Among the many exciting developments of the Steelers’ 5-0 start this season has been the evolution of the offense. While Ben Roethlisberger’s return and the addition of dynamic rookie Chase Claypool have largely dominated the conversation, assistant coach Matt Canada has had an impact as well. If you’ve felt the offense has looked different in 2020 than in previous years, you’re not alone. Canada’s imprint has been all over it, most notably in its use of pre-snap motion.
After years of ranking in the bottom half of the league in terms of pre-snap movement, the Steelers were sixth heading into last week’s game against Cleveland. I watched every snap of their offense against the Browns and their previous opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. Unofficially, I counted 22 variations of such movements involving wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Some were simple “yo-yo” actions where a receiver motioned into the formation and then went back out to where he started. Others were far more exotic, involving multiple players moving in myriad ways.
The movement which has attracted the most attention so far this season is jet motion. The Steelers have implemented jet in a variety of ways, using it as both a decoy to distract defenders and as a means of getting the football quickly to the perimeter. Canada, who earned a reputation as a motion guru while a college offensive coordinator, is largely responsible for its inclusion in the game-plan. He used it everywhere he went, from his power-run offense at Wisconsin to his read-option scheme at Northern Illinois to his multiple pro and spread offense at Pitt. Why, though? What advantage does it create? And why has it been so effective? This article looks at the jet scheme and how the Steelers have utilized it in 2020.
Jet motion is all the rage in the NFL these days. Filtering up from the lower levels of football, it involves a back or receiver moving parallel to the line of scrimmage at full speed with the ball being snapped prior to him crossing the center. The jet man can serve as a runner or as a decoy. Either way, the speed at which he moves stresses a defense by making them think and react quickly.
Below, we see the Steelers in their game two weeks ago against Philadelphia in a 3x1 set to the boundary. The Eagles are in an “Over” front with their defensive tackles kicked to the trips. This gives Pittsburgh an open B-gap to the field they can attack with some sort of inside run:
A simple way to attack the bubble in Philly’s Over front is with a zone or counter run to the weak side. The Steelers do just that, calling inside zone. Running back James Conner will hit the hole to the right of center and, if there is no seam to attack, will immediately bend the run backside and attack the open B-gap.
To make things more difficult on the defense, the Steelers run jet motion with Chase Claypool, whose alignment at the top of the trips formation is indicated by the arrow in the photo. Claypool’s motion accomplishes two things: first, it gets Philly’s secondary players scrambling away from the motion to re-align to a potentially balanced (2x2) formation. This displaces them from their run fits and puts them in bad position to square up on Conner should they be forced to make a tackle. Second, Claypool’s motion delays the ability of the edge defender to the side of the jet, defensive end Josh Sweat, to close on the play. This gives tight end Vance McDonald just enough time to cross the formation and kick him out. Conner tucks inside of McDonald’s block and hits the hole with his shoulders square, ripping off 26 yards before he’s tackled.
Here’s another, this time using Ray Ray McCloud as the jet man. This is a counter play away from the jet where the backside tackle pulls and kicks the play-side edge. The motion serves to disguise the tackle so the defense can’t immediately read his pull and react to it. In this case, the jet serves its purpose, as Cleveland’s linebackers are largely immobilized by the split flow it creates. The counter is a good call to pair with jet because, as you can see, Cleveland’s front is slanting to the motion, making it easier for the Steelers to wash down their interior linemen:
Here’s one more. This is an end zone view of a counter-gap play the Steelers ran off of jet motion in week three against Houston. Look at the chaos the jet action creates. With the jet receiver and most of the interior linemen moving one way and the running back, left guard and tight end moving the other, it is nearly impossible for Houston’s linebackers to get a quick read on the play. Meanwhile, the corner chasing the jet nearly collides with the safety pursuing James Conner, the actual ball-carrier. Conner bounced this play wide and gained eight yards:
The Steelers have used long jet motions from detached receivers to manipulate defenses and open up their tailback run game. They’ve also used short jet motions from condensed formations, primarily as a way to feature Claypool on the jet sweep play.
Against Cleveland on Sunday, the Steelers ran the following late in the third quarter. Claypool, from a tightly-packed double wing set, ran a quick jet motion as a decoy for a dive play to Benny Snell Jr. on a 3rd down near the goal line:
Cleveland did not flow aggressively to the jet and, rather than slide their front with it to create outside leverage, they adjusted by having corner Denzel Ward (21) run with Claypool across the formation. With no hard edge to the corner, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner dialed up the jet sweep to Claypool two plays later. Claypool got a nice block from Jaylen Samuels on the left wing and used his size and speed to power into the end zone:
Watch Ward try to navigate the linebackers as he chases Claypool. He goes under the first, over the second and then has to avoid safety Sheldrick Redwine (29), who is being manhandled by tight end Eric Ebron (85). It’s impossible for Ward to get to Claypool in time given all of the clutter he must avoid.
Claypool scored on the exact same play one week earlier against Philadelphia, from nearly the same spot on the field, with Ebron and running back Trey Edmunds providing the key blocks. Philly (unsuccessfully) attempted to defend the play just as Cleveland did, with a corner chasing Claypool across the formation:
The quick jet sweep from a condensed formation is a Canada-inspired concept. As evidence, check out this play from 2016 when Canada ran the college offense in Pittsburgh with the Panthers:
Same set, same motion, only now he has a far superior athlete in Claypool with whom to run the football. Having Claypool is a luxury. The real brilliance of the play is the formation, which compacts the defense and creates a wealth of green grass to the edge. Even Pitt’s plodding tight end had enough space to turn the corner on this play. Against an athlete like Claypool, it’s almost impossible to defend.
The dive and the sweep compliment each other nicely. Additionally, the suddenness of the jet motion and the way it forces defenses to react seem perfect for sneaking a tight end or wing to the back of the end zone off of a run fake. Perhaps we’ll see a play-action pass wrinkle in the near future from this package.
Speaking of, while these motions have been beneficial in the run game, they have not been utilized very often in the Steelers’ passing attack. This is likely because Roethlisberger does not like the chaos created by the pre-snap movement. Prior to this season, Roethlisberger was fond of letting the play clock tick down to its final second so he could diagnose any late rotations by the defense. Jet motions create unpredictable reactions — it’s hard to know exactly how a defense will shift in response — which can make reading coverage difficult. Adding a passing package to the jet run game will be important going forward, however, because without one defenses will eventually learn to key the run whenever they see jet motion.
The jet scheme is still a work in progress in Pittsburgh. Jet motions take practice to perfect since the timing of the snap must be precise in order to achieve the desired effect. The Steelers haven’t always been crisp in this regard. There have been a few examples of them snapping the ball early and not allowing the jet man to clear the mesh between the quarterback and running back, resulting in a muddle in the backfield.
However, by manipulating the edge, slowing the flow of the linebackers or simply creating confusion for the defense, the Steelers have generally used pre-snap motions, especially the jet scheme, to effectively protect their run game. The proof is in the pudding: Pittsburgh currently ranks eighth in the league at nearly 137 rushing yards per game. With a plethora of talent at the skill positions and a creative motion guru like Matt Canada in the house, odds are they will only get better moving forward.