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Revisiting 2018 might reveal how the Steelers will “go big” on offense in 2020

The Pittsburgh Steelers will need an injection of offense in 2020, and a look back at 2018 might be just what the doctor ordered.

NFL: SEP 15 Seahawks at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The recent free agent signings of fullback Derek Watt and tight end Eric Ebron have me brainstorming ideas on how the Steelers might use them in the offense. Last week, I wrote about the various ways in which Ebron will make the Steelers harder to defend. Watt’s role is hazier given the near non-existence of a fullback in the game-plan in recent seasons. It stands to reason, however, that the offensive staff is at least entertaining thoughts of using Watt more than his predecessor, Rosie Nix. Watt is an excellent special teams player but his three year, $9.75 million contract hints at a bigger role.

With Ben Roethlisberger returning, the Steelers will remain a base 11 personnel team on offense, featuring one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. But they will likely use more 12 personnel sets to get Ebron and fellow tight end Vance McDonald on the field together. Ebron and McDonald could be the best tight end duo the Steelers have had since Randy Grossman and Bennie Cunningham. It would stand to reason the staff will look for ways to pair them on the field.

What about Watt? How much 21 personnel will we see with Watt as a traditional fullback? What about 22 personnel with Watt and both tight ends? After a 2019 season that saw injuries at fullback and tight end limit the Steelers to using a one-dimensional “big” package with tackle Zach Banner reporting as a sixth lineman, the team is now in position to employ a variety of such looks with the ability to run and throw from each.

To get a feel for what offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has done with 21 and 22 personnel, I used my quarantine time last week to study the 2018 offense. Why 2018? Because 2019 is probably useless as a gauge for what the Steelers will do with Roethlisberger back. Like Roethlisberger, Nix missed most of 2019 with injuries but he was healthy in 2018, playing in all 16 games. He was on the field for just 110 snaps, however, or roughly 10% of the team’s total offensive plays. He touched the ball just five times (four receptions, one rush). However, one series in the 52-21 drubbing of Carolina that season stands out for the manner in which Fichtner incorporated his “bigs.” I’m not suggesting this one series is a template for what to expect in 2020. But it may provide some insight into how Fichtner intends to use the new pieces the offense has acquired, particularly when he wants to go heavy.

Let’s look at that drive and offer some thoughts on what it might mean for 2020.

The Steelers were off to a hot start, leading 21-7 early in the second quarter, when a Carolina punt pinned them back at their own eight yard line.

To open the drive, they aligned in a jumbo formation with Nix, tight end Xavier Grimble and a sixth lineman joining James Conner and Antonio Brown on the field. They ran a simple zone lead play that Conner wound to the backside and captured the edge. It was a nice job by Conner of making something out of nothing and it got the Steelers out of the shadow of their own end zone. Conceptually, however, it was pretty vanilla stuff:

On the next play, things got interesting.

The Steelers swapped out the extra lineman for a second tight end (#81, Jesse James). They were now in 22 personnel, but rather than line up in a power set with both tight ends attached and Nix in a three-point stance behind Roethlisberger, the Steelers went empty. Yes, you heard that right. An empty set from 22 personnel, ladies and gentlemen, dialed up by one Randall Fichtner. I’ll pause for a moment while you view the photo and get yourself together after having your mind blown.

That’s Grimble split wide to the bottom of the screen, Conner in the right slot and James as the tight end to the trips. To the left of the formation, Antonio Brown is split wide and Nix (yes, Rosie Nix!) is in the tight slot.

Why did Fichtner go empty here? Because he had a great matchup against which to spread the field. Carolina countered Pittsburgh’s 22 grouping with their base 4-3 defense. This put three linebackers in coverage against all of those receivers, a matchup the Steelers jumped at.

Fichtner ran a Y-Stick concept to the Trips side and sent Brown on a post to the weak side. Nix, meanwhile, ran a condensed tunnel screen by pushing out to widen the alley player and then coming back inside, where guard Ramon Foster climbed to kick the alley. It was a nice play design by Fichtner with three options for Roethlisberger: throw the Stick if Carolina did not push their coverage to the trips (they did); throw the post to Brown if it was man coverage (it was not); or throw the tunnel to Nix if the first two looks were no good. Roethlisberger chose this option and it yielded an easy first down:

The Steelers stayed with this personnel group on the following play and ran another zone lead play, with Nix inserting to the weak side. It was a utilitarian call, designed to produce three or four yards, and it would have done just that had Carolina’s nose tackle not split the double team by Foster and center Maurkice Pouncey. The run by Stevan Ridley gained two yards, bringing up 2nd and 8:

(Side note: there’s a reason certain players can’t stay on the field, and we see one from Xavier Grimble right here. Grimble motions across the formation and is supposed to kick out the defender pressing the edge. But he brings his motion too wide, disappearing from the screen, and allows the defender to slip inside of him. Had Ridley cut to the left, Grimble’s defender would have likely made the play. Grimble should have settled down just outside the left tackle where he could maintain inside leverage. This is poor attention to detail, just like it was when Grimble failed to protect the football as he was approaching the goal line in the game at Denver later that season. Mistakes like these can determine the fate of a fringe player. In Grimble’s case, they very well may have).

On 2nd and 8 from their own 36, the Steelers went back to an empty set from their 22 personnel grouping. This time, they put all the big dudes on the right side of the formation, with Nix split wide, Grimble in the slot and James in the tight end spot. On the other side, Brown worked the slot while Conner was split wide:

Carolina stayed in their base cover-2. Having seen the two-high look against the previous empty set, Fichtner dialed up a “Smash” route, which is a traditional cover-2 beater. He sent Grimble and Brown on corner routes (the corner is the toughest area of the field for a cover-2 safety to defend) while Conner and Nix ran hitches (“run” is a bit generous; they pretty much stood at the line to occupy the cornerback so he couldn’t help on the route from the slot). James finished the concept with an OTB (over-the-ball) route to provide spacing:

Roethlisberger wanted to hit Brown here but the alley defender did a nice job forcing him wide on his release. There was not enough room to fit the throw into the boundary. So, seeing the soft pre-snap look on Nix, he checked the ball down to his fullback for a gain of six yards.

It was now 3rd and 2 and the Steelers swapped out of 22 personnel into their base 11 group. They emptied the backfield again, splitting running back Jaylen Samuels wide to the top of the screen with tight end Vance McDonald and three receivers. Carolina showed blitz so Roethlisberger checked at the line to keep McDonald in to protect. The Panthers masked cover-2 and dropped linemen into coverage to disrupt the underneath routes. But with the middle of the field open, Roethlisberger knew exactly where he was going with the football. He threw the post to Brown for a big gain:

The drive effectively ended there when, on the next play, right tackle Matt Feiler got beat for a sack. The offense could not recover, and Chris Boswell came on and hit a 50 yard field goal to push the advantage to 24-7 en route to the lopsided win.

What can we take away from this series and Fichtner’s use of his “big” personnel, and how might it provide a glimpse of what’s ahead? Here are some bullet points:

  • There are several reasons the empty sets from “big” personnel were effective against Carolina. One was the fact that Fichtner’s unusual deployment of this grouping forced the Panthers to play a fairly vanilla look. This benefits Roethlisberger tremendously because, when given an opportunity to get a good pre-snap look at a defense, he is often able to pick it apart. If Fichtner can keep defenses on their heels by deploying his personnel groupings in creative fashion, he can provide the luxury of simplicity for Roethlisberger.
  • In order to be creative in this fashion, Fichtner needs versatile players. For example, the Smash route he called that resulted in the check-down throw to Nix required an athletic “big” who could run a corner route. Fichtner used Grimble to do it in 2018. In 2020, he will have a more capable, more athletic “big” in Ebron to man that role. If you look at the GIFs from the piece I wrote last week, you will see Indianapolis having great success hitting Ebron on corner routes. Ebron covers ground quickly and his combination of size (6’5-250) and leaping ability creates mismatches against safeties on throws to the boundary where Ebron can shield the defender from the football with his body.
  • In that same vein, Watt is a more athletic player and a better receiver than Nix. He is capable of handling a broader range of routes (against Carolina, Nix ran a screen and a hitch where he was essentially standing in place; the route tree doesn’t get more remedial than that). So, if Fichtner wants to expand the empty package with his “bigs,” he can get more creative with how he uses the fullback.
  • With regard to Watt in general, it stands to reason he will see the field, and perhaps the football, more than Nix did. I don’t anticipate Fichtner will use him the way San Francisco employs All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk (1,052 snaps, 61 touches in 28 games the past two seasons). As I said before, the Steelers are likely to remain a base 11 personnel offense. But, given his contract, his durability (Watt has never missed a game in his four-year career) and his position flexibility (Watt can be used as a fullback, H-back and blocking tight end), a larger role for him seems likely.
  • It stands to reason Fichtner will still use some sets with a sixth lineman (likely Zach Banner again). The Steelers used that set fairly often in 2018 as well as 2019, indicating it is a look Fichtner favors. Now, however, he can mix and match personnel with it, putting some combination of McDonald, Ebron and Watt on the field with a running back and a receiver. This opens up the playbook so that the six-lineman look doesn’t automatically suggest a run play, as it did last season.
  • The thing that was most noticeably absent from the package Fichtner ran against Carolina was play-action. We saw four plays out of the big grouping, two of which were zone runs with the fullback as a lead blocker and two that were pocket throws from empty sets. Steelers fans have been clamoring for more play-action in the game-plan for ages, and with McDonald, Ebron and Watt on the field together in the 22 package, the play-action possibilities are limitless.

I’m not holding my breath on it, however. This is just a personal theory and I have no specific knowledge that backs it up, but I’ve long believed the reason the Steelers aren’t a big play-action team with Roethlisberger is because he doesn’t like to turn his back on the defense or take his eyes off of coverage to make the fake. Early in his career, when the Steelers were a run-first team with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker in the backfield, they integrated single-receiver play-action throws where Big Ben faked and then threw a pre-determined route (often to Hines Ward or Heath Miller). Once the Steelers evolved into an 11 personnel team, the play-action was phased out. My guess is because, with three receivers on the field, Roethlisberger preferred to see the coverage so he could diagnose where to go with the football rather than throwing the prescribed routes. Also, with him in the shotgun so often, and with play-action out of the shotgun less effective than when the quarterback is under center, the Steelers just don’t work on it that much.

Maybe this will change with Matt Canada as the new QB coach and with the new weapons the Steelers have on offense. Consider me pleasantly surprised if it does.

Regardless, with Watt and Ebron in the fold, the Steelers have a chance to be far more diverse than they’ve been in recent seasons. One thing to look for as 2020 unfolds is how they’ll deploy their “bigs” together. If the 2018 contest versus Carolina is any indicator, Fichtner and Company should have fun scheming creative ways to get it done.