With Ben Roethlisberger returning as the starting quarterback for the Steelers in 2021, changes in the team’s offense will likely be subtle. New coordinator Matt Canada may bring more shifts and motions to the table and will likely try to convince Roethlisberger to use more play-action and personnel groupings than he has in the past. But, for the most part, the offense will still rely upon Roethlisberger’s ability to throw the football from the pocket as its primary mode of attack.
I don’t know what the Steelers have in mind for their post-Roethlisberger offense, but, with the future Hall-of-Famer now 39 years old, they will need to turn their attention soon to finding his successor. Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins are the current backups. One or both may be given a shot to claim the starting job when Roethlisberger steps away. It is unlikely, however, that either is the long-term solution. Given how a new wave of young, mobile quarterbacks are reshaping the position, my hope is the Steelers will find a player who, in addition to being a proficient passer, is athletic enough to incorporate more quarterback run schemes into the offense when they decide on his replacement.
Often, when a suggestion like this is made, skeptics offer two criticisms. First, that a player like Lamar Jackson is required to conduct such an offense. And second, that this approach is reckless because it subjects quarterbacks to unnecessary hits and increases their potential for injury. Run the guy with the nine-figure contract so safeties and linebackers can tee off on him in the open field? Sure. That’s a great idea.
There are two problems with these criticisms. First, while Jackson is perhaps the best runner at the quarterback position in the history of the game, it does not require a player like Jackson to make quarterback runs effective. It doesn’t even require Kyler Murray or Cam Newton. Players like Josh Allen, Daniel Jones, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill are all effective runners. Those players, while not exceptionally fast or elusive, are mobile enough to exploit a defense that fails to account for them as run threats.
As for injuries, yes, in theory, the more a quarterback runs, the more likely he is to get hit. Dallas’s Dak Prescott saw his 2020 season end when he suffered a gruesome ankle injury on a designed run. Prescott’s injury, however, was no worse than Joe Burrow’s, who tore his ACL after getting rolled up on while stationary in the pocket, or Roethlisberger’s, who missed most of 2019 after suffering a non-contact throwing injury. Quarterbacks are well-protected by the rules of the game these days and are learning to minimize the hits they take by knowing when to slide and when to get out of bounds. A quarterback in the open field will always be a target. But he is harder to hit, and in some ways better protected, than one standing still in the pocket.
Additionally, as younger coordinators migrate up from the college ranks, where quarterback runs are common, the schemes are coming with them. Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury, Baltimore’s Greg Roman, Buffalo’s Brain Daboll, Carolina’s Joe Brady and, of course, Matt Canada all worked in the college ranks before coming to the NFL. Plus, quarterbacks reaching the NFL these days are trained more on read-options and pocket movement from the shotgun than on seven-step drops from under center. The game is changing, and pro offenses are changing with it.
As evidence, consider the following from @SharpFootball’s Warren Sharp. Total rushing yards by quarterbacks were at a record-high in 2020, eclipsing 2,000 yards for the first time. Those numbers are skewed a bit by Jackson, who accounted for nearly half of them. But the broader trend shows how quarterbacks have been used increasingly as rushing threats, especially in the last five years:
An even more telling statistic shows the increase in rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks. Those numbers have exploded the past few seasons, with the 2020 total blowing away the previous numbers:
Defenses get so used to playing 11-on-10 on run plays, relying on the plus-one advantage they gain when a quarterback hands the ball off and then becomes a spectator, that they often fail to account for him as a potential run threat. This is especially prevalent in the red zone, where defenders are often locked in man-to-man coverage with their backs turned to the quarterback or where they are loaded up between the tackles to stop the inside run. In both instances, they are susceptible to a running quarterback.
Here are some examples of how quarterbacks can be used in the run game, particularly as red zone threats. First, we see Houston’s Deshaun Watson. This is a 4th and 1 play where the Texans put two tight ends on the field, suggesting some sort of power run. Houston dials up an inside zone play but they do it as a read-option, allowing Watson to diagnose the edge player (indicated by the arrow in the photo below) and give or pull the ball based on his reaction:
Their smart use of 12 personnel employs one tight end (Jordan Akins, #88) as a fullback and another (Darren Fells, #87) split wide to create a blocking advantage against the corner to the boundary. Watson sees the edge defender bite on the inside run fake, pulls the ball and is escorted to the alley by Akins. Meanwhile, Fells wipes out the corner and gets a piece of the safety in the process. Watson uses his athleticism to finish the run in the end zone:
This is a nice play design, but it does benefit from the fact that Watson is one of the more elite athletes playing quarterback in the NFL these days. Let’s look at a player not quite on his level. Buffalo’s Josh Allen is a huge man at 6’5-237 but he moves well enough that the Bills have run him 300 times for 1,562 yards in his 44 NFL starts. That’s an average of 35 yards rushing per start. It’s not a crazy number but it’s more than enough to force a defense to account for him.
Here’s a great example of how the Bills use Allen as a red zone run threat. With a 2nd and 5 from the +6 yard line, Buffalo gets into one of my favorite formations: nub-trips (or, more specifically, trips to one side with an attached tight end to the other). I won’t list all of the reasons I love this set, but the Bills demonstrate one of them. The condensed edge to the tight end side creates a scenario where a cornerback must become the force player against an off-tackle run. By using Allen as a ball-carrier, Buffalo gets a numbers advantage into the boundary with the added benefit of running at the corner:
This is too easy. Buffalo pulls the center and play-side guard while leading with the back as well. The guard wipes out the corner while the back shields Allen from the safety. Touchdown, Bills:
A mobile quarterback can also be advantageous in unscripted situations. As mentioned above, when defenders lock on in man coverage they are forced to turn their backs on the quarterback to run with receivers. This delays their reaction time against the run since they cannot see the QB leave the pocket. In the GIF below, Dak Prescott takes advantage of such a situation.
The Cowboys call a bootleg from the +8 yard line. Miami’s edge player bites on the run fake, allowing Prescott to get outside the pocket. When the safety runs with tight end Jason Witten (82) in coverage, it opens up a huge alley through which Prescott escapes into the end zone:
Here’s a similar scenario involving New York’s Daniel Jones. Watch the middle of the field open like the Red Sea on this 4th and 5 play. The Giants, anticipating Tampa will be in man coverage, run a series of man-beating horizontal routes that draw the secondary towards the numbers. Tampa loses the integrity of their pass rush lanes, allowing Jones to exit the pocket into a pasture of green grass in the middle of the field:
No one will ever confuse Jones with Jackson or Murray. But he is athletic enough for the Giants to get creative with him as a runner. They predominantly use Jones on designed runs to the edge like this one, where he has plenty of space to slide or run out of bounds to avoid taking a hit (here, he simply uses his speed to outrace a defender to the end zone):
The play above looks a lot like a Matt Canada design. It involves a condensed formation, horizontal motion and a ball fake to attack the open grass. Canada will not be able to use these concepts with Roethlisberger. And, while younger and more mobile, neither Rudolph nor Haskins are especially athletic outside the pocket. But Canada doesn’t need a Jackson or a Murray to run his quarterback effectively. Jacoby Brissett, who has never been considered a “running” quarterback, rushed for 902 yards in two seasons with Canada at NC State. A merely decent athlete would allow Canada to get creative with the QB run game.
None of this is to suggest the Steelers should build their offense around a running quarterback the way Baltimore has. The NFL is a passing league and any team who struggles in that area will find themselves limited (as evidence, look at what’s happened to the Ravens in the post-season the past few years). The league’s best offenses supplement successful passing with efficient running. And, more and more, they use their quarterback as a run option to increase efficiency, particularly in the red zone.
The Steelers were a good red zone team in 2020, finishing 8th in the league in scoring percentage. They were woeful in 2019 without Roethlisberger, however, finishing dead last. Once Roethlisberger is gone, it’s likely they’ll have to find more creative ways to score. Designed runs with the quarterback are proving to be an effective way to do so.
Nearly all the top QB prospects in the upcoming draft are mobile. Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance can all move effectively. Only Alabama’s Mac Jones resembles the stationary pocket passers who once defined the position. That generation, led by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Roethlisberger, is quickly fading away. In its place is a new breed of quarterbacks who, in addition to being accomplished passers, are trained to play with their legs. In their search for an heir to Roethlisberger, the Steelers should seek a quarterback who is first and foremost an elite passer. But to unlock the true potential of Matt Canada’s offense, they would be wise to target one who can run the football as well.