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An infusion of talent should make the Steelers a better red zone offense in 2020

After 2018, it was tough for the Steelers red zone offense to get any better. After 2019, it’s tough for them to get any worse.

Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Opening weekend in the NFL is just one month away, but with no preseason games to analyze and limited access to training camp information, it’s difficult to write about on-field developments with the Steelers.

We can, however, play the speculation game. Last week, I examined why the Steelers’ red zone defense was so effective in 2019. This week, I’m offering ideas on what we might expect from the red zone offense in 2020.

The Steelers’ have ridden the metaphorical see-saw when it’s come to red zone offense the past two seasons. In 2018, they finished first in the league in red zone touchdown percentage at an impressive 73.5%. Last year, with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined most of the season, they plummeted to 32nd with a dreadful 35% rate. That’s the rare and ignominious “first-to-worst” achievement. The Steelers must reclaim, to some degree, their 2018 form if they expect to make a playoff run in 2020.

With Roethlisberger returning to the lineup, improvement in the red zone is virtually guaranteed. However, the Steelers’ league-leading 2018 red zone offense also featured Antonio Brown, whose six red zone touchdowns tripled the combined total (2) of James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson last season. Brown’s production must be replaced for the team to become a potent red zone offense again.

How can the Steelers do so? Here are some likely ways.

Vertical Stretches

One element sorely lacking from the offense last year was a vertical red zone threat. Tight end Vance McDonald led the team with three red zone touchdown receptions, only one of which—a three-yard catch—came on a “vertical” concept.

Vertical routes are difficult to execute in the red zone. With a reduced amount of field, coverage tightens and the windows in which to throw get smaller. Vertical routes in this area are almost always defended one-on-one, especially outside the hashes as safeties do not have the room to align deeply enough to provide help. A receiver who can win these one-on-one matchups, like Brown often did, is extremely valuable.

While quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were not particularly adept at making these types of throws last season, they lacked a target who excelled in this area. The Steelers look to have remedied that problem by acquiring two promising vertical red zone threats. The first is tight end Eric Ebron, whose 6’5” 250-pound frame and excellent leaping ability has already made him a Pro Bowler. Ebron led the league with eleven red zone touchdown receptions in 2018 and is a problem against both press and off-man coverage.

Here’s Ebron attacking off-man while with the Colts in a 2018 game against New England. Ebron, aligned along the left hash, gobbles up real estate with his long strides and is big enough to simply shield defenders from the football. New England’s Devin McCourty cannot make up the ground between he and the tight end once Ebron pushes outside off of his vertical stem. Ebron’s stride and body positioning are too great for McCourty to recover, creating a relatively simple throw for quarterback Andrew Luck.

When teams choose to press Ebron, they run the risk of having him out-jump or out-muscle their smaller defenders to the football. In the photo below, Ebron is matched against Washington safety Montae Nicholson (circled), who attempts to disrupt the timing of a quick outside throw by jamming him at the snap.

Nicholson does an excellent job of getting both hands into Ebron’s chest and shoving him backwards off of the ball. But Ebron recovers, fights to get vertical and maintains enough real estate to the boundary to allow Luck to throw him open. It’s a nice throw and a great adjustment to the ball by Ebron. Despite the solid coverage, the Colts score six.

Ebron isn’t the only new vertical threat the offense has acquired. Top draft pick Chase Claypool, all 6’4” 238 pounds of him, is a red zone mismatch as well. Claypool is not a quick-twitch player but his size and ball skills make him a threat to the post or on fades and back-shoulder throws. It will take strong, aggressive corners to deny him in these situations.

Take this play from Notre Dame’s game at Georgia last season. This is solid press technique from the corner guarding Claypool at the top of the formation. It’s not enough to defend the back-shoulder throw, however.

A more careful examination of the play shows just how difficult Claypool is to cover. The corner gets a nice jam and tries to ride Claypool into the boundary. In an effort to defend the fade, however, he stays a bit too high, failing to attach himself to Claypool’s inside hip. Claypool seizes on this slight mistake and uses his size and strength to shrug the corner off and create separation, allowing him to work back to the football. It’s not a great throw (the quarterback misses slightly inside rather than taking Claypool towards the pylon), but Claypool is too big and strong for the defender to knock the ball away.

Although Claypool missed important training time due to the COVID restrictions, he has drawn praise from receivers’ coach Ike Hilliard. Claypool seems bound for plenty of action in 2020, with red zone offense a likely starting point. A red zone package that includes both Claypool and Ebron seems certain, giving Roethlisberger two big candidates to replace the vertical threat previously posed by Brown.

Horizontal Stretches

The possibility of throwing down the seam or to the post in the red zone should, if nothing else, discourage opposing safeties from squatting on crossing routes. This in turn should open up the more commonly-executed horizontal passing game, where players like Johnson and Smith-Schuster can flourish.

Teams like horizontal routes in the red zone because, while the length of the field shrinks, the width remains the same. Also, because defenses play a lot of man coverage in the red zone, offenses can free receivers by executing the picks and rubs that come with horizontal stretches.

Take this route, for example. This is Mesh, one of the Steelers favorite route concepts. Notice the natural picks that occur as Brown and James Washington cross in the middle of the field and the horizontal stretch on the defense created with the flat routes from JuJu and James Conner (Conner is late releasing here as he checks for a blitz):

Washington rubs the defender assigned to Smith-Schuster (#36) to free JuJu for an easy pitch-and-catch. This is a great red zone concept versus man coverage because of the clutter defenders must navigate to stay with their assignments.

Here’s Y-Cross, another Roethlisberger staple. On Y-Cross, the Steelers run off with the outside receivers while stretching the interior pass defenders with a trio of crossing routes:

As you can see, Cincinnati voids the middle of the field with a blitz and drops a safety from the sky to cover the release from the back. Roethlisberger sees the drop and knows there is no one to help on the deep cross to Smith-Schuster. The horizontal stretch creates too much ground for JuJu’s defender to cover, allowing him to gain separation:

We didn’t see much Mesh or Y-Cross from the offense last year because Rudolph and Hodges were not adept at reading the middle of the field. Expect those concepts to return, particularly in the high red zone (+10 to +20).

Another intriguing horizontal red zone threat is fourth-round draft pick Anthony McFarland Jr. McFarland is a speedster who excels in open space and seems a prime candidate for flat and swing routes or jet sweeps. A pick concept like the one below is perfect for McFarland, where a linebacker or safety has to chase him through a host of bodies to the flat:

With the weapons the Steelers have added on offense, it feels like they can force defenses to pick their poison in the red zone. Do they worry about defending Ebron and Claypool over the top or about chasing players like Smith-Schuster, Johnson and McFarland across the field? Few defenses can defend all of it, and with Roethlisberger back, chances are whatever holes they leave will get exposed.

The Canada Effect

Finally, there’s the much-anticipated matter of how new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada may impact the offense.

When reviewing Canada’s tenure as a college play-caller, it was often a wrinkle on a traditional play rather than a revolutionary idea that made his offenses effective. Take the previous GIF featuring McFarland. That play was from 2018 when Canada coached at the University of Maryland. The play design looks fairly simple, with slants from the play-side receivers providing interference for McFarland as he releases.

Watch it is again, though. It’s actually more intricate than it seems. Rather than have all the back-side linemen hinge in pass protection, as would be the case on most sprint-out passes, Canada runs a power-shovel concept. The back-side guard pulls and wraps to the play-side linebacker while the tight end comes with him as the pitch man for a shovel pass. The quarterback reads the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) for his key. If EMLOS sits inside, he runs the sprint-out. If he expands, the quarterback shovels the ball to the tight end, who follows the pulling guard into the hole.

(The EMLOS is indecisive here so the QB takes the simple throw to McFarland).

It’s a brilliant wrinkle that combines two traditional concepts and gives the quarterback the opportunity to make the defense wrong no matter how they react.

Here’s one more. This is Canada’s 2016 offense from his time at Pitt. Look at the formation in which the Panthers align on this 1st and goal play:

There are three tight ends and a fullback on the field. The formation is so compressed that all 22 players are packed tightly into the area traditionally referred to as “the box.” Given this alignment, would you expect the Panthers to:

A) call a power run up the middle

B) run a play-action concept to one of the tight ends

C) run a jet sweep with their fullback

A and B are the logical choices, of course. But this is a Matt Canada offense:

It’s jet sweep to the fullback, who turns the corner and reaches the end zone untouched. By compressing the formation and combining it with an element of surprise, Canada put a clever wrinkle on a simple concept to exploit an unsuspecting defense.

I can’t be sure we will see this exact scheme in Pittsburgh, although it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The Steelers did sign a fullback, Derek Watt, in the offseason. And Ebron, who was a wildcat quarterback in high school, did once score on a two-yard run for the Colts. Whether it’s this scheme or tweaks and adjustments on others, Canada’s impact on the offense, particularly in the red zone, should be compelling.

The Steelers went from first to last in red zone offense between 2018 and 2019. They may not make it all the way back to the top in 2020. But with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and a host of new weapons at his disposal, I expect them to rebound nicely.