With the 2022 NFL Draft in the books, the offseason is largely finished. The Steelers may still add a player or two in the late stages of free agency, but for the most part, their acquisitions are done.
It’s been an aggressive offseason for the Steelers, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. They made a bevy of moves in free agency to strengthen the unit, then added to them by drafting a potential franchise quarterback, a talented wide out and a couple of key role players. They also hired two new coaches — Frisman Jackson and Pat Meyer — and, by virtue of these investments, reinforced their committed to Matt Canada as offensive coordinator. All of this to improve upon a unit that finished near the bottom of the league last season in most meaningful metrics.
The big question Steelers fans have to ponder until the players put the pads back on is this: Have these moves positioned them to solve the two biggest problems that doomed the offense in 2021? In particular, will they now be able to:
- Run-block effectively?
- Execute a vertical passing game?
Here are some of the issues they encountered in these areas last year, and how their offseason moves may address them.
Pittsburgh’s run-blocking woes have been well-documented. The Steelers were neither talented nor physical enough up front to consistently run the ball well. They’ve addressed their personnel by adding free agents James Daniels and Mason Cole, each of whom should upgrade the line’s interior. They will also get back a healthy Kevin Dotson, while Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green will no longer be rookies. From a talent perspective, the line should improve.
Personnel, though, wasn’t the only reason the line struggled last season. The Steelers made too many mistakes from an execution standpoint. Whether the issue was preparation, in-game communication or some combination of the two, the Steelers left too many defenders unblocked for the run game to succeed.
Case in point: here’s the second play on offense from the playoff loss last January in Kansas City. The Steelers have an inside zone run called to the right of their formation. It’s a good call against this defense, as there are six Pittsburgh blockers to handle the six Kansas City defenders in the box:
Typical blocking assignments begin with an identification of the middle linebacker — the “Mike,” who most fans know because quarterbacks are often heard shouting, “52’s the Mike!” on football broadcasts. The center will often point to the Mike as well. This is important because the location of the Mike, who is either the middle backer in a 4-3 scheme or the strong side backer in a 3-4 — sets the blocking for the line.
Most NFL teams use a count system for their blocking and pass protection rules. This is a man-based scheme that denotes the Mike as the player off of which they determine their blocks. Essentially, blockers count off of the Mike to find their assignment. Using a count system, the assignments on this play should have been as follows:
The Mike is the first defender to the back side of the play. Therefore, the three backside blockers — the left guard, left tackle and tight end — should have blocked the Mike, the 3-tech and the edge defender. On the front side, the center, right guard and right tackle would then take the three defenders to the strong side. This way, all six defenders are covered.
The Steelers don’t do this. Instead, left guard John Leglue and left tackle Dan Moore both block out, with Leglue taking the 3-tech and Moore doubling the edge with tight end Zach Gentry. Meanwhile, center J.C. Hassenauer and the play-side linemen handle the play-side defenders. This creates a Red Sea effect, allowing the Mike to come unblocked through the parting. Running back Najee Harris is forced to bounce his run wide as a result, where he’s tackled for a two-yard loss.
The fact there were multiple communication issues like this last season suggests a problem with how the scheme was taught. Getting their unit to execute basic assignment responsibilities is a minimum requirement of any position coach. While the players cannot be fully excused, it falls on the position coaches to make sure they understand their rules and adjustments. These types of mistakes must be remedied moving forward.
The vertical passing game
A second area where the offense struggled involved its inability to throw the football down the field. Ben Roethlisberger’s yards-per-attempt was 6.2, which ranked 29th in the league. Part of the reason for Roethlisberger’s low number was the shoddy pass protection provided by his line, which forced him to get rid of the ball quickly. But there were other reasons, too.
This is the play immediately following the clip from above. It’s 3rd and 10, and the Steelers are in a 3x1 formation with the trips set to the field. Kansas City aligns in a 2-high shell. Their safeties are wide, indicating they will help on vertical routes from the outside receivers. The Mike backer is set deep, at six yards, suggesting he will drop into the “high hole” between the hashes, while the nickel corner and the Will backer man the hook-curl zones between the hashes and the numbers. This is classic Cover-2 assignment defense:
There are a few weaknesses in Cover-2 that offenses like to exploit. One is between the safeties in the middle of the field, which the Chiefs compensate for with the deep drop by the Mike. Another is in the flat, where corners can be stretched vertically by outside receivers to open up short routes into the boundary. Once a flat route shows, the corner will peel off to cover it. This opens up a third vulnerability, which is the area along the sideline between where the corner vacates to take the flat route and the safety rotates to pick up the vertical from the outside receiver:
The Steelers have the right call for this look from Kansas City. They run the flat-fade concept on both sides to try to exploit the holes to the boundary, and a divide route from slot receiver Ray Ray McCloud to split the safeties.
Look below at the execution of the routes, though. To the top of the screen, Chase Claypool fails to fight to release outside. He lets the corner force him inside, where he is funneled into the safety. Claypool should take this route as close to the boundary as possible. Instead, he’s tight to the numbers. This is a bad release on his part, because it destroys the spacing of the route.
McCloud doesn’t help the situation. Rather than cross the alley defender’s face and aim for the “KC” logo in the middle of the field, he releases outside as well. Now, his route and Claypool’s are compressed, making it easy for the safety to cover both. Routes like these are all about stretching a defense to create seams in the coverage. When they are not spaced properly, the integrity of the design is compromised.
On the short side of the field, Diontae Johnson does release wide, and there is a small window into which Roethlisberger can locate the football. But Johnson is just 5’10 and not well-suited to win on these types of throws. Roethlisberger makes it tougher on Johnson by sailing the ball high and wide. Still, it’s hard not to think a bigger target may have been able to make a play here:
So, while 3rd and 10 is difficult to convert, this play had a chance to succeed. It was the right call against Cover-2, but its success was compromised by poor route-running to the field and the Steelers not having a receiver into the boundary who was well-suited to make a play on the ball. Additionally, one could argue Roethlisberger would have been better off dumping the ball down to either of his flat routes. Both were open because Kansas City’s corners stayed with the vertical routes and did not peel. Dumping the ball to either receiver and letting him try to run for the 1st down may have been wiser than trying to fit in a tight throw to Johnson. Roethlisberger was often married to his pre-snap read in an effort to get the ball out quickly. This hindered the vertical passing game as well.
The inability to throw the ball down the field had a trickle-down effect. Defenses did not fear getting beat deep, so they played a lot of press coverage on Pittsburgh’s receivers to jam up the short passing routes. They also cheated their safeties to 7 or 8 yards off the ball, where they could fill quickly against the run. This often gave them a +1 advantage, meaning an unblocked defender, in the box. So, the run game suffered, too, for the lack of a vertical passing attack.
Can the Steelers solve these problems in 2022?
That was the bad news. The good news is the Steelers have methodically addressed their problems on offense this off-season, and acquired pieces that should help solve them.
Let’s start with the run blocking. The additions of Daniels and Cole will certainly help. Both are good technicians with considerable starting experience. The more important addition, though, should be Pat Meyer. Meyer brings a reputation as a teacher of the game to Pittsburgh. His predecessor, Adrian Klemm, seemed to have been a coach who emphasized physicality. That’s certainly important, but without the finer details of technique and communication, physicality is wasted. Meyer should be better at preparing his unit than was Klemm, which will, hopefully, reduce the number of blown assignments.
As for the vertical passing game, the Steelers acquired two receivers in the draft who are positioned to help solve that problem. Both Georgia’s George Pickens and Memphis’s Calvin Austin III are adept at stretching the field. The diminutive Austin (5’8-180) does it with blazing speed — he ran 4.32 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — and could be formationed to match him against safeties who struggle with that type of speed.
Pickens is a different story. At 6’3”, with 4.4 speed and a huge catch radius, Pickens is an ideal deep threat. He excels at getting free from press coverage, like we see below. This outside release sets him up nicely for the back-shoulder fade ball, which he catches adeptly with his hands:
Pickens’s release technique is often subtle, but effective. The quick inside jab-step he takes elicits a similar step from the corner, providing space for the outside release. Below, he uses an arm-over chop to free himself, opening a nice window between the corner and safety for the quarterback to throw against Cover-2:
Then, at the catch point, Pickens is tremendous with his hands. He snatches the ball away from defenders, which is key when battling for contested throws:
Put it all together and the Steelers have two new receivers whose skill sets make them potential home run hitters.
The receivers are only part of the equation. Both Kenny Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky, one of whom will quarterback the team in the fall, are better deep ball throwers than was Roethlisberger at the end of his career. And the line, with better players and, hopefully, better coaching, should provide the protection to allow for a more vertical passing attack. Finally, with a more mobile player at quarterback, Matt Canada will be free to design boots, roll-outs and play-action passes from which he can threaten defenses vertically.
We won’t know for another four months if the Steelers have done enough to fix what ailed the offense in 2021. On paper, though, they seem well-positioned to improve upon their two biggest weaknesses.