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Two elements worth retaining from the Steelers underwhelming 2019 offense

As bad as the Steleres’ offense was last season, there are a couple things worth recycling in 2020

NFL: DEC 22 Steelers at Jets Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Steelers 2019 offense was bad. How bad? They finished last in the league in DVOA, 31st in points per drive, 30th in yards per drive and first in expletives directed at television screens. Captain Kurtz summarized things best with his dying words in Heart of Darkness:

“The horror… The horror…”

Of course, Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury was the boogeyman in that particular nightmare. To help young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner vastly simplified the playbook. Fichtner tried to protect the inexperienced duo by minimizing risk and limiting what he asked them to do. The result was about as exotic as chicken soup.

There will be no need to dumb things down with Roethlisberger returning to action this season. The playbook will be wide open. However, just because Roethlisberger is back doesn’t mean everything Fichtner did last season should be discarded. Core concepts like the run schemes and pass protections will remain, while some of the things Fichtner improvised are worth retaining, too. Here are two such ideas I’d like to see him bring back, in re-imagined form:

The Jumbo Package

The NFL is all about matchups. How can I get my best guys matched up against your worst guys? Or, in this instance, protect my inexperienced quarterback by creating undefended run gaps to exploit? The coaching staff that does the better job dictating and ultimately deciding these matchups often finds itself victorious.

The Steelers attempted to do this last season with their Jumbo package. This consisted of an eight-man line involving extra tackle Zach Banner and two tight ends joining the five interior linemen. By using this grouping, the Steelers created two extra run gaps to help pound the football and ease the burden on Rudolph and Hodges.

One of their favorite Jumbo sets looked like this, with Banner to the bottom of the formation and both tight ends side-by-side at the top:

The problem was, defenses nullified the gap advantage by crowding the line of scrimmage. Here, with Banner ineligible, Buffalo was able to bring their left corner to within six yards of the football, giving the Bills a nine-on-eight disparity in the box. Without a credible passing game, teams were unafraid of playing single coverage on the Steelers’ receivers and all but ignored the tight ends, allowing them to load up against the run.

On this play, the Steelers had three eligible receivers accounted for by two Bills’ defenders. With all three linebackers tucked inside the tackle box, it seemed perfect for a simple play-action concept that put the strong backer (circled below) in a bind. Given he had to account for the C/D gaps in the run game and cover the flat in the passing game, there was little chance he could help on the route concept diagrammed below. Why didn’t the Steelers take advantage?

The short answer is, their young QBs were simply not capable.

Watch this play-action example from the same game. The Steelers were again in the Jumbo package, with McDonald to the right of the screen and Vannett to the left. Johnny Holton aligned as a wing, creating a nine-man surface. They faked an inside zone run to the right and Duck Hodges booted away. Look at the development of the routes:

See it? Vannett is wide open crossing the middle of the field. Unfortunately, as I detailed here, neither Hodges nor Rudolph were effective reading between the hashes. So, rather than square up and hit Vannett on the cross for a nice gain, Hodges rushed the ball out of his hand to Holton, who had come underneath the formation into the opposite flat. The play gained one yard.

Rather than run play-action, where a sack, an interception or a poor read could prove fatal, the Steelers resorted to running the ball into loaded boxes from the Jumbo package instead. The results often looked like this:

The 2020 squad is far better positioned to take advantage of heavy groupings like Jumbo, especially in the passing game. Roethlisberger has never been a great play-action quarterback but he’s not a poor one, either. He was best at it when he had a vertical tight end threat, like young Heath Miller. Anyone remember the 2005 playoffs?

Roethlisberger has that player again in Eric Ebron. Indianapolis didn’t use many heavy personnel sets with Ebron on the field but they did like to play-action and RPO to him. You can see in the GIF below what a big target he is up the seam and how, with linebackers keying the run, he could be effective there:

A Jumbo grouping with Ebron, McDonald and second-round draft pick Chase Claypool together would offer three receivers 6’4 or better to attack a defense. Ebron won’t be much of an asset as a point-of-attack run blocker but he is capable enough to seal the back-side. McDonald can handle play-side blocking assignments and is a solid receiver. Claypool, who we see in the GIF below lined up outside in a heavy package at Notre Dame, is a huge target who would allow Roethlisberger to throw over linebackers who even subtly attack a run fake:

The Steelers won’t need to morph into the 49ers as a run team to make Jumbo effective. Rather, they would simply have to run well enough to keep defenses honest. The goal of using Jumbo with this group wouldn’t be to pound the football but to throw it when teams load the box to stop the run. I wouldn’t expect them to use Jumbo much with Roethlisberger back, but it could be a nice way to open up their big targets in the passing game.

Isolate Diontae Johnson

Johnson’s role in the offense grew by leaps and bounds as the 2019 season progressed. Increasingly, the Steelers found ways to isolate him by aligning him as the X (on-the-ball) receiver. Despite having several candidates to man the X, most notably Claypool and James Washington, the Steelers should continue to find ways to use Johnson in this role.

Johnson’s rise as a rookie was a great example of a young player seizing an opportunity and making the most of it. In the first two games of 2019, he was a sub-package player, entering the game primarily in four-receiver sets while Washington, Juju Smith-Schuster and Donte Moncrief occupied the starting roles in the base 11 personnel grouping. Johnson was involved in just 50 snaps those first two games, or about 40% of the team’s total.

Moncrief was benched after his debacle in the second game against Seattle, however, and Johnson assumed the bulk of his reps. Through the final fourteen games, Johnson played 602 snaps, which equated to about 70% of the total. He was targeted 83 times and caught 55 passes for five touchdowns, all tops on the team over that span.

As the season progressed, Fichtner discovered Johnson’s strengths and put him in positions to maximize them. One route early on, in the game at San Francisco, revealed Johnson’s rapid progress.

In the GIF below, Johnson, aligned off the ball to the bottom of the screen, ran a speed out while Washington, stacked inside of him, ran a corner. Johnson recognized cornerback Richard Sherman squatting in the flat, indicating cover-2. Rather than burst out of his break, which would have taken Johnson directly into Sherman’s path, he slowed up and anticipated a throw at the numbers. Rudolph didn’t see Sherman, however, and led Johnson to the sideline, where Sherman nearly turned the throw into a pick-six.

Johnson likely got some flak from fans watching the game who wanted him to “go full speed” or “finish the route.” In reality, Johnson’s sight adjustment on this play was excellent. Rudolph should have seen it too and thrown inside of Sherman (or, better yet, thrown the corner route to Washington, who had outside leverage against the safety to the boundary).

A player who excels in coverage-recognition and who has the quickness in space that Johnson does seems like an ideal candidate to play in the slot. Johnson, however, proved more effective on the outside, where, while not the deep threat presented by Washington or, hopefully, Claypool, his crisp route-running made him difficult to cover especially in one-on-one situations.

Isolating Johnson as the X-receiver on the back side of 3x1 formations is a great way to create these opportunities. Watch him here against one of the best coverage players in the league, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals brought their weak-side backer on a stunt, voiding the alley, so Peterson jumped inside of Johnson to take away the quick slant. Peterson tried to play in a trail position since he had safety help over the top. But Johnson smartly pressed his route to the top of the numbers, which bought him real estate towards the sideline. He took a hard step to the post at the 29 yard line, forcing Peterson to step inside. The moment he did, Johnson snapped off his route and broke to the boundary. Despite a poor throw from Hodges that missed inside, Johnson created enough separation to corkscrew his body and catch the football.

It’s a beautiful route, executed with the craftsmanship of a seasoned veteran.

Here’s another from the game against the Rams. Johnson, isolated to the top of the screen, ran a 15-yard in against press man coverage. The Rams disguised their scheme with a late bail from the safety, which was the perfect way to foil an in-breaking route. Johnson, however, had enough field awareness to see the safety as he came out of his cut. Rather than continue to the middle of the field and into the safety, he whipped back to the boundary. Rudolph got good protection and was able to stay with Johnson through the adjustment. He hit him with a nice throw and Johnson made another ten yards after the catch for a big gain.

It’s not uncommon for a young receiver to miss this adjustment. Many players would be so focused on beating the corner that they would come out of the break with their head down or looking immediately toward the quarterback. It takes tremendous field awareness to locate the safety out of the break and adjust on the fly. I would imagine this play drew Johnson rave reviews in the film room.

The conventional wisdom has it that one of the other receivers in the rotation will command most of the reps at the X position while Johnson will play to the multiple receiver side of the formation at the Z. The X receiver aligns on the ball and cannot be motioned to free him at the snap. He must be able to separate from physical corners and beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Johnson is not as big as Juju or Claypool nor is he is as powerful as Washington, but he is the best route-runner of the group, possesses the best instincts for recognizing coverages, and has a degree of elusiveness the others lack. He may not look like a prototypical X receiver, but the film from last season suggests Johnson is very difficult to cover one-on-one (even, as we’ve seen here, with safety help over the top). Although Claypool and Washington are the anticipated X receivers, the Steelers would be wise to find ways to align Johnson there, too.

The Steelers’ 2020 offense should bear little resemblance to its 2019 counterpart. Still, in the course of a challenging 2019, Randy Fichtner experimented with some concepts which could be valuable going forward. A Jumbo package that threatens to run but aims to pass and a determined effort to single Diontae Johnson up in coverage are the best of those concepts. The Steelers should find a place for them in the offense this fall.