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Putting a fullback on the field may not give the Steelers a boost in their running game

The Steelers may not get the numbers advantage may fans think comes with lining up a fullback to help run the ball.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It seems like Pittsburgh Steelers fans are dealing with the same story that came across in the second half of the 2020 season: The team is just unable to run the football. With a revamped offensive line and a shiny new running back, it’s hard to say when everything will come together for the Steelers to find at least some success in the running game. With things not currently showing effective results, fans have their own ideas of some other things the Steelers can try in order to get the job done.

The number one thing many Steelers’ fans believe they should do to improve their running game is to actually use the second-highest paid fullback in the NFL who is on their roster. After not seeing much from Derek Watt in 2020, partially due to injury, fans want to know what the Steelers invested in to bring the middle Watt brother into town. So far in 2021, Watt has barely been seen in the offense. Perhaps just throwing the fullback out onto the field in various formations will give the Steelers the advantage that they need.

But is using the full back really an advantage in the running game, particularly with this Pittsburgh Steelers team?

Right now, the biggest issue the Steelers are facing in the running game is that teams are actually taking it away. One would think that if the Steelers are struggling to run the ball the teams with simply focus on shutting down the pass and make the Steelers unable to do anything on offense. In fact, it’s been more of the opposite. Teams are stacking the box in order to shut down the running game and help in the short passing game.

So wouldn’t putting Derek Watt into the game help the situation? Let’s actually look at Watt’s utilization in 2021 and see how teams react to him being on the field and what the Steelers can do in order to run the ball better.

In two games so far in the 2021 season, Derek Watt has played exactly four offensive snaps, all of which came against the Buffalo Bills. Surprisingly, three of these four snaps were when the Steelers were taking a knee. That’s right, Derek Watt has been on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers for one meaningful offensive play.

Since that’s the case, this isn’t going to take long to see what defenses do.

When Derek Watt comes onto the field, it’s not in place of the Steelers running back but in conjunction with, in this case, Najee Harris. While fans may expect White to come on in place of one of the wide receivers, his single offense of play this season actually came in place of the tight end. The Steelers ran a 20 personnel grouping, meaning they had two running backs, no tight ends, and three wide receivers on the field. Because of this, the Buffalo Bills were in there nickel defense to have the same number of cornerbacks as the Steelers had wide receivers.

On this play, seen in the picture below, Ben Roethlisberger is in shotgun with Derek Watt to his right and Najee Harris to his left. There are two wide receivers to the left side of the formation and one wide receiver to the right side as the Steelers were on the right hash mark. The three cornerbacks are each lined up in what appears to be man-to-man coverage on the three wide receivers. The Bills have four defensive lineman and two linebackers on the field. As for the two safeties, the Bills play a single high safety not seen on the screen and walk their strong safety up to pretty much be playing the other linebacker position.

Even with three wide receivers, the Steelers are simply outnumbered in running the football in this case. There are seven players that need blocked while the Steelers have five offensive lineman and one fullback to block them. Based on the alignment, it’s not wise to simply leave one of the defensive ends unblocked and hope they can’t run down the play unless they are running outside the other tackle. So even if the Steelers block every player perfectly, there is still one extra player there to make the tackle.

Note, the stacked box came regardless of the Steelers being in shotgun. Had the Steelers lined up with Ben Roethlisberger under center and an “I” formation with Derek Watt in front of Najee Harris, the Bills had already stacked the box and the Steelers aren’t even telegraphing a run play.

So what do the Steelers do for this play? Check out the video below:

That’s correct. With this play being a run-pass option (RPO), Roethlisberger makes the wise decision and throws the ball to Chase Claypool for a 9-yard gain. It doesn’t make sense to run the ball in the situation, so it’s actually a better look to complete the pass.

Yes, this is only a one place sample. But right now, it’s all we’ve got of Derek Watt. If the defenses match up against the Steelers to simply have one player more in the box that with the Steelers have blockers, there’s not really anything they can do that benefits having a fullback on the field. Derek Watt is used in this case to kick out the one defensive end which appears to be his responsibility whether Roethlisberger would have handed the ball to Najee Harris or chose to throw the ball like he did.

So if this is how teams are going to defend the Steelers, why not have the fullback out there to block. Let’s look at an almost identical play but with the Steelers in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) where is Pat Freiermuth is in the game rather than Derek Watt. Freiermuth is not lined up in the backfield like Watt, but it’s not on the line of scrimmage either as it’s in the H-back position on the right side of the formation. The only other difference in this play is the two wide receivers are to the right of the formation because that is the wide side of the field in this case. Also note this play occurred before the previous one outlined as it was the first play of the third quarter while the other was with about five minutes remaining in the third.

As you can see in this picture, the only real difference in how the Bills have defended this play is that the strong safety is not in the screen. Because the Steelers have a tight end who is quite the receiving threat, the safeties are basically playing two deep rather than the single high safety in the previous example. In other words, there are only six players in the box, excluding the cornerback who may be inching inside a little bit while matched up with JuJu Smith-Schuster.

So what did the Steelers do on this play as it is also an RPO? Let’s see what happens:

There it is, Steelers fans: A 9-yard run. Freiermuth came across the formation to block a plyer on the left side just as Watt did. But in this case, the strong safety was not a part of the play like he would have been in the previous example as he doesn’t even show up in the screen until the end of the run.

In two plays that are basically running the same thing with the RPO, the Steelers ran the ball without the fullback, but passed the ball when the fullback was in the game. Why did they do so? It’s because there were too many defenders to block with a fullback on the field.

The Steelers are already facing too many stacked boxes when it comes to attempting to run the football. While many fans want the Steelers to just bring in a full back and lineup and run it right down the oppositions throat, if you’re having to ask one player to try to block two people, that’s a hard enough task when players are struggling to even block one. Putting the full back on the field to run the ball is simply bringing more defenders closer to the play… for now.

Before I get into how I would utilize a fullback, a natural question would be how the defense would respond if the Steelers had 21 personnel where instead of having three wide receivers they would have a tight end with two receivers and two running backs. In these exact same plays, the only thing I would expect to be different would be the defense responding in their base package and have one less cornerback on the field and instead have a linebacker or strong safety lined up over wherever the tight end would be set up. So instead of six blockers taking on seven players in the box, it would be seven blockers taking on eight players in the box. The Steelers would still be one person short.

If the Steelers are going to utilize a fullback to run the football, they’re going to have to get creative. How can they do that? My most favorite example would be to run 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, and one wide receiver). Let’s say the Steelers have Najee Harris, Derek Watt, Pat Freiermuth, Eric Ebron, and Chase Claypool as their eligible receivers. With this personal grouping, chances are teams are going to either stay in their base defense, or even bring in more of a “jumbo” package to match the size the Steelers are putting out there as it appears to be more of a running personnel group. If that is what teams do, the Steelers should make them pay. The Steelers could definitely go shotgun with only Derek Watt next to Ben Roethlisberger and put Najee Harris out as a receiver. Now the Steelers have four receiving options going up against a very run-heavy defense. This is now a situation where the defense should pay the price.

If the Steelers start setting up teams by using this personnel package, they may have to adjust and try to keep more pass defenders on the field. As soon as that’s the case, Ben Roethlisberger should move up under center and put Najee Harris back in the backfield for the Steelers to have the advantage running the ball right down their opponent’s throats.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is the Steelers need to start utilizing the fullback in the passing game in order for it to pay off in the running game. Much like what the Steelers need to do to get the run going in general, until the passing game gets the defense from stacking the box, running the ball is going to be a challenge. It’s not that the Steelers can’t use the fullback, they’re just going to have to get creative and not telegraph their intentions.