The first week of free agency resulted in a flurry of activity for the Pittsburgh Steelers, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh signed a new quarterback, two starting-caliber linemen and a kick returner whose shiftiness could earn him reps at slot receiver, too.
The new Steelers were all brought to Pittsburgh for a specific reason. All of them, even Gunner Olszewski, the return wizard, are good fits for the scheme Matt Canada hoped to run last season but, with an ineffective line and an aging Ben Roethlisberger, could not. If the first week of free agency told us anything, it’s that the front office is determined to provide him the tools he needs to succeed.
Here are three thoughts on what Pittsburgh’s activity last week tells us about the offense for next season.
The quarterback will play from under center more frequently
The most glaring way in which Roethlisberger limited the offense last season involved his immobility. We’ve talked about him not being able to move out of the pocket and how this hampered the passing game. Less obvious, but important nonetheless, was how it created a reliance on playing from the shotgun.
The Steelers took the 3rd fewest snaps from under center in the league last season. Just 17% of their plays came from this alignment. This was because Roethlisberger was uncomfortable under center and preferred to align away from the rush where he did not have to turn his back to the defense.
When the Steelers did line up under center, they ran the ball 85% of the time. This was the highest frequency in the league. And, because their run game consisted almost entirely of the inside zone play, opposing defenses could load the box and tee off when they did. This led to a lot of plays like the following:
The Steelers ran so much inside zone from under center because they didn’t move well enough up front to be a good power and counter-gap team. Nor were they particularly physical. Also, Roethlisberger couldn’t execute the footwork necessary to run the outside zone play, and he was poor at play-action passes and bootlegs. A perfect storm of limitations created staggering predictability.
This will not be the case in 2022. Pittsburgh’s free agent acquisitions suggest that, at a minimum, their approach will change. There’s no doubt Canada would like to be under center more, the way his college offenses often were. He built his reputation as a guru of deception by using a myriad shifts and motions, but also by hiding the football from the defense. This worked best when the quarterback could open away from center and bury the ball in his stomach before handing it off or carrying out an array of fakes.
Two concepts that work best from under center that were absent in Pittsburgh last season will likely return. These are the outside zone play and the play-action pass. Canada leaned heavily on both as a college coordinator. Outside zone works best from under center because the long path the quarterback must take to make the handoff forces the defense to flow horizontally, which creates seams a good back can exploit. Take this example from Canada’s offense at Pitt in 2016:
That movement naturally sets up the play-action pass, which takes advantage of how a defense is displaced by the run action:
Okay, that was just for fun. Canada is notoriously creative, and everyone loves watching linemen score touchdowns. More commonly, we’re likely to see plays like this one, where the run action forces the defense to scramble to regain sound position in coverage:
In Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers have acquired a quarterback well-suited to run these concepts. Chicago and Buffalo, the two teams for which Trubisky played previously, have operated much more frequently from under center than the Steelers in recent seasons. Both have invested heavily in the outside zone play and its corresponding passes. Trubisky, seen below, is quick enough to reach the back on outside zone, and agile enough to pivot, boot away and throw on the move. This was surely a reason Canada considered him a good fit for his offense.
The linemen the Steelers have acquired are also well-suited for these concepts. Both Mason Cole, signed from Minnesota, and James Daniels, previously of the Bears, have played in a wide zone/play-action/under-center scheme.
Cole had a solid game against the Steelers last November when Minnesota rushed for 242 yards in a 36-28 victory. Here he is at right guard doing a great job of moving his feet to win position on an outside zone block against Chris Wormley. Cole is not spectacular but he is smart and tough, and he understands the wide-zone scheme:
Daniels is just 24 years old, has made 48 professional starts and is considered a Top 15 guard in the league. He, too, has blocked a ton of wide zone, particularly last season with Justin Fields at quarterback in Chicago.
Below, at right guard, he does a nice job of reaching the nose tackle to his left. The block showcases Daniels’ quick get-off and athleticism. And, like so many of his blocks, how he plays hard until the whistle:
Here’s Daniels doing a great job of selling the same run action on a bootleg pass. The two plays look virtually identical, until the moment Fields pulls the football and escapes the pocket.
Green Bay does a nice job on this play of recovering from the fake to pick up Chicago’s receivers. They cannot contain Fields, though, who scrambles for 10 yards. While Trubisky is not an athlete on the level of Fields, he is mobile enough to make a defense pay with his legs on these types of plays.
Being under center more will create diversity and deception for the offense. These are two much-needed elements for a scheme that was too easy to defend last season.
The offense will run through Najee Harris
It’s been a long time since the sentence “The Pittsburgh offense will run through...” did not end with the name “Ben Roethlisberger.” With Roethlisberger gone, there’s a void to be filled. It seems clear the Steelers want Harris to fill it.
Excluding the 2019 season, that Roethlisberger missed with an injury, 2022 will be the first year in the Mike Tomlin era where the offense isn’t quarterback-centric. Trubisky will play the role of game manager, facilitating an attack that will begin with the running of Harris and build from there.
This is something the Steelers professed they would do last season. They acquired the back they needed in Harris, but lacked many of the corresponding pieces. The moves they made last week signaled a clear intention to add them. Daniels and Cole are upgrades from the likes of J.C. Hassenauer, B.J. Finney and John Leglue. Trubisky is a quarterback who works best in a run-first offense. Even new line coach Pat Meyer, who was hired in February to replace the departed Adrian Klemm, has a reputation as an effective teacher whose strengths compliment Canada’s. At the center of it all will be Harris.
Harris turned in the best performance of any rookie back in Steelers history last season. His 1,200 yards rushing broke Franco Harris’s team record for most by a rookie, as did his 74 receptions. He also led all NFL rookies in yards from scrimmage. He did so behind one of the worst offensive lines, and with one of the least efficient passing offenses, in the league.
The biggest concern about building the offense around Harris involves injury. Harris had 381 total touches, which is an enormous number for a rookie. While his durability was admirable, his usage is concerning. He had 25 or more touches in 8 games and was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage more than any player in the league. In short, Harris took a beating. He is young, so his body can endure it. Still, the Steelers would be wise to bring in a veteran to compete with Benny Snell Jr. to be the No. 2 back. Snell, a true downhill runner who is strong, but lacks burst and lateral quickness, seems ill-suited for the approach Canada is likely to take. A free agent with better quickness, like Miami’s Phillip Lindsay, might be a better fit.
The Steelers are right to build the offense around Harris, as he is their best player on that side of the ball. To do so without a capable backup, however, would be a mistake.
Pat Freiermuth’s role will expand
One of the more interesting moves from last week is one the Steelers didn’t make. Three of their top five receivers departed, with Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud all signing with other teams. The departures of Smith-Schuster and McCloud left them without a reliable slot receiver, a void they have not yet filled.
The newly-signed Olszewsky may get some reps there. He has decent size, runs good routes and is excellent after the catch. He has just 9 career receptions, though. Anthony Miller is a candidate to play in the slot, too. The Steelers are thought to be high on him, and he did have success with Trubisky in Chicago. Miller caught 134 balls with the Bears between 2018-2020, most of them with Trubisky at quarterback.
No matter what they do at receiver, Freiermuth is likely to play more in the slot. Like Harris, he enjoyed an excellent rookie season, catching 60 passes for 497 yards and 7 touchdowns. He proved he could be effective from the slot, and as the season progressed, Canada increasingly detached him from the formation. This let Freiermuth work underneath against safeties and linebackers, where he used his 6’5” 255 pound frame, solid route-running and soft hands to take advantage:
Freiermuth is also likely to see more targets, should the Steelers emphasize the boot and play-action game. These concepts tend to scramble second-level defenders, opening up crossing and seam routes. Freiermuth is a great candidate to man these routes, and could be used similarly to how the 49ers employ George Kittle.
Watch Kittle, lined up at tight end to the right side of the formation, operate against a safety. The safety tries to jam his release but Kittle powers through it, then runs away from him as he crosses the field. Freiermuth has this sort of capability:
Canada will have options when it comes to using Freiermuth. With Zach Gentry proving he can handle in-line blocking duties, Freiermuth might be free to play more in the “move” tight end role, which would free him up as a receiver.
So, while nothing is set in stone, the first week of free agency seems to have provided us a window into what next season’s offense will look like. I expect the quarterback to operate from under center far more often; for the outside zone scheme and its play-action compliments to return; for Najee Harris to be its focal point; and for Pat Freiermuth to take on an expanded role. There is still work to do to acquire additional depth pieces, particularly at receiver, running back, tackle and perhaps tight end. But the Steelers already seem better equipped to run Canada’s offense than they were a year ago.