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Improved depth at running back and tight end doesn’t really matter for the Steelers

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The Steelers will likely lean heavily on three wide receiver sets again in 2020

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Images

One report I always look forward to every year is Football Outsiders offensive personnel analysis, where they break down usage and effectiveness of different personnel groupings in the previous NFL season.

In 2019 the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t field the offense fans have grown accustomed to, with Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the season, the offense not having Antonio Brown playing a major role for the first season since 2011, as well as both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner missing significant time.

One surprising thing to me was that in spite of the Steelers seeing a clear top three wide receivers on their offense, 2019 was the first time in years that the Steelers ranked worse in effectiveness out of 11 personnel (1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WRs) than from other personnel groupings. While no part of the offense excelled, the Steelers ranked 31st in DVOA from 11 personnel, and 29th in DVOA out of other sets.

When you look at the depth chart and stats, it makes even less sense.

The Steelers had a questionable backfield in 2019. James Conner struggled with injury and production, Jaylen Samuels had a terrible rushing year, and the team ended up using rookie Benny Snell Jr., practice squad running back and special teams player Trey Edmunds, and Kerrith Whyte Jr., whom they signed off another teams practice squad. Considering they lost fullback Roosevelt Nix for almost all of the season, it doesn’t seem like multiple running backs would work better than three wide receiver sets. The tight end depth wasn’t any better, with the Steelers trading for Nick Vannett and using rookie Zach Gentry as the number three tight end when they bothered to have him active on game day, the depth chart offered less certainty than in previous seasons when Jesse James and Xavier Grimble were on the roster.

Compare 2019 to 2016, when the Steelers ranked 4th in effectiveness out of 11 personnel and 8th in effectiveness from other sets. That season the Steelers had Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Roosevelt Nix, while injuries decimated the wide receiver room, leaving the Steelers with Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton for most of the season. It is surprising that Cobi Hamilton replacing Roosevelt Nix or DeAngelo Williams would improve the effectiveness of the offense, but that’s what the stats show.

Similarly in 2018, with Vance McDonald and Jesse James recording impressive yards per target, and Ryan Switzer or James Washington both being far less efficient options, the Steelers ranked 6th in DVOA out of 11 personnel, but 17th in all other personnel sets. The difference in effectiveness was the 5th biggest in the NFL that year.

Lastly, with the NFL having apparently peaked in using 11 personnel at around 60% of plays, the teams who rank as most effective in 11 personnel are the teams which use it less. Most of the teams at the top in DVOA out of 11 personnel the last 4 seasons were in the bottom half of 11 personnel usage. There are a few notable exceptions each season, with the Los Angeles Rams using 11 personnel at a high rate and with a high DVOA in 2017 and 2018, Dallas in 2019, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016, 2017 and 2018, only falling off with Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline.

The conclusion? As long as Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers quarterback, expect the Steelers to use a lot of three wide receiver sets, and be incredibly effective using them, regardless of who is playing the positions.

So while we may get excited seeing a top tight end pairing with Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald, a running back room that is diverse and deep, and Derek Watt joining the team at fullback, the Steelers are likely to continue to line up with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers for more than two thirds of offensive plays, and expect that to be their best formation.

The Football Outsiders articles referenced in this piece:

2016 Offensive personnel analysis
2017 Offensive personnel analysis
2018 Offensive personnel analysis
2019 Offensive personnel analysis