With the draft and the bulk of free agency behind us, and the 2023 schedule having been released, we are now in the least active period of the NFL calendar. Short of a low-end free agent signing, a contract extension for an existing player or a crumb from OTAs on which to nibble, there won’t be much new information to digest until training camp gets under way in mid-July.
Sounds like a great time to examine the Steelers playbook.
Last week in this space, we looked at some of Matt Canada’s more interesting pass play designs. This week, we’ll dissect his favorite run scheme: the split-zone wham with jet motion. Let’s dive in.
First, a note about Pittsburgh’s run game. If you want variety, this isn’t the place to look. The Steelers ran zone schemes almost exclusively last season. Zone, for those who want a refresher, is a scheme where blockers work together on a track. Everyone up front is stepping right or left then working through their gap in that direction. Most zone schemes feature double teams on interior defensive linemen before one of the blockers chips up to the near linebacker. There are no pulling linemen. It’s a full-flow scheme, at least with the guys up front.
While the scheme itself is fairly straight-forward, there are a number of ways to jazz it up to make it more complicated to defend. Canada’s favorite is to run split zone wham with jet motion, which was arguably Pittsburgh’s most effective run concept last season.
In the photo below, we see a diagram of the play. Everyone on the line is blocking a zone track to their right, while the wing blocks the backside end and the motion man (circled) takes the circled defender. The running back is aiming for the front-side A-gap (the gap between the guard and center). Often, the back is given a “bang or bend” rule, which means if he can’t bang the run into the play-side A-gap, he should bend it backside where the flow of the defense should create an opening:
The split zone scheme itself is not unusual. Most NFL teams run it in some fashion. It’s the wrinkles Canada adds that make his interesting. First, the jet motion creates a distraction for defenses. It’s designed to pull the linebackers out of their run fits by making them honor the possibility of an outside sweep. Even if the backers hold their ground, the threat of that sweep usually slows their ability to react to the inside run, which allows blockers to stay on their double teams longer.
Also, Canada is not predictable by personnel as to who will be the “wham” blocker, or the player who blocks the back side of the play. He has used tight ends, fullbacks and wide receivers to do it, which means he can run the concept from just about any formation. This erases any scheme tendencies which might alert a defense the play is coming.
Here’s a split zone run from the game in Indianapolis last season. This is Pittsburgh’s first snap on offense, and they immediately give the Colts a lot to process. It starts with the jet motion from Gunner Olszewski, which the linebackers adjust to accordingly. Then, after the handoff to Harris, receiver Cody White, who is aligned tight to Moore on the left end of the line, works back to be the wham blocker. Rather than kick the back-side end, White wraps up to the second level, where he picks up the safety who has crept into the box as an extra run defender:
From this angle, you can see White’s block more clearly. He is a little wide as he wraps into the hole, which doesn’t give him the leverage he’d like to keep the safety (26) from crossing his face. Still, he gets enough of the block to knock the safety off balance, which allows Harris to run through his tackle and gain eight yards:
Notice how both Pittsburgh guards start their blocks by doubling the interior defensive tackles before coming off to the linebackers. The jet motion keeps the backers from filling quickly, which gives the guards time to work the double before climbing.
Here’s Pittsburgh running the concept later in the game with a different personnel group. This time, from a wing formation, they use fullback Derek Watt (44) as the wham blocker. Watt can’t get to the back-side end here because he’s forced to pick up the defensive tackle, who splits the double team from Chuks Okorafor and James Daniels. This takes away the cutback as an option for Harris and forces him to remain on the front side of the play:
Below, you can see why the back-side double team failed. The defensive tackle aligns as a 2i, which means he’s on the inside shoulder of the guard. This puts him on Daniels’ track, meaning Daniels should block him. At the snap, though, the tackle steps out, which now makes him a B-gap player. Daniels and Okorafor should now work to get hip-to-hip to close the B-gap and stop penetration. They don’t. There’s too much space between them, as Daniels passes off the tackle and Okorafor steps too far upfield. The tackle (90) exploits the mistake by doing a nice job of “getting skinny” and taking the gap, which forces Watt to block him. To complicate matters, Daniels turns back to try to slow the tackle, which makes him late to the backer (44), who ultimately makes the play:
Fortunately, Mason Cole and Kevin Dotson do a great job combo-blocking the front side of the play. And Harris, even with the backer having a clean shot at him, is able to run through contact to gain ground. The play is not blocked perfectly, yet the Steelers still make four yards.
Pittsburgh rushed for 172 yards that night in Indy, and won 24-17. It was the beginning of a homestretch that saw them win six of their final seven games while averaging 143 rushing yards per contest.
Their best run performance in that stretch came Week 17 at Baltimore. The Steelers won a typically physical grudge-match against the Ravens, 16-13, and piled up 198 yards on the ground. Split-zone was the catalyst to their big night running the football.
They started with the core scheme we saw above: a full-flow play with a wham blocker (this time it’s Connor Heyward) crossing the formation to seal the back-side. Harris kept his run to the play-side, behind another nice combo block from Cole and Dotson, and made six yards:
From this angle, you can see how Cole worked flat to protect against an inside spike from the 3-tech defender on Dotson’s play-side shoulder. Once he recognized this was a slant from Baltimore, and the 3-tech was working away from him, he climbed to the backer. You’d like to see Cole stay on this block longer rather than allowing the backer, Patrick Queen (6), to shed him so quickly. But the execution of the scheme, if not of the block, was solid. Daniels (78), meanwhile, did a nice job of cutting off the slant from the 2i to his side. And Heyward smartly chopped Jason Pierre-Paul (4) coming off the edge, preventing him from getting involved in the play:
Later, the Steelers dressed up the play with some return motion from Diontae Johnson. Johnson went across the formation, then came back again as the potential sweep runner. It was Myles Boykin’s turn to be the wham blocker, and he worked back to collision the safety blitzing the B-gap. The return motion pulled the linebackers out of their run fits, and Harris found a back-side crease through which he made nine yards:
From the end zone view, you can see the dominance of Dan Moore on this play. Moore, working a double team with Dotson on the 3-tech to his right, helps flatten the tackle with a violent shove that sends him sprawling. Then Moore redirects to seal Queen, allowing Harris to slip in behind him:
With the Steelers investing their top draft pick in Broderick Jones, Moore is unlikely to retain his starting left tackle job for much longer. But the more I watch him play, the more I love his physicality as a run blocker. If Moore can improve in pass protection, I won’t be surprised if he supplants Okorafor as the starting right tackle in the near future.
With all the split zone Canada was running, it was only a matter of time before he used it as a setup for something else. On this next play, you can see the makings of a play-action pass off of the split-zone look. Olszewski shifts across the formation, then comes back as though he’s going to be the wham blocker on a zone run to the left. Pickett pulls the ball, though, and is about to boot away when he trips over Harris. You can see Olszewski slip the wham block and head to the flat, while Johnson runs a corner route and Pat Freiermuth crosses the field from left to right. The corner and safety both jump Olszewski, and it looks as though either Johnson or Freiermuth will come open if Pickett keeps his feet. The execution here is poor, but the design of the play is a great way to build on the success of split zone.
So, too, is the jet sweep. With the preponderance of motion Canada uses, it’s easy to forget the jet man can carry the ball as well. That’s what Canada does here, catching the Ravens focused on the inside run and handing it to Jaylen Warren on a sweep that produced one of Pittsburgh’s biggest plays of the game:
All told, the Steelers ran some form of split zone 18 times that night, and used it to set up several other plays. Despite scoring just 16 points, they held the ball for over 34 minutes and compiled 351 total yards in a quietly impressive offensive performance.
By executing the split zone scheme well, Canada was able to establish a foundational play on which he could build his game-plan. To evolve in 2023, he will need to expand from here. A more diverse passing attack, another core run concept or two, better use of play-action and improved red zone efficiency should top his to-do list. If Canada can accomplish these things, the offense should be greatly improved.