It doesn’t take a football expert to know the Steelers offense struggled in 2019. Dealing with a plethora of injuries, the personnel the Steelers had on the field had them limited in some of the things they were able to do. While being able to overcome injuries is part of life in the NFL, sometimes the players available just don’t make it possible to line up in certain formations.
There is one particular personnel grouping I am intrigued by because, if you have the right players on your team, it can become very difficult to defend. I like to collect my “Catch–22” grouping. I affectionately call it this because, if implemented properly, a defense will have trouble defending a given play no matter what defensive set they choose to respond with. But the real reason I like to call it this is because it is 22 personnel, when a team has two running backs, two tight ends, and one wide receiver on the field.
In order to use this grouping to really gain an advantage, the personnel available is of the upmost importance. To show how much difference the personnel makes, in 2019 the Steelers only ran nine offensive plays out of 22 personnel while using the formation 53 times in 2018. Unfortunately, the Steelers just didn’t have the right personnel healthy in order to utilize the grouping effectively.
One obvious missing piece from this formation was full back Roosevelt Nix who only appeared in three games in 2019. Another thing missing was two genuine receiving threats at tight end to have on the field together. But the most important missing piece of all was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who could quickly read the defense and adjust their formation to take advantage.
To give an idea as to why I like this personal grouping so much for the Steelers, here is an example from 2018 where I outlined a specific play against the Cincinnati Bengals. I’ve talked at length about this play for more than a season, but I think it goes to show how the Steelers can use their personnel to take advantage of a defense. By having two tight ends and two running back’s on the field, the Bengals brought in a run-heavy defense. How the Steelers took advantage was by lining up in the shotgun with an empty back field to find a mismatch and gain 22 yards on the play.
When a team can bring in a run-heavy personnel package which also is a good receiving threat, the defense has a decision to make. Are they going to get the proper run support on the field, or are they going to try to take advantage with a good pass defense? Of course, some teams can do both things with their defensive personnel, but not many are in such a good situation.
In 2019, the Steelers liked to bring in a run-heavy personnel package quite often. Unfortunately, they ran almost exclusively out of the formation. And when they did not, they had offensive lineman Zach Banner going out for a pass. Ultimately, this is not the ideal situation to confuse the defense. Even going with a run-stopping defensive package, the passing threat wasn’t enough to take advantage.
In the play I outlined in 2018 against the Bengals, the five position players on the field for the Steelers were:
RB: James Conner
FB: Roosevelt Nix
TE: Jesse James
TE: Xavier Grimble
WR: Antonio Brown
With this personal group, the defense countered to stop the run. But with all the Steelers’ options being capable receivers, they took advantage via the pass. Should a team respond to this formation to defend the pass, then the simple solution is to pull the running backs into the backfield and run the football.
Now imagine using this formation for the Steelers in 2020. Let’s look at this particular lineup even though some players could be exchanged:
RB: James Conner
FB: Derek Watt
TE: Vance McDonald
TE: Eric Ebron
WR: Chase Claypool
The first thing to note is the only player who is the same is James Conner. I’m not sold he is the best player to be in this formation, but it is unclear exactly how the Steelers will implement players such as Jaylen Samuels or Anthony McFarland Jr in 2020. So, for now, I stuck with Conner.
Additionally, I decided to go with Chase Claypool as a wide receiver. With his size and willingness to block, there is a potential for him to almost act as an additional tight end on the field. But at the same time, his ability as a wide receiver cannot be overlooked.
So if you were an NFL defensive coordinator, how would you respond seeing this personnel group on the field? Do you line up with a heavy package to stop the run, do you put extra defensive backs to stop the pass, or do you hope to match it with your base defense?
If a team goes with your base defense, Ben Roethlisberger could make the decision either way as to whether or not to set up to run or pass. But based on the other answers, you simply just run your offense to do the opposite of what the other team is preparing for.
Some may point out that Eric Ebron is not known for his blocking as a tight end, which I understand. But imagine putting Ebron on the end of the line of scrimmage with Claypool lined up as a wing or “H-back.” I would hope between the two of them they could secure the edge. Of course, Claypool is just a rookie and we have yet to see how his blocking will translate to the NFL. If it doesn’t, simply substitute JuJu Smith-Schuster or James Washington into this position as they have booths shown they are willing to stick their nose into someone’s chest to deliver a block.
It’s difficult to say if the Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner will implement this personnel package in 2020. He seemed to like it in 2018, so if the Steelers have the right players I don’t see why they wouldn’t use it at all. Just imagining what the Steelers could do with these particular players on the field together, it helps to realize how much the team weas lacking in 2019. With Ben Roethlisberger making the decision and executing the play, and these particular players able to do multiple things, I have to believe these sort of personnel groupings would bring a smile to any offense of coordinators face as the creative juices begin to flow.