clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look into how the Steelers can pass better with 3 tight ends

The team’s tight end room works perfectly with throwing out of 13 personnel.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

When the Steelers drafted Georgia tight end Darnell Washington in the third round, Pittsburgh fans already saw utopian visions of the 6-foot-7 freak running side-by-side with emerging star TE Pat Freiermuth in Pittsburgh. As a willing, suffocating blocker and gazelle running down the field with 4.64 speed, many were surprised to see Washington’s name on the board at Pick 80.

Pittsburgh did not necessarily have a glaring need at tight end when it nabbed the two-time national champion, having re-signed Zach Gentry and drafted Connor Heyward last season. But, the selection of Washington was not merely because he was the “best player available”; rather, it signified an immediate shift in the Steelers’ offensive MO in 2023.

In 2022, Matt Canada and the Steelers did not shy away from leveraging a rather deep tight end room. Per Warren Sharp, Pittsburgh utilized two tight ends in “12 personnel” on 20% of their pass plays, which was tied for the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. With the addition of Washington, that figure will presumably increase.

With Washington now in the fold, Canada has even more flexibility to deploy his larger-than-life new toy — and that includes in 13 personnel, with just one receiver and three tight ends on the field.

To pass with two tight ends is inherently rare: the Ravens were the only team in the league last season to eclipse 30% of their passes in 12 personnel. Doing so out of 13 personnel is even less likely: in 2021 (the last year Sharp’s data was made accessible), the Browns were first in passing with three TEs at only 11%. For context, no other team was above 5%.

Whether or not the Steelers amplify their three-TE sets, especially on passing downs, is a situation unlikely to present a conclusive answer until after 2023. While 13 personnel passes mean that only one of Diontae Johnson/George Pickens/Allen Robinson could be on the field, it also would allow Pittsburgh to turn to a unique blend of size, blocking skill and receiving prowess that few defenses could mirror or contain.

One of the NFL’s more circulated adages is that football is a “copycat league,” with teams mimicking the successful concepts and plays they watch on a weekly basis — look no further than the Eagles’ “Tush Push” quarterback sneak last year, which was wildly effective. As offenses around the country search for additional advantages and ingenuity, the Steelers likely won’t be afraid to borrow some schematics as part of football’s unwritten agreement.

In this film room, I’ll be examining the three teams that passed most out of 12 personnel last season — the Ravens, Chiefs and Seahawks — with a specific focus on some of their 13 personnel looks that the Steelers could easily incorporate in 2023.

While Seattle was third in throw frequency out of 13 personnel, the Seahawks were also the only team in the NFL last season to have three tight ends with 30 or more targets each (Noah Fant, Colby Parkinson and Will Dissly). Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron consistently utilized the abilities of all three with a slew of creative looks.

In this first look, the Seahawks trot out three TEs to the right side of the field, with Fant on the inside slot, Parkinson the outside slot and Tyler Mabry on the boundary. Geno Smith is in empty with running back Kenneth Walker III at the far left as a receiver.

At the start of the play, both Fant and Parkinson appear to be running out routes, their shoulders pointed toward the sideline. However, Fant pivots to an out and up, carrying his stem vertically. On the other hand, Parkinson puts his foot in the ground and comes back to the quarterback on a whip route, getting open for the reception.

This route combination works well for a number of reasons. Mabry acts as the “clearout” and occupies Sauce Gardner as the deep threat. From there, having Fant and Parkinson work so closely and similarly draws the eyes of both of the linebackers. Kwon Alexander (No. 9) hesitates in getting his eyes to Parkinson, at which point the play is a win for the offense.

Here’s another example from Seattle, a version of the “Levels” concept run against the Raiders. Again, there are three tight ends to the field (right) side. Also, like the last clip, Smith has no running back beside him.

In the middle slot, Parkinson runs a crossing route. Nearby, Fant runs straight up the seam, which creates natural confusion for the linebackers. At the bottom of the screen, Dissly gets good leverage on a smash route.

Smith could have thrown to an open Dissly or D.K. Metcalf (slot left), but he waits for Fant to clear the linebackers and throw downfield for a 24-yard gain.

Having Parkinson cross over the middle of the field with Fant running vertically puts Denzel Perryman in conflict. By the time Fant begins his post — presumably as part of a Y-option — he has the speed to win, getting between the second and third unit of the coverage.

It’s no secret that the Steelers will have to bolster their play action numbers in order to have better overall success this year. These two play action passes with three tight ends could especially help to ameliorate that department.

On their first pass in Super Bowl 57, the Chiefs turned to 13 personnel, utilizing Travis Kelce, Jody Fortson and Noah Gray. KC motioned Kelce over to the right to form a bunch before the snap.

After faking the handoff, Kelce runs a deep crossing route. Fortson starts vertical and then breaks into a corner route. Gray remains at the line of scrimmage to help block Haason Reddick, then releases short.

With both Kelce and Fortson running at three Eagles to the right, all are forced to make decisions in terms of their zone integrity/eye discipline. Though Darius Slay initially has bad leverage on the corner, he flips his hips nicely to catch up to Fortson. Meanwhile, Kelce gets behind linebacker T.J. Edwards, while safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson slips (and takes a bad angle), leaving the tight end free to run for a chunk play.

Not only does this play from the Chiefs exemplify play action with 13 personnel, but it also demonstrates how a third tight end can act as an extra blocker.

Returning to Seattle, PA Boots can also be highly effective out of 13 personnel.

On this snap, the Seahawks start by lining up Fant next to Parkinson, with Dissly as an inline tight end to the left.

Seattle motions Parkinson back across the line before Smith fakes the toss to Walker. Most of the Raiders’ defense has already bitten to the left as Smith rolls out to the right, where he sees Fant wide open on a corner, not to mention Metcalf left alone on a shallow cross.

Parkinson’s route isn’t a realistic option here in the majority of cases, but he’s still essential in helping to generate the appearance of a toss. Likewise, getting the quarterback on the move after the fake creates an easy three-level read. It would be awfully tough for a defense to keep up with the receiver (in this case, Metcalf) running across the field following the deke.

Finally, take a look below at a red zone example from the Ravens. Yes, Greg Roman’s offense left plenty to be desired in Baltimore, but it did rely heavily on tight ends — which could establish a sort of blueprint for the Steelers.

Using heavy personnel at the goal line is something Pittsburgh was no stranger to last year, but I’d expect it again in 2023. With the appearance of so many tight ends, the personnel grouping implies a run.

Situated at the one-yard line, the Ravens put fullback Pat Ricard in front of running back Gus Edwards. They also employ tight end Nick Boyle as a right fullback, with Mark Andrews and Isaiah Oliver flanking the offensive line at the line of scrimmage.

At the outset of the play, the offensive line crashes down in what appears to be run blocking, signifying an RPO. Oliver blocks Dawuane Smoot excellently, even pancaking the defensive end. Meanwhile, Boyle fakes a wham block.

After faking the handoff to Edwards, Andrews checks and releases, running right past everyone and leaving an easy touchdown (barring a drop, which happens here).

Regardless of result, this was a fantastic design by getting almost every defender to run commit before slipping Andrews open — largely because of the work of all three tight ends.

Parting Thoughts

While far from a complete repository of the 13 personnel passing plays these three teams ran — or the best concepts using three tight ends in the league last year — I think these five plays demonstrate just how effective the grouping can be while throwing.

Each team has a preferred receiving tight end, and that certainly applied to the three teams spotlighted here (Kelce, Fant and Andrews). For the Steelers, that will still unquestionably be Freiermuth. Turning to 13 personnel can allow Canada to attract less attention from defenders on No. 88, in part because of the efforts of his fellow TEs, whether running routes, blocking or altogether creating deception.

It should also be noted that these designs consistently worked to multiple parts of the field, whether attacking the boundary, seam, middle or more. That’s something that Pittsburgh particularly needs to hone in on for 2023.

Quite frankly, the Steelers have one of the better tight end rooms in football entering this upcoming season, considering both receiving and blocking talent. In a receiver corps that does not exactly have as much skill or experience, Canada should lean heavily on his big bodies — and passing out of 13 personnel, even using these exact plays, would do just that.