I came across a tweet the other day that intrigued me. According to Warren Sharp of @SharpFootball, the five teams who used the most pre-snap movement on passing plays last season were five of the best teams in the NFL:
Naturally, I wanted to know where the Steelers fell. The answer? Middle of the pack. The Steelers came in just below the league average of 35% for use of motion on pass plays. Charting motion is a relatively new statistic, but the Steelers typically do not use it much when they throw the football. Despite the fact they have enjoyed success in recent seasons (they’ve gone 62-33-1 since 2014), a question worth exploring is whether they could be even better with more pre-snap movement, particularly in the passing game. This question is the focus of this article.
The pros and cons of pre-snap movement
The arguments for and against using motion in general, but specifically in the passing game, are compelling. Peyton Manning famously did not like pre-snap movement because it displaced a defense in ways he could not predict. Manning preferred a static alignment which provided him a clearer picture of the coverage. Ben Roethlisberger seems to be in this camp as well, as evidenced by how often he allows a play clock to tick down to its last second, getting the longest possible look he can at a defense, before snapping the football. This strategy is feasible when an offense shifts a player from one spot to another, but, due to the timing involved, is much harder with continuous motion.
The counter to the no-motion argument goes as follows: In this age of post-snap rotations and coverage disguises, it’s too hard to determine what a defense is playing without a little help. As I highlighted in this piece, defenses have become expert at masking their schemes. Pre-snap motion, then, forces a defense to show its hand by requiring it to move from its base structure to compensate for the realignment of the player in motion. A shift or motion can help a quarterback determine man or zone coverage or discern what specific zone a defense is using. The effects of that information are distinct: according to ESPN, pass plays in 2019 with a man in motion at the snap yielded 0.08 expected points per play more than those from a static formation. While 0.08 may not seem like a big number, as ESPN notes, it equates roughly to the difference between the Chiefs scoring output (28.2 ppg) and the Raiders output (19.6) over the course of a full season.
Steelers pre-snap movement in the passing game
To study the Steelers’ motion tendencies, I’ve looked at the last three complete games in which Roethlisberger played: the final two contests of 2018 against New Orleans and the Cincinnati Bengals and the 2019 opener at the New England Patriots. It’s not a particularly large sample, but it’s enough to provide a general idea of how the Steelers employ pre-snap movement in the passing game. Here’s a look at each of those contests.
With motion: 4-6, 85 yards, 14.3 YPA
No motion: 29-44, 295 yards, 6.3 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks
The Steelers faced a tall task on the road at New Orleans, made taller by the absence of James Conner who missed the game with a shoulder injury. To compensate, they used the short pass as a de facto rushing attack. Of Roethlisberger’s 33 completions, 18 went for 10 yards or less.
This partially explained the absence of pre-snap motion in the passing game. The Steelers ran twelve screens that day to backs or receivers. Twelve! There was no need to displace the defense or probe for coverage on these plays since the ball was not being thrown down the field.
The other explanation is New Orleans was in zone coverage for most of the game. The Steelers used an array of empty sets which kept the Saints’ defense fairly vanilla and gave Roethlisberger a good look at how they were configured. Out of empty, and with no motion, New Orleans had a hard time masking coverage. With five receivers spread across the field, there were too many voided areas in which Roethlisberger could throw for the Saints to try to roll and move their secondary pieces. Instead, they opted to play their safeties deep, keep the Steelers’ receivers in front of them, and give up short throws.
When the Steelers did move, it was generally a yo-yo type motion designed to determine whether New Orleans was in man or zone coverage. Here’s an example:
On the Steelers’ first offensive snap, New Orleans aligned with a single high safety. This could have been cover-1 man or cover-3 zone. To find out, JuJu Smith-Schuster motioned into the formation and back. No one followed him. The lack of a reaction told Roethlisberger it was cover-3. He threw the slant to JuJu off of a slant-flat combo, which is a common cover-3 beater.
The pre-snap movement numbers (4-6, 85 yards) look better than perhaps they were because of a 49 yard completion to Vance McDonald off of an extended play where Roethlisberger bought time in the pocket and McDonald shook free of coverage. Realistically, the Steelers use of pre-snap movement at New Orleans had little impact on the game. Their static sets, especially the use of Empty, provided Roethlisberger a clean picture of the coverage. It resulted in one of his best games of the season.
With motion: 12-12, 125 yards, 10.4 YPA, 1 TD
No motion: 19-33, 162 yards, 4.8 YPA, 1 INT, 1 sack
The motion numbers in the final game of 2018 against the Bengals were eye-popping. When the Steelers used pre-snap movement on pass plays, they were an astounding 12-12 for 125 yards and a touchdown. As with the game at New Orleans, they used no continuous motion. All of it involved a player shifting and re-setting or yo-yoing back and forth. As we see below, the Steelers were effective using this shorter, more deliberate movement.
This is an RPO (run-pass option). The offensive line run-blocked an inside zone play while the receivers to the top of the screen ran double slants. At the bottom of the screen, James Washington executed the yo-yo motion, coming into the formation and then returning, before running a speed out into the boundary.
No defender followed Washington inside on his motion, which told Roethlisberger it was zone coverage. The Steelers had run the same play earlier with Roethlisberger handing the ball off. He had likely seen the late rotation by the safety and knew the corner would play soft as a result. Therefore, the speed out to Washington was a safe throw. Roethlisberger took it for an easy seven yards.
Here’s another one. On this play, the yo-yo (often called “return”) motion was executed by Eli Rogers. This time the slot corner moved with Rogers, indicating man coverage. The Steelers ran Mesh, one of their favorite route concepts, which includes a zone beater (the deep in) and a man-beater (the crossers meshing in the middle of the field). Roethlisberger used the information he got from the return motion to select the man-beater and dumped the ball to Rogers for a short gain.
The Steelers were clearly effective using these types of motions to help identify coverage against New Orleans and, especially, Cincinnati. They went a combined 16-18 for 210 yards and a touchdown with an average of 11.6 yards per attempt when throwing off of pre-snap movement. Given that success, I’m curious if they planned to incorporate more into the game-plan for 2019.
With motion: 12-15, 117 yards, 1 sack, 7.3 YPA
No motion: 15-32, 159 yards, 1 INT, 5.0 YPA
Unfortunately, we never really got to find out. The 2019 season consisted of six unimpressive quarters for the Roethlisberger-led offense, including the opening night debacle at New England. The Steelers changed little in terms of their offensive philosophy between the final two games of 2018 and the 2019 opener. They still operated largely out of open sets, many involving empty backfields, and allowed Roethlisberger to drain the play-clock as he diagnosed coverage. Their receivers struggled to separate from New England’s aggressive man scheme. Roethlisberger was not particularly sharp. It was a rough night.
The Steelers did, however, use pre-snap motion on 16 of 48 pass attempts that evening, which was a larger percentage (33%) than they used against New Orleans (11%) and Cincinnati (26%). As we see below, the motions were the same—return motion, shifting players from one spot to another, nothing continuous—and again they were effective (12-15, 117 yards).
Was the increase in pre-snap movement a specific game adjustment or a sign of things to come? It’s difficult to know for sure, given how the rest of the season transpired.
Summary and Conclusions
Including sacks, the Steelers threw the ball 147 times in the three contests examined here. They used some form of pre-snap movement on 34 of those snaps (23.1%). Here are the results:
Attempts with pre-snap motion: 28-33, 327 yards, 1 TD, 1 sack, 9.6 YPA.
Attempts without pre-snap motion: 63-109, 616 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 4 sacks, 5.5 YPA.
Collectively, the numbers are informative. Roethlisberger’s completion percentage on throws using pre-snap movement was a remarkable 85%. With no movement, it dropped to 58%. Obviously, the bits of information he acquired as a result of the motion, whether it revealed coverage, a blitz, or which receiver would be open, were valuable.
Although the Steelers used their static sets, particularly Empty, effectively against the zone coverage employed by New Orleans, they did not have as much success with them against Cincinnati and New England. The Patriots, especially, were too good for the Steelers to simply get set and have Roethlisberger attempt to pick them apart. New England looked far too comfortable on defense when the Steelers did nothing creative before the snap. An approach which incorporated more motion and deception to displace the Patriots from their base structures would have been beneficial.
I do not believe the Steelers will morph into the Chiefs or Ravens, whose shifts and motions are quite different than what we see in Pittsburgh:
Both teams will move any player from any position on the field, and both prefer continuous motion which features movement at the snap. The Ravens, in particular, like snapping the ball with the motion man close to the center, as we see above. With all of their ball-faking and play-action, this further muddies the reads for defenders.
I doubt we will see much of this from the Steelers. Still, I’m curious why they increased their use of motion against New England in the 2019 opener. Possibly, it was because the Patriots mask their coverages well. Perhaps Roethlisberger wanted help identifying their schemes. Or, possibly, it’s because this is the direction in which the offense was moving in general. Once Roethlisberger went down, their 33% pre-snap movement rate on pass plays became the norm with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at the helm. The higher percentage made sense with the young guys, given how pre-snap movement can be a cheat-sheet of sorts for a quarterback. But it also makes me wonder if they would have proceeded in this direction had Roethlisberger stayed healthy and, given the success he was having with it, what the results may have been.
The hiring of motion guru Matt Canada adds further intrigue as to what the offense might look like this fall. Roethlisberger may not be comfortable with any sort of drastic change or anything which complicates his reads, but he should be open to ideas that make the offense more effective. An increase in pre-snap movement is one such idea. The numbers suggest it’s a good one.
If the Steelers are creative and can get everyone on the same page, they can find a balance between Canada’s designs, Roethlisberger’s desire for simplicity, and however Fichtner sees the offense evolving. Increased pre-snap movement should make the 2020 unit more difficult to defend. I, for one, would welcome the adjustment.