The calendar has turned from August to September. In a normal year, Steelers’ fans would have had three pre-season games to consume and digest by now. Behind The Steel Curtain would be teeming with articles and comments alternately praising and bemoaning the freshmen draft class, the free agent signings, the Redman Award candidates, the impact of the new coaching hires, Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically-repaired elbow and the devastating ramifications of cutting that one guy who made that one play in the fourth quarter of the second pre-season game.
Alas, 2020 is not a normal year. Coronavirus robbed us of pre-season games and access to camp information while the new Coral commenting system seems to have negated much of our spirited, often-irrational-but-always-entertaining community discourse. To paraphrase the great Charles Bukowski, 2020 is a dog from hell.
Like most Steelers fans, I find myself careening between impatience and enthusiasm as I ponder what this team will look like when it finally takes the field. One of the things I am most eager to see is the new-look offense. Ben Roethlisberger’s return is an obvious source of intrigue but the additions of Eric Ebron, Chase Claypool and Anthony McFarland, the shuffling of the offensive line and the imprint of new quarterbacks’ coach Matt Canada are causes for excitement as well. How will these new players be utilized? What wrinkles have been added? How has the offense evolved?
I have no definite answers to these questions but I thought it would be fun to speculate. Let’s break the offense down by groupings and personnel and discuss some of the things we may see.
The Steelers are a base 11 personnel team. This means they most commonly operate with one running back, one tight end and three receivers on the field. In 2018, they were in 11 personnel on 69% of their snaps while in 2019 they used it 70% of the time. That number should decrease a bit given the skill position players they’ve added. But there is no doubt they will continue to favor 11 as their base.
11 personnel is the preferred grouping of almost all 32 NFL teams because, in a league that now emphasizes the pass, it puts four receiving threats on the field while retaining six in-line blockers to run the football. The traditional fullback is absent, and his blocking duties are divided in the grouping among versatile tight ends and physical wide receivers.
When the Steelers line up in 11 this season, I expect it to look like this:
The X position, which aligns wide and on the line of scrimmage, typically employs faster players who can threaten a defense vertically. That role should be manned by James Washington. Washington led the Steelers in receiving yards and yards per catch in 2019 and, while not a burner, has proven himself a reliable deep-ball threat. Washington may be pushed for playing time by top draft pick Chase Claypool, who at 6’4-238 with sub 4.5 speed, is more of a prototypical X. Claypool has drawn raves from coaches and players alike this summer and should see some snaps at the X in the base 11 grouping, particularly in the red zone.
The Y receiver, who operates out of the slot, will be Juju Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster was one of the highest-rated slot receivers in football in 2018 but was forced to play more snaps outside last season due to Antonio Brown’s departure. He will likely move back inside this year, where his combination of size (6’1-215) and speed makes him a tough matchup for nickel corners, safeties and linebackers.
Smith-Schuster can move back inside because of the emergence of Diontae Johnson, who will occupy the Z position. The Z lines up off the ball to the strong side of the formation and is often motioned and moved about. Johnson caught 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie while establishing himself as a superior route runner. Two weeks ago, I wrote this piece highlighting how Johnson was overwhelmingly targeted on short throws last season. It will be interesting to see if he is used more as a vertical threat or if Claypool and Ebron are tasked with stretching the field so that Johnson can continue to operate underneath.
Ebron will split reps at tight end in the 11 package with Vance McDonald. I expect Fichtner to focus more on passing when Ebron is in the game and on running with McDonald. Fichtner will have to be aware of his play-calling and personnel use with these two, as an over-reliance on passing with Ebron or running with McDonald will provide an obvious tendency on which opponents will focus.
Finally, at running back, all indications suggest James Conner will remain the feature back. Conner’s versatility makes him ideal for 11 personnel. He can run inside, run outside, catch the ball out of the backfield and pass protect. In a one-back, three-receiver grouping, these are all necessary skills. Second-year back Benny Snell, Jr. should be expected to spell Conner at times. But, in all likelihood, we will not see a running-back-by-committee approach.
In 12 personnel, an offense aligns with one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. 12 personnel has been the Steelers’ second-favorite grouping the past few years. In 2018, they used it 9% of the time while last season their frequency increased to 20%.
We may see it at or above 20% again this year, although for different reasons than in 2019. The Steelers predominantly used 12 personnel last year with a sixth lineman on the field to run the football. This year, the athletic Ebron will allow them to throw more commonly from the grouping. The potential of running the ball against two-high looks and throwing it versus one-high could make it extremely effective.
Here is “Ace,” one of the most common 12 personnel formations. Ace is a balanced set that puts a tight end and a receiver to either side of the field. The Steelers will likely align their two best receivers, Smith-Schuster and Johnson, out wide, but they could include Washington and Claypool in these packages, too.
A more intriguing use of 12 personnel would be to stand Ebron up and use him as a slot receiver or H-back, where he can motion around the formation. Ebron is a matchup nightmare for safeties and linebackers alike and will be difficult to jam off of the ball if he’s aligned wide. The Steelers may present similar looks formation-wise from both 11 and 12 personnel, with the difference being the bigger, more imposing Ebron in the slot from the latter grouping. No matter how they align, I expect a concerted effort to get Ebron and McDonald on the field together.
Old-school football purists who bemoan the pass-happy offenses of the present are likely to root for a return of 21 personnel football, where a slobber-knocking fullback replaces one of the receivers. The Steelers signed such a fullback in the off-season in Derek Watt. Watt’s signing may represent a slight uptick in their use of 21 personnel. But it’s unlikely to transport the offense back to the 20th century.
The Steelers have employed 21 personnel on just 74 combined snaps the past two seasons, or roughly 3% of their total. They are not likely to use it much more in 2020. Adding Watt to the lineup would remove a player like Ebron or Washington whom they deem more valuable. Realistically, then, the grouping will probably be reserved for short-yardage situations or change-of-pace drives where Fichtner wants to throw a different look at a defense.
The likely personnel for 21 sets are shown below:
Snell could see time here as the short-yardage back. He was effective as a downhill runner in his rookie season and could prevent some wear-and-tear on Conner by assuming short yardage duties. If the Steelers can run the ball effectively out of 21, they will undoubtedly see eight-man boxes from opposing defenses, leaving a single-high safety. This could provide an opportunity for Claypool, who, in such a scenario, would draw one-on-one coverage. That might be something the Steelers look to exploit. The frequency of their use of 21 personnel is less interesting than how they use the grouping and whom they choose to feature.
The Steelers have run some 00 personnel (five WRs) in recent years — about 3% of their total snaps — and there’s a decent chance that, should their receiving corps stay healthy, we could see it again. The top four receivers (JJSS, Johnson, Washington, Claypool) are a solid, diverse group while likely fifth receiver Ryan Switzer is a favorite of both Roethlisberger and the coaching staff. A 00 deployment could look something like this:
Switzer is best-suited to play in the slot and, as the Steelers have done on occasion, could be motioned into the backfield. This would put Smith-Schuster and Claypool on the strong side of the formation with Johnson, creating opportunities to use them as blockers on quick screens or to clear out coverage to allow Johnson to operate underneath. With three off-ball receivers, the Steelers could maximize Matt Canada’s mastery of pre-snap motion. They could also use this as a no-huddle package like they did effectively in their 2018 game at New Orleans.
A wrinkle on the five-wide look they could employ would be to run it with 01 personnel and include a tight end (likely Ebron) to get a bigger body on the field. This grouping was nearly invisible last season (nine total snaps) but they ran it on 68 snaps (6%) in 2018.
00 and 01 are by no means base groupings but as change-of-pace packages they could be intriguing.
Then there is the unknown, meaning those groupings and combinations we simply haven’t seen. One thing is certain about this offense — the Steelers have the personnel to line up in just about any configuration imaginable. Anyone with a moderate understanding of offense can go wild devising combinations. Finding the ones that are the most effective for each week’s opponent will be the challenge awaiting the staff.
Here’s one I’d like to see. It’s an 11 grouping that puts big, vertical threats in Claypool and Ebron outside with Smith-Schuster and Johnson in the slot. Pairing them with electric rookie running back Anthony McFarland would give the Steelers the ability to stretch a defense both vertically and horizontally while forcing it to defend an array of speed and size simultaneously.
There are only so many snaps to go around, of course, and Fichtner won’t have the luxury of limitless scheming. Like most teams, the Steelers will have a base group they hang their hat on and a handful of others they employ situationally. If I had to project, I would guess their personnel usage shakes out something like this:
11 personnel: 60-64%
12 personnel: 20-24%
00/01 personnel: 4-6%
21 personnel: 3-5%
No matter how the Steelers divide the snaps, this offense has the potential to be exciting. In less than two weeks, we’ll finally have the chance to see it for ourselves.