across the field with his read as the clutter of bodies closes in on him. He coolly shuffles right in the pocket, resets his feet and finds James Washington on an in cut for a 1st down.
Not many quarterbacks could have made that throw under that type of pressure. Because Roethlisberger can do these sorts of things, the Steelers can run full-field read concepts in their passing game.
Finally, in studying the Steelers offense for this piece, I identified over 30 formations they used from 11 personnel in 2018. Some of these were subtle changes from standard sets, like moving the running back from his traditional position alongside Roethlisberger when he was in the shotgun to a Pistol alignment directly behind the quarterback. Others were fairly unique: an Empty set with three receivers to one side of the field and the running back and tight end to the other; a set with Vance McDonald lined up in the backfield alongside James Conner; a set with the tight end, running back and two receivers to the short side of the field and Antonio Brown alone to the wide side. From these formations, however, they often ran the same core plays: zone and power runs, stretch passing concepts, zero and one-read routes. In the quest to make the modern NFL offense as multiple as possible, 11 personnel allows the Steelers to throw a variety of looks at a defense, making them seem more complicated than they are.
Could the Steelers run these concepts from personnel groups other than 11? Absolutely. But only in certain situations. The stretch passing concept is great out of 10 personnel but without the serious threat of a run game defenses can play pass first, thereby limiting its effectiveness. Conversely, 12 personnel is great at creating an extra run gap. But unless a team has a freak tight end like Rob Gronkowski who can both block like a lineman and get vertical, a stretch-based passing game is limited (the Steelers do have a poor man’s version of Gronk in McDonald, which could be why 22 and 12 were their next favorite personnel groups last season). The bottom line is that no grouping provides the balance and versatility for what the Steelers want to do on offense like 11. They have the personnel to make it work, especially at quarterback. It’s no surprise, then, that they used it on almost 70% of their snaps.
HOW MIGHT THE DEPARTURE OF ANTONIO BROWN AND LE’VEON BELL AFFECT THE DEPLOYMENT OF PERSONNEL IN 2019?
In short, not much. Bell’s departure won’t affect our offensive approach at all since we played without him last year. Brown’s absence may affect some specific issues, like our zero-read plays or how we attack Cover-1. But it shouldn’t deter us from basing out of 11 personnel. In fact, given Roethlisberger’s ability to make full-field reads, it might encourage more plays from 11 if the popular notion that Ben sometimes forced the ball to AB is true. Without having to worry about pacifying Brown, Roethlisberger should be free to take the best option available, thereby maximizing one of 11 personnel’s biggest attributes. If the goal is to use the spread concept passing game to widely distribute the football by exploiting the holes in coverages, 11 personnel is an optimal group.
The key to our continued reliance on 11 personnel, I believe, is the health of Vance McDonald. It’s hard to be reliant upon the 11 grouping without a multi-threat tight end who can block, get vertical and run after the catch. McDonald is one of the better tight ends in the league in that regard. Behind him, however, are Xavier Grimble, whose blocking is a work in progress, and Zach Gentry, who resembles a newborn giraffe as much as a polished NFL tight end. Failing to replace the departed Jesse James, who was a solid second tight end, with a more proven veteran could be problematic if McDonald goes down.
So, although it’s difficult to describe the Steelers offense in a single catchy phrase, it is easy to identify how they want to execute that offense. 11 personnel is their base group and will likely remain so for the coming season. With a host of talented receivers, a stable of versatile running backs, a stud tight end (who needs to stay healthy) and, above all, an elite quarterback, expectations should be high for 2019.