I really haven’t been able to give my thoughts on the Steelers hiring Arthur Smith as their new offensive coordinator, as it took place in the middle of Senior Bowl week and the news broke during practice.
My initial thoughts are that Smith is better than anything they had. He’s had success before as an OC, but his struggles in Atlanta can’t be ignored. I’ll hold off on any judgement either way until I see what it looks like on the field.
Speaking of what happens on the field, the offense will look different for sure, as it pertains to personnel and the way in which the Steelers will operate from a schematic standpoint.
For starters, expect the Steelers to be more creative with their usage of their skill position players. Specifically, running backs on early downs. The Falcons came out in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) on 19 percent of first downs in 2023- the Steelers didn’t do it once. Atlanta also led the NFL in 22 personnel on first downs, meaning we will see packages where Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, Pat Freiermuth, and Darnell Washington (or maybe Le’Veon Bell, he said with a sly smile and smug wink) are all on the field at the same time to begin drives and new down sequences fairly often.
Sticking with the tight ends, expect them to be a much bigger focal point in 2024. The Falcons led the NFL in target distribution for tight ends at 34 percent. For comparison, the Steelers were 22nd at 19 percent. Freiermuth and Washington, as well as Connor Heyward at times, will get more looks. Hopefully that also means we see more usage of Washington as a big slot option or just more looks down the seam.
In terms of alignment, the Steelers had an issue of lining up in shotgun too much, especially on early downs. That, combined with their offensive tendencies, made it very easy for opposing defenses to predict what was going to happen. According to GINI, which tells how concentrated a team’s style is, the Steelers finished fifth in formation GINI- the Falcons finished 29th. This means Pittsburgh had very few formations they would use, while Atlanta had a large variety of different looks.
Not only will there be different looks, but more play action as well. The Falcons utilized play action more than almost every team in the league. Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke combined for 152 dropbacks off play action. The only quarterback with more dropbacks off play action was Dak Prescott with 158. For comparison, the Steelers had a combined 79 dropbacks off play action in 2023.
Each of those aspects are positives, and needed changes for the Steelers offense. It’s not all going to be perfect, though, and there are things to keep an eye on. First off, the run game will look different. While the Steelers became more of a gap-run team (finishing third in runs off guard), Smith runs more of a zone-based run scheme. Atlanta was last in the NFL in runs off guard last season, and fifth in runs off end. Atlanta was also second in runs off tackle. With that in mind, it’s fair to assume we’re going to see the Steelers run a lot more wide zone and outside zone concepts in the run game.
In terms of a per drive basis, the Falcons and Steelers were very similar last year. They finished with the same amount of touchdowns per drive, and were 27th and 28th, respectively in terms of points per drive. So while the Falcons and Steelers ran two very different offenses, the results, unfortunately, were largely the same.
Now, Atlanta also turned the ball over a lot more than the Steelers, which certainly factors into that. However, Smith wasn’t perfect, especially when it came to who he was drawing up plays for. With the likes of Kyle Pitts, Bijan Robinson, and Drake London at his disposal. the Falcons seemed to really like throwing the ball to Jonnu Smith. Nothing against Jonnu Smith, but Arthur Smith just became to infatuated with hitting teams with a “They’ll never see this coming” type of move that it came full circle and everyone was pretty aware of where the ball would be going. One would hope he would learn from his mistakes, though, and grow as a play-caller in this next endeavor.
This all comes with the built-in caveat, though, that the Steelers need to upgrade at quarterback. Both the Steelers and Falcons had a melting pot of bad quarterback play throughout 2023. They have the personnel when it comes to the skill positions, and they certainly have an upgrade at offensive coordinator, but they need the right guy under center to make it all flow together on the field. If and when they do get that, the offense should be much better than it has been.