Now that the dust has settled on the NFL draft, the Steelers have a pretty good idea what their football team will look like come September. There are roster spots to be won, of course, and camp battles to determine starters at a few key positions. Pittsburgh may even add a veteran in the second wave of free agency to fortify a specific area (inside linebacker?). But as we sit here today, their core is in place.
The Steelers have gone to great lengths to add physicality this off-season, particularly on offense. Pittsburgh’s line was a weakness for several years before improving in 2022. Assistant general manager Andy Weidl, a former offensive lineman himself who arrived last year after several season with the Philadelphia Eagles, dedicated himself to remaking the line more in the image of his previous employer. Weidl sought players with an edge who had a reputation for being tough and were strong in the run game. The blueprint next season seems pretty clear: the Steelers intend to lean heavily on the run and to use it to set up the rest of the offense.
How they might do this is an interesting discussion. The depth Pittsburgh has acquired extends beyond the line. They are now six-deep at receiver, three-deep at tight end, have a versatile H-back and several reliable running backs. The potential exists for them to be more multiple than they’ve been in years. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has plenty of options when it comes to putting together personnel groupings. Canada must now decide how to utilize his personnel to create the best match-ups against a given opponent.
Here are some thoughts on what those groupings might look like, and at how often we might expect Canada to use them.
11 Personnel (1 back, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Likely personnel: Najee Harris (RB), Pat Freiermuth (TE), George Pickens (WR), Diontae Johnson (WR), Allen Robinson (WR)
This has been Pittsburgh’s base grouping for over a decade. In 2021, they used it on 75% of their offensive snaps. Last season, that frequency fell to 68%. Expect it to fall further in 2023.
The benefit of 11-personnel is that it spreads the field with three receivers and forces defenses to police more area. It puts more speed on the field, too, and takes advantage of the rule changes the NFL has implemented that make it easier to throw the football. The NFL is a passing league, and the fact that nearly all of its teams now base out of 11-personnel is a testament to that reality.
In Pittsburgh, though, a heavy reliance on 11-personnel no longer makes sense. It was one thing when Ben Roethlisberger was at quarterback throwing to Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. But with the roster turnover, a young QB in Kenny Pickett and the lack of an elite receiving corps, Pittsburgh isn’t as well positioned to operate that way.
My suspicion is the Steelers will use 11-personnel when they get behind the chains or want to throw. They’ll run the ball enough from this grouping to not be totally predictable. But on early downs, like 1st-and-10, or on downs where they are on schedule (2nd-and-5 or less), or on short yardage and in the red zone, I’d expect to see bigger groupings.
The personnel in the 11-package should include Harris in the backfield, spelled by Jaylen Warren or whomever the Steelers keep as their third back (Anthony McFarland?). At receiver, Johnson should play the X (away from the tight end), Pickens the Z (to the tight end) and Robinson, at least initially, in the slot. Robinson can bump outside when needed, and Calvin Austin III, depending on how quickly he progresses, should take reps in the slot as well. Freiermuth will be the primary tight end.
From this grouping, expect to see a lot of last year’s offense. Inside zone runs to Harris, play-action off of the run game, quick passes, the Mesh and Y-Cross concepts, vertical routes to Pickens. Hopefully, new offensive assistant Glenn Thomas will help Canada grow the passing game to make better use of route concepts and attacking the middle of the field. But, in general, the 11-personnel attack should look familiar.
If I had to guess a usage rate for this grouping, I’d say 40-50%.
12 Personnel (1 back, 2 TE, 2 WRs)
Harris (RB), Freiermuth (TE), Darnell Washington (TE), Johnson (WR), Pickens (WR)
Pittsburgh used 12-personnel 20% of the time last season, which was up from 16% in 2021. Expect that percentage to rise significantly in 2023.
The Washington selection makes this almost inevitable. The Steelers took a wide receiver in the first three rounds of every draft from 2013-2020 except for one (2016). In two of the past three drafts, however, they’ve opted for a tight end in those high spots instead. Pittsburgh doesn’t spend premium picks on players to sit them or use them as novelties. They are expected to play, and Washington is no exception.
I am a huge fan of 12-personnel groupings for several reasons. In the run game, they create an extra gap to defend. Seven blockers at the line of scrimmage means eight possible run gaps, which forces a defense to bring a safety down to account for the extra gap. If they don’t, the offense has an advantage up front. And dropping a safety means single-high coverage, which can be exploited by having receivers who can win one-on-one match-ups (Pickens) or by having four vertical threats in the passing game and only three deep defenders to account for them.
This all sounds good on paper. But if an offense can’t win that seven-versus-seven blocking battle, or if its tight ends aren’t athletic enough to exploit the one-high safety look, the advantage is nullified. Last year, the Steelers struggled to win consistently in the trenches. And with Zach Gentry as their second tight end, they lacked that fourth vertical threat to exploit single-high. They did some good things out of 12-personnel. But they weren’t quite there yet.
Now, with the additions of Isaac Seumalo and Broderick Jones up front, and with Washington at tight end, they are built for it. Washington is the key. His versatility as a blocker and pass catcher gives Pittsburgh an element they lacked. Gentry is a great blocker but offers little as a receiver. Connor Heyward proved to be a reliable vertical threat but couldn’t line up next to the tackle and block down. Washington can do both.
The addition of Washington also frees up Freiermuth to operate more out of the slot, where he is a problem for safeties and linebackers. A set like the one below, with Freiermuth in the slot and Heyward aligned inside, is limited due to Heyward’s blocking capabilities. But with Washington in Heyward’s spot, the Steelers can still play power football while exploiting a team that chooses to crowd the line of scrimmage like the Browns do here:
Scheme-wise, the Steelers may use 12-personnel to return to some of the gap runs like power, counter and sweep that were absent from the offense last season. And they will look to create match-up advantages with both Freiermuth and Washington. With the pieces they have acquired, and how versatile this grouping can be, I’d put its frequency at around 40% for next season.
13 personnel (1 back, 3 TEs, 1 WR)
Harris (RB), Freiermuth (TE), Washington (TE), Zach Gentry (TE), Johnson/Pickens (WR)
Together, the Steelers should be in 11 and 12 groupings about 85-90% of the time. That leaves a small window for other groupings. 13-personnel should be one of them.
This is a true short yardage/goal line formation the Steelers have used infrequently in the past. They ran 13 plays from this grouping in 2021, and 16 last season. I don’t expect a huge increase, but with their three tight ends on the field, and a receiver like Pickens in the lineup, they could be both big and physical. This might be a look they go to when trying to close out a game or wear down a team in the second half while nursing a lead.
21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WR)
Harris (RB), Heyward/Warren (FB), Freiermuth/Washington (TE), Johnson (WR), Pickens (WR)
With Heyward likely to be designated the team’s fullback, the Steelers may increase their use of 21-personnel slightly. Heyward is more versatile than last season’s fullback, Derek Watt, and the play-action possibilities out of two-backfield sets with Heyward slipping into the flat are attractive. When Canada wants to hand him the football, whether on jet sweeps or inside dives, he’ll be a better runner than Watt, too. Heyward won’t make anyone forget Dan Kreider as a blocker, but the Steelers shouldn’t need him to.
There’s also a chance they’ll use more two-back sets with Harris and Warren paired together. Harris is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, and Warren is good in pass protection. Warren catches the ball well, too, and runs like a demon once he does. Getting defenses to substitute bigger personnel in order to exploit them with Harris and/or Warren as receivers could be a nice situational package.
22 personnel (2 backs, 2 TEs, 1 WR)
Harris (RB), Heyward (FB), Freiermuth (TE), Washington/Gentry (TE), Johnson/Pickens (WR)
The Steelers could put a twist on their 13 grouping by substituting Heyward for one of the tight ends. This would still give them a big grouping with plenty of in-line blocking while adding the versatile Heyward, who can move about the formation to create match-up or leverage advantages. This could be a grouping the Steelers use against a particular opponent then shelve for a while until they find a tactical reason to use it again.
10 personnel (1 back, 0 TEs, 4 WRs)
Warren/McFarland (RB), Johnson (WR), Pickens (WR), Robinson (WR), Austin III (WR)
I don’t expect to see much of this grouping, because it flies in the face of everything the Steelers are striving to become. But if they want to play fast, and emphasize playing in space, they may go to a true spread look with four wide receivers. The value of this grouping is it guarantees two-high coverage and potentially gets a burner like Austin III matched up in the slot against a nickel-corner or safety. If Austin shows promise, this could create big play opportunities.