Over the past couple of months, I’ve dedicated much of the space Jeff grants me at BTSC to studying the Steelers offense. I’ve put out a primer on some of the Steelers core offensive concepts , broken down their favorite personnel group, their creative use of Empty formations, how the Steelers attack Cover-1 defenses, and how the Steelers have increased their use of RPOs. Hopefully, this has given us some idea how offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner operated in 2018. Now, it’s time to look forward.
Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, two of the most prolific playmakers and spectacular headaches in franchise history, are gone. So is backup tight end Jesse James. How might the Steelers replace the production that trio offered? What wrinkles might Fichtner add to accommodate the abilities of his new talents, receivers Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson and running back Benny Snell Jr? In short, what might the Steelers 2019 offense look like? Here are some thoughts and suggestions.
One area where Fichtner demonstrated a difference from his predecessor as OC, Todd Haley, was his creative use of formations and play calls. Haley was a fairly traditional coordinator who preferred to operate from conventional structures and to retain control over the play-calling. Fichtner was more willing to use unconventional sets and to allow, through an increased reliance on on-the-ball adjustments, Ben Roethlisberger to have more freedom at the line of scrimmage or as a play unfolded.
Here are two quick examples of his outside-the-box thinking. In the GIF below, we see tight end Vance McDonald split wide like a receiver in order to gain a physical advantage over a smaller cornerback (in this case, the Saints Eli Apple). Watch McDonald create space for a big play by shrugging Apple off of him as Apple attempts to press McDonald at the line of scrimmage:
In addition to traditional alignments as a tight end and H-back, Fichtner lined McDonald up out wide, in the slot, in bunch sets and even in the backfield. McDonald’s blend of size, speed and athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare for defenses. Fichtner would do well to continue to find new ways to deploy the Steelers version of Weapon X (or in this case, Weapon V).
Here’s another one. Trailing 16-13 to the Jags and the ball on the +1 yard line with just :08 remaining, the Steelers line up in a bunch set to the boundary with Antonio Brown wide to the field. With James Conner set away from the bunch, a sweep into the boundary with a backside RPO or a fade to Brown would be typical play calls in this situation. Instead, Fichtner runs a shovel pass, giving Roethlisberger the option to pitch inside to McDonald, who is coming around from his inside alignment in the bunch, or to keep it himself on the edge. Roethlisberger will read the unblocked defensive end (#91, Yannick Ngakoue) for his key. Ngakoue jumps inside to defend McDonald so Big Ben keeps the football and manages to lunge into the end zone. Touchdown and ballgame.
I like this play-call because it is safe and unpredictable. A power run to Conner with the obligatory play-action to the fullback or tight end in the flat would have been sniffed out by everyone in the stadium. It is likely that no one envisioned the cumbersome Roethlisberger attempting to run the football to the edge. With :08 on the clock and a timeout remaining, the Steelers would have been able to stop the clock should the play have failed to reach the end zone. Shovel option was a great call, then, because it gave Roethlisberger the chance to make the defense wrong no matter how they reacted. That’s a smart move with a Hall of Fame signal-caller running the show.
This type of outside-the-box thinking was fairly common last season, especially in the red zone. We saw a variety of quick receiver screens, screen passes to the backs, pick and rub routes and even a fake field goal for a touchdown. The result was a twenty percent improvement in red zone touchdown rate from 2017 to 2018 (53 to 73%), which led the NFL.
One hope I have for the 2019 offense is that Fichtner expands on some of the unconventional ideas that made this offense difficult to defend. Empty formations, myriad bunch sets, RPOs, zero-read throws and receivers aligned in the backfield were staples of Fichtner’s game-plans last season. However he chooses to build on these ideas — reverses, unbalanced sets, two or three running back groupings, etc — should add diversity and multiplicity. Staying creative will surely benefit the offense this coming fall.
POUND THE ROCK MORE
That said, the Steelers still did well when they lined up in old-school power formations and ran the football right at people. 22 personnel was the Steelers second favorite offensive grouping and they did well hammering away at defenses. They were especially effective as a red zone power run team. Conner scored nine touchdowns in 2018 on runs of four yards or less, eight of them from 22 personnel.
The key to the Steelers ability to implement more power run schemes is fullback Rosie Nix. Nix, I believe, is an underrated blocker and key piece of the offense. We see some of his versatility in the GIF below.
In the game last season against Atlanta, the Steelers had scored a first-half touchdown on a 1 yard run from 22 personnel where Conner followed a lead block by Nix right up the gut into the end zone. Now, with Atlanta packed in tightly against the same heavy personnel group, the Steelers attack the edge with a pin-and-pull sweep.
The key to making this play work (other than David DeCastro’s excellent seal block) is Nix’s ability to block linebacker Duke Riley in space. This is a trickier block than it seems. Nix has to get out quickly and put himself in position to block the outer half of Riley’s body without going too wide and letting Riley slip underneath him. He then has to stay on Riley long enough to let Conner turn the corner without holding him. This takes quickness, strength and excellent technique - each of which Nix displays in escorting Conner into the end zone.
Of course, when most people think of Nix they tend to think of blocks like this one:
Or this one:
That’s Nix kicking the edge on a classic Power run against the Browns and administering a dose of shin splints to a Bengals linebacker while filling on a sweep (nice down block by Xavier Grimble on the first one, by the way, for those of you like myself who are worried about him as the #2 tight end). Nix can block with both finesse and power, making him the prototypical fullback for an offense that features a combination of inside and outside runners like the Steelers have in Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell.
Don’t expect the Steelers to morph into a power run team in 2019. They will still base out of 11 personnel and let Roethlisberger throw the football. However, their 67/33% pass-to-run ratio in 2018 represented the widest disparity in the league, so some old-fashioned power run concepts would be a nice way to bring greater balance to the offense. With Jesse James gone and Grimble a question mark as an in-line blocker, it may fall on Nix to put some of the “power” into those power runs.
DEVELOP THE PLAY-ACTION GAME
Every good running attack needs a complementary play-action passing package. The Steelers had a great one in Roethlisberger’s early years when they were a run-based offense behind a smash-mouth line and Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Anyone who remembers the playoff run in ‘05 on the way to the Super Bowl XL title remembers how the Steelers jumped out in front of the Colts and Broncos on the road using effective play-action concepts. Consider:
That’s the second play from scrimmage of the 21-18 win over the Colts (otherwise known as the game where I smashed two tv remotes and nearly suffered a stroke). The Steelers, in a 22 personnel set, fake to Parker and Big Ben drops a dime into the arms of Heath Miller for a huge play. It’s not even a great fake by Roethlisberger but the fact the Indy defense sold out so completely to stop the run allowed Miller to slip behind them.
Fast forward to 2019. Football has changed a great deal since 2005, most notably, as it pertains to play-action, from the perspective that the majority of snaps are now taken from the shotgun. Play-action from the shotgun is simply not as good as it is from under center, predominantly because a quarterback cannot turn his back and hide the football from the defense as convincingly. Still, with the Steelers aiming to commit more to the run in ‘19, and with 22 personnel their second favorite group, and with a tight end in Vance McDonald who stretches the field even better than Miller did, you can envision play-action concepts like the one above becoming a bigger part of the offense.
There’s just one problem with this: Ben Roethlisberger has never been a huge fan of the play-action game. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger attempted the lowest rate of play-action passes (11.9%) of any quarterback in 2017. Since 2012, Roethlisberger’s play-action passer rating was less than a full point higher than his non-play action passer rating. This is unusual considering most quarterbacks have a higher passer rating on play-action throws due to the deception involved. In fact, in 2017, Roethlisberger was one of only four QB’s in the league to post a higher QBR on non-play action throws.
Part of this struggle is likely due to the fact that the Steelers have run the ball less and less in recent seasons. It’s hard to be a big play-action team when the defense is expecting the pass. Part of it, too, has been Roethlisberger’s reliance on full-field reads in the passing game which require him to keep his eyes on the defense in order to read the drops and movements of multiple defenders. On play-action, the quarterback takes his eyes off of the defense while run-faking and generally throws to either a single receiver or reads a single defender to determine where to go with the ball. If you watch the GIF from the ‘05 game again you will notice Miller is the only receiver in the pattern (Parker shows late as an outlet in the flat but this is basically a zero-read throw). The Steelers got away from these types of throws under Haley.
Under Fichtner, Roethlisberger improved in play-action situations last season. His 69.6 play-action completion percentage was tenth best in the league and significantly better than his 2017 numbers (62.5/18th). Fichtner has said he hopes to be more balanced on offense in 2019, and the addition of Snell in the draft would seem to indicate a move in that direction. Play-action, then, is the natural compliment to an increased focus on the run. Without Brown, the Steelers won’t have the luxury of a guy who can simply get open just about any time he desires. They will have to scheme a little harder in the passing game, and play-action is a great way to exploit aggressive defense. Throw in the fact that the Rams and the Patriots, last year’s Super Bowl participants, each ranked in the top four in play-action yards per attempt and overall passer rating (this is a copycat league, after all), and it is my hope we will see more play-action in the offense come September.
SPREAD THE FOOTBALL AROUND
Finally, there is the much-discussed issue of who will replace Antonio Brown’s production. The simple answer is this: as an individual, no one. Collectively, however, it can certainly be done.
The Steelers have actually been transitioning away from an over-reliance on Brown in the passing game since 2016. From 2013-2015, Brown was targeted an average of 181 times a year, second in the NFL over that span to only Julio Jones of Atlanta. From 2016-2018, however, those targets slipped to an average of 161 per year.
The emergence of Juju Smith-Schuster was one of the biggest reasons for the decline. Smith-Schuster was targeted 166 times in 2018, nearly equaling Brown’s 168 for the team lead. Prior to that, only Le’Veon Bell had come within 50 targets of Brown since 2013 (Bell had 46 less targets in 2014). In this regard, the Steelers spread the ball around more in 2018 than they had in the five seasons prior.
They will have even more opportunity to do so this season. This is not an exact science, but for the sake of argument, if we divide up Brown’s 168 targets from 2018, where do they go?
Smith-Schuster will be elevated to the #1 receiving option, but he may not receive many more than the 166 targets he got last year. Two reasons make this plausible. One, 166 is ten-plus targets a game, which is already a significant number. How many more is Juju likely to get? The most Brown received in a season was 193 in 2015. I can’t imagine Juju topping that number. Two, he will likely draw more attention from defenses as teams rotate their coverages towards him. This may actually make it harder to get him the football. Juju’s targets may go up but the increase will likely be minor. Instead, I expect the bulk of Brown’s touches to be distributed among the supporting cast.
Moncrief, the likely #2 receiver, should get his share of looks as a deep ball threat and man-coverage beater, especially if Juju draws significant attention. McDonald should see his 72 targets from last season increase as he takes on a larger role in the offense. James Washington, the 2018 2nd round pick who struggled early in his rookie season but showed progress towards the end, could double the number of targets (38) he received. Slot receivers Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers, provided both make the team, will have an opportunity to improve on their targets (44 and 14, respectively) as well. Rookie Diontae Johnson is a wild card here due to the uncertainty of his development. But should he progress quickly, he might receive 30-40 targets as a fourth or fifth receiving option. Grimble, the backup tight end, will likely absorb James’ 39 targets while Jaylen Samuels should improve on the 29 targets he received as a rookie.
Whatever math is left to balance the numbers can reasonably be expected to be filled in the run game, where Conner (215 carries) and Samuels (56 carries) should see their rushing attempts increase while rookie back Benny Snell should figure into the rotation as well. In short, when you spread the football around among the many options in the Steelers arsenal, it is reasonable to expect them to equal or even surpass Brown’s production.
So, to conclude, what should we hope to see from the offense in 2019? Personally, I’m hoping for a multitude of personnel groups and formations; continued creative game-planning from Randy Fichtner; a bigger role for Vance McDonald; greater balance between the run and pass; an emphasis on the play-action passing game; a varied scheme that utilizes all of the weapons in the offensive arsenal; and as always, a Ben Roethlisberger-centered attack that allows him to get the ball out of his hand quickly, take what defenses are giving him and minimizes situations where he has to force his throws or play “hero ball” and win games on his own. The best way to do the last of these is to minimize the egos in the offense so Ben can do what is best for the team without having to worry about the touches or targets certain players are receiving. With Brown and Bell gone, Roethlisberger should have the freedom to do just that. The result might just be a surprisingly prolific Steeler offense.