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Why the Steelers shouldn’t throw out the jet sweeps just yet

Looking at the jet sweep motion plays from Week 11.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of fans hate the jet sweep, as well as some analysts too. It is understandable because it is the part of Matt Canada’s offense that is easiest to point out. So if you don’t like Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator, you probably don’t like the jet sweeps.

But are the jet sweeps really a problem? Through ten games the Steelers are averaging 5.4 yards per carry on wide receiver runs. That’s not bad at all. In fact, that is what the two most efficient running teams in the NFL (Baltimore and Chicago) average. But the value of the jet sweep goes much farther than just being a slightly more effective run play. That’s what we are going to look at in this film room. The jet sweep runs didn’t work well in Week 11, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t valuable. Let’s go to the tape.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 8:47

Watch the Bengals linebackers.

Here’s the first jet motion the Steelers used in Week 11. Watch the linebackers here. They move with the jet motion, and when Najee Harris fakes running against the flow of the motion, the linebackers over-react and give Harris room to gain decent yards.

I want you to notice that it is the cornerback coming in from off screen that makes the tackle here. Now watch how the jet motion affected him.

Look at how much time and space the jet motion added to the cornerback’s path to the football on this play. This is only a five-yard run, but you can see here how the attention defenses pay to the jet motion help a simple run play with how it manipulates the defense.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 6:53

Zach Gentry is the tight end to the top of the screen.

The next play with jet motion is a shovel pass, and it doesn’t work. We’ve seen how the jet motion affects spacing, and on this play, we see how it affects timing. The decision whether to hand this play off to the receiver or pitch to Gentry has to be made incredibly fast here, and even then, the timing for the pitch to Gentry is delayed by the fake.

We can debate whether Pickett made the right choice here but look at how quickly he has to move from catching the slightly high snap to making this pitch. That’s not much time to read the defense at all.

But what we can see is how the Steelers block the play, and where Zach Gentry catches the ball. Gentry needs to be farther inside, following Kevin Dotson’s pulling block. The defensive end is supposed to be unblocked; the play needs to be inside the end. The timing isn’t perfect, and Gentry is led right into the end for a loss.

The high snap wrecks this play’s timing because there is no margin for error here.

Although, honestly, the execution on these shovel passes has been so bad this whole season, it’s hard to put too much blame on any player.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 0:31

George Pickens is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Again the jet sweep moves the linebackers, and that movement creates a bigger opening for George Pickens’ in-route. Kenny Pickett sees that and makes the throw. The problem on this route is Pickens is heading more up field than Pickett expects. You can see George Pickens reaching back for the ball, and that means he’s not in between the ball and the defender so Eli Apple is able to dive and defend the pass.

The motion opened up space, but on this play the quarterback and receiver are executing a tiny bit differently, and it leads to an incomplete pass. Sadly this is the only downfield pass off of jet motion in the game.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 14:34

Watch the middle of the Bengals defense.

The Bengals are worried about that jet motion, and this time they clear out the middle of their defense and it makes this an easy seven-yard run for Harris. The linebacker in the middle of the field to start the play is never blocked and is uninvolved in the run. The jet motion takes him completely out of the play, effectively blocking the Bengals’ middle linebacker with a receiver. Later in the same drive it would be even better.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 13:04

Watch the three Bengals defenders to the bottom of the screen.

The linebacker goes from the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen to the other hashmarks, and because of that he is blocked by George Pickens before Dan Moore Jr. comes and walls him in. Even the cornerback gets caught up inside and ends up tripping.

The Bengals don’t handle this jet motion well at all and it leads to a 19-yard touchdown run.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 4:39

Diontae Johnson comes in motion from the right.

The Bengals have a numbers advantage in the box on this third and 1 play, but quickly sacrifice that advantage to the jet motion. The Steelers actually hand this one off and Johnson picks up the yard even with the defense sending three defenders after two Steelers. It’s very hard to stop a jet sweep from gaining a yard or two if the runner is aware enough to dive forward when they have an opening.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 2:20

Watch the linebacker and safety to the top of the screen.

This is a defense of jet-motion plays we saw a good bit in 2020 and 2021. The safety crashes hard on the motion while the linebacker steps up and blitzes. It is a great counter to both the jet sweep and a normal run play with jet motion added in.

The weakness in this defense is pretty easy to see though, just look at Diontae Johnson to the top of the screen. The safety is gone on his side, it’s one-on-one and the Bengals are going to have a hard time stopping a lot of different routes Jonson could run here. With the success on run plays leading up to this play, and the risks the Bengals took here to stop the run, you might expect to see the Steelers work more jet motion into the second half offense and look to exploit a safety coming up like this by throwing the ball.

I mean, if you didn’t read me saying that the incompletion to George Pickens was the only pass with jet motion in the game, hadn’t watched the game, and also weren’t familiar with Matt Canada’s Steelers offense, then you might expect that...

Steelers vs. Bengals, 3rd quarter, 14:24

Watch the Bengals defensive end, second from the left on screen.

The Steelers do go back to jet motion, but with 8 men in the box, the Bengals call this play as soon as the motion comes, rightly pointing out, and defending a run to the right for Najee Harris. This play only has two receivers, and Steven Sims (running the jet motion) is one of them. Pat Freiermuth isn’t in on this play either. It’s Diontae Johnson and a bunch of people that scream “run play”.

The worst part is that defensive end. He crashes hard inside, and beats Harris to his run lane. They knew what was coming here as the Steelers saw the Bengals sell out to defense the run toward the end of the first half and came out to start the second half by doubling down on not throwing the ball when they use jet motion.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 3rd quarter, 6:56

You know what, save yourself, don’t watch this one.

Yep. This happened. I’ve got nothing to say here that the editors wouldn’t have to remove so yeah, enjoy whatever that was.

The only other jet motion of the second half came early in the fourth quarter.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 4th quarter, 11:34

Just to remind Steelers fans that the jet motion can be a very good tool, Matt Canada goes back to this play. It pulls the linebackers out of position and Najee Harris runs for 13 yards.

On jet motion plays, Najee Harris ran 6 times and gained 45 yards with a touchdown. That means on plays without jet motion Harris had 45 yards and a touchdown on 14 runs.

You can see right there the value of using the jet sweep. Now imagine an offensive coordinator who was willing to call more than one pass play with jet motion a game, without counting shovel passes.

Just as it is clear that Matt Canada has serious flaws as an offensive coordinator, it’s also clear that the jet motion should stay, and maybe even see more usage, especially with an increase in passing plays using jet motion to make teams pay if they overplay the run.