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The Steelers are poised to “bunch it up” on offense this season

The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping to deliver a more dynamic offense in 2022, and their personnel screams “bunch it up”.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second installment of the “Game Plan” series I’m working on through the reasonably quiet part of the calendar between the draft and training camp. To read the first article in the series, see the link below.

This week, we’re talking about the Bunch concept. Bunch is one of the most valuable tools in an offensive playbook. By grouping three eligible receivers close to one another and aligning them tight to the football, offenses can put opponents in a bind in various ways. These include:

  1. Forcing defenses into soft zone coverages because of the picks and rubs bunch sets create.
  2. Making smaller defensive backs become physical run defenders by forcing them to set the edge against sweeps and power runs.
  3. Compressing the formation to create space to the boundary.
  4. Creating opportunities to attack the weak side of the formation against teams that overcompensate in defending the bunch.
A typical bunch set, seen here, is great for isolating smaller defenders like corners and nickel players

The Steelers used bunch formations regularly last season in Matt Canada’s debut as coordinator. While his offense struggled in many areas, Canada found decent success with his bunch package. This season, with the additions they’ve made on offense plus the anticipated growth from younger players like Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, they’re poised to use bunch sets in greater frequency. Here’s a look at how the Steelers employed them last year, and at some ways they can expand their use in 2022.

Attacking zone coverage

One of the biggest advantages the bunch concept creates in the passing game is the elimination of a hard corner. Defenses often play zone to bunch because, as mentioned above, they can be picked off in man coverage by rub routes. They also back their corners off because they must protect the deep outside third of the field. This gives the offense opportunities to attack underneath those soft corners, like we see in the following clip:

The Steelers run a version of the popular “Drive” route, which is common to most NFL playbooks. Notice how much field Chase Claypool, who is the outside receiver in the bunch, has to work with. Claypool gets a clean release, which allows him to move up-field quickly. He also has enough room to speed-cut his route, which keeps him from having to slow down to make his break. The corner must protect against a “divide” route, meaning one where Claypool splits the field between him and the safety, so he can’t overplay the out. This makes him late on his break. While Ben Roethlisberger misses Claypool with his throw, this is typically an easy ball to complete.

Another way to attack zone coverage from bunch is with play-action. On this snap, against Tennessee, the Titans set up in a pre-snap two-high coverage. Pittsburgh motions Claypool across the formation, which prompts Tennessee to roll to a three-under, three-deep look. At the snap, the run action draws the attention of the safety and near backer, allowing Dionate Johnson, who is split wide to the bottom of the screen, to find open grass in the middle of the field:

This play shows how bunch sets force defenses to declare their intentions. Will they put an extra player to the strength to defend the sweeps and layered routes that bunch formations feature? Or will they stay as balanced as possible so they don’t get exposed on the back side? Tennessee stayed balanced by going two-high, then rotated to the motion. This allowed Canada to exploit the coverage by flooding the zone away from it.

Exploiting smaller run defenders

Bunch sets often force smaller defenders, like cornerbacks and safeties, to become responsible for taking on blockers and turning runs back inside. This creates an advantage for the offense, since most defensive backs are not well-trained in this area.

Consider this play from the regular season finale at Baltimore. The Steelers put their bunch to the wide side of the field, creating conflict for the corner. The corner had to align loosely because, as the deep outside defender, he had to protect against a vertical route from one of the bunch receivers. Against the run, though, he needed to fill quickly to set an edge to turn the play back inside. Essentially, he was tasked with serving two masters, which often results in doing neither effectively.

Pittsburgh’s play design capitalized on this. The Steelers used jet motion from the widest receiver in the bunch, Ray Ray McCloud, as window dressing to muddy the reads of the defense. They then ran outside zone at the bunch, with Claypool climbing to block the corner:

The Steelers had Derek Watt, aligned as the wing back on the inside of the bunch, block back with the jet motion. This created a tough block for left tackle Joe Haeg, who had to reach the defender lined up on Claypool. It may seem like a curious decision by the Steelers — why not just have Watt, who was a gap closer, block that defender? — but as we’ll see, there was a method to this madness. Haeg did a nice job, holding his block long enough for running back Najee Harris to clear him, and Claypool manhandled the corner. The absence of an edge-setter allowed Harris to get outside for a nice gain:

Here’s a similar concept from Week 15 against Tennessee, minus the jet motion. The Steelers block down with McCloud and Claypool, assigning Claypool to defensive end Denico Autry (96). Zach Gentry, aligned as the wing, blocks back, while right tackle Chuks Okorafor pulls and clears the alley for Harris:

Claypool does a great job sealing Autry, and McCloud holds his own on the stalk block. Okorafor merely has to get in the way of the force defender, who gives himself up by throwing himself at the block. With no hard edge, Harris is six yards downfield before he’s contacted by free safety Kevin Byard (31):

Often, outside runs from bunch sets require receivers to block bigger interior defenders, like we saw above. This pressure can be alleviated with creative scheming. Most fans will remember this run from 2020, where McCloud took a reverse for a near touchdown against Philadelphia. The full-flow in one direction drew the defense away from McCloud, making the down blocks of the receivers easier. And the kick-out block, with tight end Vance McDonald (89) matched against corner Darius Slay (24), was no contest. A creative coordinator can almost always find a mismatch by bunching things up.

Creating opportunities to the weak side of the formation

In the following photo, taken from the regular season finale at Baltimore, the line down the middle shows the vertical plane of the football. There are seven defenders to the bunch side of the ball, and four to the opposite side. Where should the Steelers attack?

The math says to the weak side. Canada did just that, dialing up a counter play with motion away from the bunch to widen the play-side corner, thus creating space in the alley for running back Benny Snell:

Two plays later, he did something similar, calling a reverse to Claypool:

These plays target the weak side because the defense has kicked over too strongly to the bunch. It’s a classic case of taking what a defense gives. The wing is key on each play, as he wraps around to serve as a lead blocker for the ball-carrier. This mimicked his role in the earlier clips, where he blocked away from strong side runs into the bunch. By keeping the movement of the wing consistent, Canada didn’t create a tendency defenses could hone in on. This allowed him to attack both sides of the formation without having to change its structure.

Here’s a similar concept, minus the action from the wing. In the photo below, notice the empty alley to the short side of the field. The Steelers attacked it by running a pitch-reverse to McCloud, who is circled on the outside of the bunch. They arced Okorafor, the right tackle, on to the near backer and left the defensive end unblocked:

All the flow went left, while McCloud came back to the right. The action happened so fast that he cleared the end in an instant. From there, McCloud had plenty of space in which to run:

Bunch sets are also great for isolating weak-side receivers in one-on-one situations. It’s hard for a defense to remain two-high against the bunch because of the need for a safety to serve as a strong-side run defender. This almost always necessitates some form of man coverage away from it, like we saw from the Browns. On this red zone play, Cleveland rolled up safety Grant Delpit (22) to be the edge setter to the strength of the formation, and played the weak safety in the middle of the field. This meant Johnson was singled up on the back side. Canada called an RPO off an inside zone run with a “now” throw to Johnson. When Roethlisberger saw soft coverage from the corner, he took it:

Coordinators can also configure their bunch groupings to get a back-side match-up they desire. Here, out of 12 personnel, Canada used Gentry, Johnson and Washington in the bunch and aligned Freiermuth on the back side. This allowed him to isolate his 6’5-255 pound tight end against a corner. Advantage, Steelers:

Whether in the air or on the ground, Canada found plenty of success last season working the weak side of bunch formations.

How can the Steelers use bunch looks in their 2022 offense?

From a schematic standpoint, not much should change. Canada had a good feel for how he wanted to use them, and he found success at times, particularly later in the season. In Weeks 14 and 15, for example, against Minnesota and Tennessee, the Steelers ran 15 bunch snaps for 97 total yards, averaging 6.5 yards per play.

The big change should come with personnel. In place of McCloud, they have rookie Calvin Austin III, whose 4.3 speed and good contact balance should make him better suited for the role. They also have two new receivers — Myles Boykin and George Pickens — who are big and have shown themselves to be willing blockers. At quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett are both mobile, meaning it’s likely we’ll see more play-action from bunch. And, with either at quarterback, Canada is free to unleash his full arsenal of shifts and motions, something he was unable to do last season with Roethlisberger.

The advantages that bunch formations create are considerable. The concept was good to Pittsburgh at times last season. Hopefully, with some of the moves they’ve made, they are well-positioned to expand upon them in 2022.