Back in January, I wrote this piece pining for the Steelers to address their need for athleticism at the tight end position. Because we lacked an in-line player who could stretch the field vertically, the target of my affection was Indianapolis’ Eric Ebron. Ebron, when healthy, is one of the most dangerous tight end receiving threats in the league and would give the Steelers the elusive “move” tight end they’ve desired for years.
Many at the time speculated that Ebron would be too expensive for the Steelers given our salary cap predicament. But, lo and behold, after working his annual fiscal voodoo, GM Kevin Colbert has brought Ebron to Pittsburgh to pair with Vance McDonald in what could be the most dynamic tight end duo the Steelers have enjoyed in ages. This article looks at what Ebron brings to Pittsburgh and how his presence immediately makes the offense more difficult to defend.
Full disclosure: I’ve gotten to know Eric Ebron fairly well the past few years. Many of you know I’m the coach of a high school program. Eric’s trainer, John Porter of Porter Performance, lives in my town and formerly trained our team. Eric works out with us most summers. He is great to our players, encouraging them, joking with them, allowing them to participate in the drills he runs with some of John’s other clients, including Philadelphia center Jason Kelce and defensive lineman Vinny Curry. I like Eric a lot, and I will try not to let that affect my evaluation of him as it pertains to the Steelers.
When we consider the biggest strength Ebron brings to the Pittsburgh offense, it is unquestionably his athleticism. At 6’5-250, he moves tremendously for a man that size. To wit: he was running routes with one of our quarterbacks a few summers ago and was working on 15 yard in-cuts. He told our QB to take a seven-step drop and hit him coming out of the break. By the time our QB got to his seventh step, Ebron was already crossing the field. He caught the ball close to the far hash. Jogging back to the line, he told our QB, “You gotta get that out quicker. You just got me ear-holed by the safety.”
Thinking back on that moment, two things stand out. First, how quickly pro quarterbacks take a seven-step drop. Our high school kid was sleep-walking by comparison. The fact they can get the ball out before a player like Ebron comes out of his break is remarkable. Because, and this is the thing that really caught my attention, Ebron just gobbles up ground as he moves. He is explosive off of the ball and covers yards (plural) with each stride. As an example of his athleticism, Ebron often played wildcat quarterback in high school because he was so good with the ball in his hands. The Colts weren’t opposed to handing him the ball from time to time, either, as we see here:
Steelers fans saw enough of the wildcat last season so I’m not suggesting they put Ebron in the backfield. However, he is a big man who runs a 4.6 40 yard dash and can leap out of the building. The Steelers have not had a tight end with that sort of athleticism in a long time, if ever.
In both Detroit and Indianapolis, this ability to eat ground made Ebron a great vertical threat. The same should be true in Pittsburgh. A popular narrative around BTSC is that Ben Roethlisberger does not like to throw the football to his tight ends. I would counter that, other than Le’Veon Bell, with whom Roethlisberger built good chemistry as an outlet receiver, what Roethlisberger doesn’t like to do is check the ball down and throw the flat and OTB (over-the-ball) routes that comprise the bulk of what so many tight ends execute. Roethlisberger likes to throw the football down the field, and when he isn’t throwing vertically he likes to hit receivers moving laterally with speed. Ebron’s athleticism makes him both a vertical threat and a player who can stretch second-level defenders to open up those lateral routes.
The closest thing Roethlisberger has had to a field-stretching tight end in recent seasons was LaDarius Green, who played in just six games for the Steelers in 2016. Still, Roethlisberger targeted Green nearly six times a game that season for an average of 16.9 yards per catch. It’s a small sample size, but by comparison, current starter Vance McDonald has averaged about four targets per game with Roethlisberger for 13 yards per catch. Jesse James was targeted just three times a game in Pittsburgh and averaged 10 yards per catch. Give Roethlisberger a tight end who can get vertical and chances are he will throw him the football.
Here’s Green in 2016 running a seam route against the Giants. He is lined up off the ball in the right slot. The Steelers are in 12 personnel with an extra lineman on the field and they run a nice play-action concept. Green is physical enough to fight through the jam by two Giants’ linebackers and then athletic enough to run away from them up the field. He splits the cover-2 safeties and Roethlisberger puts the throw on his cage for a big gain:
Now watch Ebron get down the field. You can see the similarities in their stature, although Ebron is the more fluid athlete. Here he is aligned as the tightest receiver in a trips formation. The linebacker stacked over top of Ebron does a poor job getting hands on him, giving Ebron a free release to the safety. Ebron runs a crisp route and Colts’ QB Andrew Luck puts the ball in a nice spot high and away from the defender. It’s no contest at that point. If teams attempt to play Ebron in man coverage, they’d better slow his release at the line or the Steelers will immediately have a mismatch down the field:
The next route showcases Ebron’s ability to run with the football after a catch. This is another corner route, which was Indy’s preferred way of getting Ebron vertical. Once again he gets a clean release at the line, this time from a traditional tight end alignment. The Colts run a simple “Stick” route (corner-hitch-flat) and Jacksonville blows the coverage. Ebron catches the ball with room to run and eludes the free safety before diving into the end zone. Again we see Ebron’s athleticism and how giving him a clean release is dangerous for a defense.
What about teams that want to jam him at the line of scrimmage? There are ways to do that, of course. Bringing a safety deep into the box is one. Or putting a linebacker over top of him. Jamming Ebron, however, slows the ability of underneath zone defenders to drop to their area. In man, it requires a player who is both physical and fast.
Watch New England try to do it here. Ebron is the inside receiver to the trips set at the bottom of the screen. The Patriots put linebacker Donta Hightower in his face and safety Devin McCourty over the top. There aren’t many better duos in the league to disrupt a route than those two. No matter. Ebron powers through Hightower’s jam and beats McCourty to the boundary out of his break. A sharp throw from Luck seals the deal for the touchdown:
Ebron killed the Patriots in that 2018 contest, by the way, with 9 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a matchup problem for even the best defenses.
Those problems are especially evident in the red zone, where Ebron had more touchdowns in 2018 (9) than any tight end in football. Simple jump balls to Ebron are difficult to defend given his size and athleticism. Steelers tight ends have combined for 14 touchdowns the past three seasons while Ebron alone has tallied 20. Ebron’s red zone prowess will be a welcome addition.
Beyond the matchup advantages and field-stretching capabilities Ebron brings, his presence also allows the Steelers to employ more 12 personnel formations that utilize two tight ends. The NFL is a copycat league and the recent success of teams like San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New England, all of whom commonly deploy multiple tight end personnel groups, may have the Steelers thinking that way as well.
As we can see from the diagram below, two tight-end sets like “Ace” create an eighth run gap at the line of scrimmage so that defenses that remain two-high in the secondary have only seven players in the box to defend those eight gaps. When a defense drops a safety down to compensate, they are now vulnerable to four receivers going vertical. In recent years, the Steelers did not have two tight ends who were threats to get down the field out of Ace. With McDonald and Ebron, they now do.
One of the knocks on Ebron is that he’s not a great blocker. From 12 personnel, however, the Steelers would be free to set McDonald on the ball to the run strength while putting Ebron off the ball in the “move” or H-back role. This would pit him against linebackers or safeties rather than interior linemen, creating better blocking matchups. It would also provide him space to free himself from being jammed at the line of scrimmage. By running 12 personnel with Ebron and McDonald, the Steelers can put defenses in a bind like few teams in the league.
Ebron’s presence does a few more things for the offense. Since he and McDonald have both occasionally missed games due to injury, they provide insurance for each other should either miss time. The addition of Derek Watt is instructive in this regard too because, should McDonald go down, Watt can fill the role of blocking tight end while allowing Ebron to continue to operate off the ball. An injury to McDonald won’t require the Steelers to force Ebron into a role for which he is ill-suited. Should Ebron go down, second-year man Zach Gentry may be ready to slide into the “move” role. Gentry is not ready to handle duties as the “strong” tight end but he showed flashes as a rookie of being able to get vertical, where his 6’8 frame is a mismatch unto itself. The depth at tight end, then, should look like this:
Strong TE: McDonald, Watt
Move TE: Ebron, Gentry
Unless the Steelers are completely devastated by injury, they should be well-positioned to run much more 12 personnel than in previous years.
Ebron also lessens the team’s need to spend a high draft pick on a wide receiver. The top three receivers are solid in Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson. The Steelers will still take the bulk of their snaps from 11 personnel with those three on the field. Ebron, however, can slide in nicely as a third or fourth receiver, allowing the team to run 10 or 11 personnel concepts with him on the field. An empty package that puts Ebron, McDonald, Juju, Washington and Johnson together is certainly intriguing. And (bear with me for a second) the addition of an athletic quarterback like, I don’t know, Jalen Hurts would let the Steelers put formations like this on the field that are ridiculously difficult to defend:
I have no idea if the Steelers have any interest in drafting Hurts (it’s certainly intriguing, however). I do know that having Ebron gives us a fourth “receiver,” which means we are free to go best-player-available with our 2nd and 3rd round picks where an offensive lineman, running back, linebacker or even a quarterback might prove more valuable. We may draft a receiver with one of our later picks to compete with guys like Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer for the fourth and fifth roster spots. Ebron is likely the de facto fourth receiver, however, and unless someone we absolutely love is there at 2:49 I would cross receiver off as an option in that spot.
I can’t write this article without addressing some of the criticisms that have come Ebron’s way in his career. Three issues stand out, and all were voiced in the comments about Ebron posted on BTSC the past few days. They are legitimate concerns and worth exploring. The first is that Ebron gets injured. The second is Ebron can’t block. The third is that Ebron drops balls. I’ve already discussed the first two so let’s deal with the last one.
Ebron has a career catch percentage of 62.8 (283 receptions on 450 targets). By comparison, Zach Ertz is at 68% while both George Kittle and Travis Kelce are just over 70%. Ebron is not Ertz, Kittle or Kelce, who are arguably the three best tight ends in the league (Vance McDonald’s catch percentage is 61.7, by the way). Ebron will drop a ball occasionally and every time he does Steelers fans will flood message boards with rants about how he can’t catch. That’s a given, so let’s just accept it. If it comes to define him, or if it effects the chemistry between him and Roethlisberger, then it will indeed be a problem. However, on a surprisingly cheap two-year, $12 million contract, a few dropped passes are worth the potential rewards for how Ebron can open up the offense.
With Ebron and Watt in the fold, and a healthy Roethlisberger set to return, the Steelers offense has evolved greatly from last season’s feckless incarnation (and we haven’t yet gotten to the draft!). The Steelers have tremendous flexibility on offense and can throw a multitude of looks at a defense - from empty sets with big receivers spread across the field to 12, 21 and 22 looks that allow them to attack defenses differently than in recent years. Adding Stefan Wiesnewski to the offensive line provides much-needed depth to that unit as well. The improved passing attack will surely bolster the run game. The Steelers need players to stay healthy but that is true of every team every year. If they do, they seem poised for a bounce-back year on offense.
How big a part of that offense will Eric Ebron be? We shall see. He could be the key ingredient to unlocking its potential. Or, like some of our recent free agent signings, he could disappear and disappoint. I’m banking on the former. Ebron provides an ingredient this offense has been missing for years and I suspect Ben Roethlisberger will relish having him as a weapon.
Hopefully life will return to normal in the near future and he will make his way to South Jersey to train with our players again. When he does, I’ll be sure to pick his brain about his thoughts on becoming a Steeler. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Eric. Everyone else, stay tuned!