The Steelers’ football season is in the books, Ben Roethlisberger appears to be retired, and Matt Canada will likely be retained as coordinator. While the tricky question of identifying Roethlisberger's successor remains, it’s not too early to assess the state of the offense in Pittsburgh and where it might go from here.
This is the first in a three-part series examining just that. Here, we look at potential scheme changes that could make Canada’s offense more complex and tougher to defend. In parts two and three, we will discuss why adding the outside zone play is a must and how attacking the middle of the field could open up the passing game.
The Steelers 2021 offense was one of the simplest in the league from an X-and-O perspective. Their run game centered overwhelmingly on inside zone and its variants – mid-zone, split-zone and duo. Gap schemes were utilized infrequently. They attacked the edge with jet sweeps to their receivers, but little else. There was no outside zone scheme and few pin-and-pull sweeps.
Pittsburgh’s passing game was a collection of quick throws and fade routes. The quick game targeted receivers in the hook, curl and flat areas of the field, while downfield throws were overwhelmingly jump balls along the sideline. Because Roethlisberger lacked mobility, and the offensive line was unreliable in pass protection, Roethlisberger’s snap-to-release time was around two seconds, one of the quickest in the league. This made longer-developing routes impossible. Thus, the Steelers rarely attacked the middle of the field and rarely employed route concepts that allowed Roethlisberger to utilize a read progression. The passing attack relied on pre-snap decisions or on one-read, post-snap concepts. In that sense, it was more like a high school scheme than one befitting a player of Roethlisberger’s experience.
The other element lacking in Pittsburgh’s scheme was a concept often referred to as “layering.” Layering, like its root word suggests, builds upon a core or foundational scheme to create complexity. Coaches layer their scheme to protect core plays by constructing variants that punish a defense which overcompensates to stop the core play. Or, put differently, they establish a tendency with an intention to break that tendency once a defense reacts.
Take Pittsburgh’s core run play, for example. A layered approach to inside zone would include a play-action pass, an RPO, a misdirection run and perhaps a gadget play designed to exploit a defense that becomes focused on jamming up the box. The Steelers faced many such defenses in 2021. It was practically a weekly event watching opponents drop a safety from a two-high look at the snap to get an unblocked defender against the run. This forced those defenses to play man-coverage or to rotate their other safety into a deep-third role, making them vulnerable to post routes or shot-plays up the seam. Teams didn’t care about this vulnerability, however, because the Steelers rarely, if ever, made them pay.
Even when Pittsburgh did take a shot, it didn’t protect the core play. Take this example from the Week 16 game at Kansas City. This is a flea-flicker off of inside zone. While the sentiment is nice — the Steelers are running a play-action gadget designed to catch Kansas City in an aggressive run-stopping mode — the concept is poor. Let’s look at the play, and then explain why it was flawed:
Kansas City lines up in quarters coverage, which is a match-up scheme that begins with all four defensive backs about eight yards off the ball. At the snap, they drop their safety to the left of Pittsburgh’s formation into the box, while the other safety and both corners rotate into a Cover-3 look.
Cover-3 is vulnerable to shot plays, but only up the seams, where an offense can get a two-on-one against the single safety. Outside, the corners have deep-third responsibility and are difficult to run by. Yet that’s where the Steelers attack, electing to throw a smash route to Ray-Ray McCloud. The play fails, of it course, because they throw into an area where a defender is perfectly positioned.
It would be one thing if they simply got fooled by the coverage and threw into a look they were not anticipating. The problem here, though, is that the route does not exploit a defender who is vulnerable to the inside zone run action. Corners are not run-fitters against inside zone. They will not come flying up at the snap the way a safety does. Why try to beat a corner with this run-action? Why not target one of the safeties by attacking the seams or the post? The solution here does not address the problem.
Herein lies one of the biggest flaws with the 2021 offense. While Canada was hamstrung by many of the limitations listed previously, he often failed to solve the puzzles opposing defenses presented. For the offense to improve in 2022, this must change.
For assistance in this area, Canada would be wise to pay attention to what Matt LaFleur has done in Green Bay. Green Bay’s surprising exit from the playoffs last weekend should not diminish what LaFleur has accomplished. His offense is one of the most interesting in the league, and while it’s easy to suggest it succeeds because of Aaron Rodgers, that argument fails to tell the entire story.
LaFleur built an interesting resume before being hired in Green Bay. He made several stops at the college level, including one with Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, where he worked with up-tempo and spread philosophies. As an NFL assistant, he studied the zone run game under Kyle Shanahan in Washington and the play-action passing game in Los Angeles under Sean McVay. LaFleur blended all of these in Green Bay, while incorporating some of the West Coast principles Rodgers liked from his time with Mike Sherman. The result was an offense that was at once simple, in that it employed a few basic schemes at its core, and complex, by layering those schemes to constrain defenses.
For a look at how LaFleur does these things, and at what it might mean for the Steelers, let’s examine the structure of Green Bay’s offense. Much of it revolves around Rodgers, who was again brilliant in his 17th year in the league. But the offense isn’t totally reliant upon him to be successful. LaFleur helps by layering his scheme effectively.
He does this by tying his run game to play-action passes and RPOs, and by scripting shot-plays that compliment his shorter passing game. Consider this scoring drive from Green Bay in their 37-10 win over Minnesota in Week 17. The Packers drove 66 yards in 6 plays, blending runs, RPOs, and a shot-play for the touchdown. The play-calls were complimentary, each building on something LaFleur had shown in a previous play. All successfully exploited the defensive structures Minnesota presented.
Green Bay began with an outside zone run. Notice the lateral motion from the back to Rodgers’ left. This was more than mere window-dressing. LaFleur used it to see how Minnesota adjusted to the motion. What he discovered proved instructive for later in the drive:
Following a run that gained four yards, the Packers faced 3rd and 1. LaFleur gave Minnesota a similar look to the 1st down play, with the exception of lining up in trips instead of motioning to it. He ran the same outside zone play, but instead of handing the ball off, Rodgers flicked it to the inside receiver, Davante Adams (17), running a flat-route on an RPO:
Why did Rodgers choose the pass option here? Because the backer responsible for covering down over Adams was tucked inside the box and not wide enough to chase the flat route. And why did LaFleur make this call? Because, if you go back to the 1st down play, he saw that same backer fail to adjust to the motion out of the backfield. He knew, based on the backer’s reaction, he’d have leverage to the flat. With a layered system in place, he didn’t need an entirely new concept to take advantage. He could simply tweak the play he’d previously called.
On the ensuing 1st down, the Packers ran another variation of their opening play. Rather than motion out of the backfield, they sent their back lateral at the snap. They used the same outside zone scheme but paired it with an RPO to receiver Allen Lazard (13), this time attacking the seam. They also brought their H-back, Dominique Dalney (49), across the formation. With an outside zone stretch to the right and two backs moving left, Minnesota’s inside backers were lost. Watch how their indecision allowed Rodgers to throw the RPO between them for a nice gain:
On the next play, LaFleur went back to the concept he’d run on 3rd and 1. This time, rather than throw the RPO to Adams from a trips look, he did it from 2x2. Rodgers focused on his read-key, who was the alley defender lined up over Adams. When the read-key blitzed, Rodgers threw to the flat:
Green Bay had now hit two throws in the flat and another up the seam. All were quick releases off of RPOs. To finish the drive, LaFleur faked a quick throw before double-moving Minnesota’s field-corner. The corner didn’t exactly jump the initial move, a flat route from Lazard, but he got twisted up trying to stay with the second one. Rodgers threw a fade ball in a good spot and Lazard went up and got it for the touchdown:
This was a brilliant drive by LaFleur. He ran four variations of outside zone, each involving the same blocking scheme but using multiple RPOs. Each RPO targeted a different run defender. This created uncertainty in the defense by establishing a pattern and then deviating from it. While Canada used RPOs in Pittsburgh this season, they were structured more like play-packages, where Roethlisberger would have a pass option separate from the run option. In LaFleur’s system, the two work together. Finally, the throws he asked Rodgers to make were simple. They did not require a laser arm or pinpoint accuracy. Quick decision-making was a better attribute than physical skill.
While Rodgers clearly elevates LaFleur’s system, it’s important to remember he has also improved since LaFleur arrived. Rodgers was thought by many to have leveled off, if not regressed, under LaFleur’s predecessor, Mike McCarthy. McCarthy and Rodgers butted heads frequently, and their feuding was one of the reasons McCarthy was dismissed following the 2018 season. At that point, the Green Bay job was not considered particularly attractive. The Packers had gone 13-18-1 the previous two seasons, and Rodgers was viewed as a past-his-prime diva who was hard to coach. LaFleur, with no prior head coaching experience, was perceived as someone Rodgers would chew up and spit out.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Rodgers has been magnificent since LaFleur arrived, amassing an absurd touchdown to interception ratio of 111:13 while leading Green Bay to an overall record of 41-13. The biggest thing LaFleur has done to help Rodgers is to build a system that doesn’t demand he facilitate everything to be successful. By layering his core schemes, LaFleur has provided answers to the riddles Green Bay’s offense must solve. Rodgers must still execute well to make it work. But he doesn’t have to be the problem-solver, too, which allows him to focus more on execution. In the post-Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh, a similar scheme could benefit whomever takes over at quarterback.
It could benefit Matt Canada, too. So much of Pittsburgh’s offense has been Roethlisberger-centered in recent years, and so dependent on him to engineer it, that there hasn’t been much commitment to a system. Canada clearly has a system he prefers, one that took a back-seat this season to the offense with which Roethlisberger was comfortable. It’s safe to assume Canada will be given more command next season. Studying how LaFleur has added complexity to his scheme in Green Bay without over-complicating it would be a great way for Canada to protect and supplement his system.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at another idea that could help Canada reinvigorate the offense: the outside zone play.