The Steelers have beefed up their offensive line this off-season, resigning massive tight end Zach Gentry while adding a couple of maulers in Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo. Gentry, Herbig and Seumalo are all accomplished run blockers who play the game with aggression and an occasional nasty streak. Their signings seem to indicate a desire by the coaching staff to become more physical up front.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been silent so far in addressing the wide receiver position. They return their starters on the outside — Diontae Johnson and George Pickens — but allowed Steven Sims, their primary slot receiver, to depart for the Houston Texans. Pittsburgh’s in-house options to replace Sims — Calvin Austin III, Anthony Miller and Gunner Olszewski — all come with concerns. The team could also address the slot position in the draft, but whomever they select will be unproven.
Given the questions at slot receiver, and the moves up front, it feels as though the Steelers are transitioning away from their traditional 11-personnel attack in favor of something bigger. As currently constituted, they are better prepared to run a 12, 21 and 22-personnel approach that removes the third receiver for a second tight end, a fullback, or a hybrid of the two (H-back).
Why would the Steelers do this? For starters, bigger groupings tend to emphasize a run-first mentality. They supplement the run with play-action and the quick passing game, and often use shifts, motions and unbalanced sets to try to gain a numbers advantage or to force smaller players like safeties and corners to become run-fitters. They also try to control the clock, minimize turnovers and alleviate pressure on the quarterback. Teams like Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tennessee have been effective basing out of bigger packages, and Pittsburgh’s Matt Canada had some of his best success as a college coordinator using big personnel. Canada may be trying to replicate that success in Pittsburgh.
For a better look at this approach, let’s go back to the season finale from 2022 against the Cleveland Browns. On their opening possession, Pittsburgh executed a drive almost entirely from big groupings that may have foreshadowed what we can expect from the offense in 2023. It showcased the best of this philosophy, as well as some of the limitations of last season’s unit that may have prompted the acquisitions of Herbig and Seumalo.
1st and 10, ball on -33 yard line
The Steelers opened with Gentry and a sixth offensive lineman (Trent Scott, #72) in an unbalanced set to their right. With the addition of receiver George Pickens, who was condensed to the strength, the formation created nine run gaps for Cleveland to defend. The Browns aligned with two wide corners and a deep safety, meaning they had eight players to defend those nine gaps. Pittsburgh used that to their advantage, ripping off a seven-yard run on an inside zone play:
From this angle, you can see the effective double teams from right guard James Daniels and right tackle Chuks Okorafor and from center Mason Cole and left guard Kevin Dotson. The extra gaps created by the formation stretched the defense as well, allowing Najee Harris to find room in the backside A-gap:
2nd and 3, -40 yard line
On 2nd down, the Steelers swapped out Scott and Gentry for Pat Freiermuth and Derek Watt. They stayed unbalanced, with four blockers to the right of the formation, and ran split zone, with the line blocking right and Watt coming across the formation to kick out the weak side end:
This was a mid-zone run, which means the aiming point for Harris was a gap wider than on inside zone. The wider aiming point, coupled with the return motion from Sims, got the linebackers flowing laterally. Harris exploited their movement, and used a good seal block from Watt to wind his run out the back door for another nice gain:
1st and 10, -49 yard line
The Steelers used 11-personnel on this snap for one of just two plays on the drive. They initially spread the formation in a 2x2 look to open up the box. Then they brought Gentry, who was split wide to the left, in motion and inserted him into the B-gap to block the near linebacker.
Cleveland ran a pinch-and-scrape scheme where the weak side end crashed down and the rolled-up safety came off the edge. Meanwhile, the backer looped over top, leaving Gentry no one to block. The stunt brought the safety inside of Pickens, who was tasked with cutting him off. Pickens couldn’t get there in time, and there was immediate penetration into the backfield:
It was a good call by Cleveland that took advantage of the soft edge created by Pittsburgh’s open formation. The play was still successful for the Steelers, but only because Harris broke several tackles and scrapped his way for six yards.
3rd and 1, +42 yard line
On 2nd down, a run to Jaylen Warren from 12-personnel gained three yards. That brought up 3rd and 1, where Pittsburgh set up like this:
That’s six linemen, two tight ends and a fullback for those of you scoring at home. Or, as we call it in our goal line package at Ocean City High School, “Heavy Jumbo.”
Astute Matt Canada observers know that when he condenses a formation like this, he often runs jet sweep. Sure enough, the jet action came, accompanied by Warren running a sweep path with the jet. Pickett reversed out like he might toss the ball to Warren, but instead handed it to Connor Heyward coming from the right wing on a counter. Heyward went one-on-one with the unblocked corner at the line of scrimmage and dragged him forward for the first down:
While I like the misdirection of this play, I don’t love its design. Canada built his entire run game last season on zone blocking schemes, which meant he never pulled offensive linemen. Even his counters used zone concepts, with an H-back usually providing the necessary kick-out block. Here, there’s no kick-out. The play worked, likely because Canada trusted Heyward to win one-on-one against the corner. Leaving run defenders unblocked to the ball is risky, though, and a strategy I hope he doesn’t lean too heavily on going forward.
1st and 10/2nd and 10, +35 yard line
The next two plays went like this:
On the first one, Johnson simply dropped a ball that, had he caught it, would have provided an easy four or five yards and put the Steelers in 2nd-and-medium, which keeps them ahead of the chains. On the second, Okorafor played too high out of his stance and got blown up, leading to a three-yard loss.
Johnson and Okorafor are both solid contributors, but they also do the things we see here from time to time. For the Steelers to execute a grind-it-out offense, minimizing these types of self-inflicted wounds is essential.
3rd and 8, +34 yard line
An encroachment penalty on Cleveland gave the Steelers back five yards. So, on 3rd-and-8, Canada spread the field with an 11-personnel empty set and ran curl-flat combos on both sides of the ball. The routes never developed, though, because Okorafor got beat when he set too wide and the chip block from Warren knocked the edge rusher across his face. This broke the integrity of the pocket, and sent Pickett into scramble mode:
Pickett then did something he proved adept at as a rookie — he improvised. Ducking out to his right, he cleared the edge pressure and kept his eyes downfield for a receiver. He found one in Johnson, who was working back towards the middle after breaking out of his curl. With the coverage scattered, Johnson burst through a void and took the ball to the 1-yard line:
Pickett kept the drive going with his awareness and agility. It’s interesting, though, that on the two snaps Pittsburgh ran from 11-personnel, they gave up almost immediate penetration, while from the bigger groupings they were better able to control the line of scrimmage. It’s a small sample size, but instructive nonetheless.
1st-and-goal, +1 yard line
Things change when you get down to the goal line, however. Defenses pinch and penetrate, and offenses have to get off the ball with authority to stop them.
On 1st-and-goal, the Steelers ran split-zone to Harris, with Watt kicking the back-side edge. Okorafor’s poor series continued, as he got beat across his face by the B-gap defender. This led to contact on Harris in the backfield, and ultimately to him being ruled down just short of the goal line:
In-game replays appeared to show Harris breaking the plane of the end zone just as his knee touched the ground. Afterwards, there was speculation that Mike Tomlin should have challenged the play. But with the ball spotted just inches from the goal line, and three potential downs to score, Tomlin must have felt confident a challenge was unnecessary.
2nd-and-goal, +1 yard line
On 2nd down, the Steelers went with sneak, a play that is nearly unstoppable given the new rule that allows an offense to push its quarterback from behind. Again, though, Cleveland got penetration, this time through the A-gap. Left guard Kevin Dotson was slow off the ball, lost leverage and failed to move his feet after contact, allowing defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (93) to beat him inside. Okorafor got beat again, too, and Pickett was stopped short:
3rd-and-goal, +1 yard line
On 3rd down, the Steelers used jet action as a distraction and handed the ball to Harris. Harris tried to channel his inner-Walter Payton by leaping into the end zone, but penetration again thwarted his momentum. Dotson tried to submarine Togiai, didn’t get a good enough piece of him, and Togiai came off the block to jar the ball loose. Cleveland pounced on it, and just like that a drive that looked destined to score ended with a turnover:
You can see the way this drive started that the Steelers were sharp running the ball from their bigger groupings. And you can see how, had Canada elected to, there were opportunities to throw off of the run action given how tight Cleveland was playing to the line of scrimmage. Inevitably, though, Pittsburgh could not finish, which was the product of not being able to dig out Cleveland’s defenders at the goal line when it mattered most.
By contrast, watch Philadelphia in a similar situation below against Washington. The right guard is Seumalo, Pittsburgh’s prize free agent acquisition. Look at how Seumalo explodes off the ball at the snap. He is extremely low to the ground, then lifts through contact to stand up Daron Payne (94) and knock him back. The difference between this, and the play of Pittsburgh’s interior line, had to be a factor in their pursuit of Seumalo and Herbig and of their desire to become more physical overall.
I expect the Steelers to still employ plenty of 11 personnel next season, especially if someone like Austin III excels in the slot. But I anticipate wider use of the heavier groupings, too. Tight end combinations that expand the roles of Freiermuth, Gentry and Heyward. An extended six-linemen package. Greater use of a fullback — whether it’s Watt, someone else or even Warren on occasion. These bigger groupings make sense for the Steelers because they allow Canada to get his best personnel on the field, protect Pickett, control clock, and play to his strengths as a coordinator.