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Analyzing how Xavier Grimble could be the ‘X-Factor’ for the Steelers offense

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An in-depth look at how the Steelers can maximize the talents of the “X-man”.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Ladarius Green is no longer a member of the Steelers. The “move TE” that the team wanted to incorporate into their offense didn’t pan out. Is there someone on their roster capable of filling that role? Could it be Xavier Grimble, entering his second season with the Steelers? The opportunity for snaps as second TE are certainly there for the taking. Jeff Hartman showcased how Grimble was working out this off season to maximize that opportunity. You can read Jeff’s article here.

I don’t believe Xavier Grimble brings the same type of element to the offense that Ladarius Green did. Grimble possesses neither the height, nor the speed that Green does. So what does Xavier bring? How can the Steelers best utilize his talents? Can Grimble be a weapon for the offense?

In an attempt to answer these questions, we will look at Grimble’s pass targets from the 2016 season. In doing so, we will evaluate their success according to route and personnel grouping. Once we’ve done that, we will then see how the results align with Grimble’s listed “strengths” and/or “weaknesses.”

Xavier Grimble had 21 targets in 2016. He caught 11 of them for 118 yards, with 2 TD. Breaking those down by route run, we get:

Shallow Cross — 6 targets, 3 rec, 13 yards

Curl — 4 targets, 1 rec, 9 yards

Post/Seam3 targets, 3 rec, 59 yards, 2 TD

Flat2 targets, 2 rec, 21 yards

Screen — 2 targets, 1 rec, 5 yards

Deep Out — 1 target, 1 rec, 11 yards

Corner — 1 target, 0 rec, 0 yards

Fade — 1 target, 0 rec, 0 yards

Wheel — 1 target, 0 rec, 0 yards

The success of both the Post/Seam and Flat routes jumps out. A look at NFL.com’s Draft Profile of Grimble gives some possible insight into why:

“Has the look of a throwback with the ball in his hands -- rumbles downfield and is a load to bring down.”

On both of the flat passes, Grimble caught the ball with at least 7 yards of open field in front of him. It took the 2nd (in one case), and 3rd defender(in the other) to bring him down, looking very much as described in his profile. I believe this was the thought behind the 2 attempted screen passes as well. Both came in 3rd and long situations, with the defense in a nickel package. The idea of getting the ball in Grimble’s hands with some open space against smaller defenders sounds good to me. It just didn’t work out as planned.

To understand the success garnered on the Post/Seam routes, we have to look at other aspects of Grimble’s physical ability. Again from his Draft Profile:

“Has a good frame for the position...can work the middle of the field, take a hit and maintain possession. Good hands -- can extend to catch, ” and “Linear mover who builds to speed.”

Post/Seam routes take the receiver over the middle of the field where they are more likely to take a hit. Grimble’s listed size of 6’4,” 260 pounds is a definite advantage here. The “linear mover” assessment, although listed as a “weakness,” does help us understand the difference in Xavier’s success on the post/seam vs other routes. Grimble is not blessed with exceptional quickness. Running deeper routes in a more-or-less straight line allows him to get to speed more than shorter routes or ones that require cutting would.

Now that we’ve identified which routes tend to cater to Grimble’s strengths, let’s look at his targets by personnel grouping.

As a reminder, the 2-digit number denotes the amount of RB’s (first digit) and TE’s (second digit) on the field:

11 personnel — 9 targets, 5 rec, 40 yards

12 personnel6 targets, 4 rec, 53 yards, 2 TD

13 personnel — 4 targets, 2 rec, 25 yards

14 personnel — 1 targets, 0 rec, 0 yards

03 personnel (yes, the Steelers used a grouping that had zero RB’s) — 1 target, 0 rec, 0 yards

It’s not difficult to see that the Steelers 2 TE set was by far the most successful personnel grouping here. When we combine the routes run with the personnel groupings, focusing on the most efficient pairings, this is the result:

Post/Seam from 12 personnel-2 targets, 2 rec, 40 yards, 2 TD

Post/Seam from 13 personnel-1 target, 1 rec, 19 yards

Running vertical routes from multiple TE groupings proved successful for the Steelers. It allowed them to take advantage of Xavier Grimble’s strengths. Since nothing tells the story like a picture, let’s look at a few of these plays.

This first one is from Week 4 vs Kansas City. I am disappointed not having the “All-22” view on this play. NFL Game Pass has been terribly “glitchy” (even more than usual). Coaches Film was not available for this game. Here is the broadcast view:

The Steelers are in 13 personnel with Grimble aligned on the right wing. Using multiple TE’s will cause most teams to counter with their base defense, which the Chiefs do here. They also bring safety Eric Berry up in the box to defend against the run-heavy alignment. What this does is get Grimble matched up with CB Marcus Peters with little-to-no safety help.

With Peters in off coverage, Grimble runs a skinny post. Again, running a deeper route with little cutting involved allows Xavier to get up to speed. He is also able to use his big body against the 6’0,” 197 pound Peters. We can see that more clearly on the close up replay :

Personnel grouping and formation created a mismatch for Grimble. With that he took advantage of his physical strengths to win on the play. Next we’ll look at how the Steelers used that same personnel grouping to create another mismatch on this play against Miami:

No, this play wasn’t successful. I included it for several reasons. First, the Steelers 3 TE set had the Dolphins counter with their base defense. With safety Isa Abdul-Quddus blitzing, LB Neville Hewitt is left to cover Grimble. This is a match up in the Steelers favor.

Second, this play appears to be designed specifically for Grimble. The Steelers run a 2-receiver pattern, leaving 8 blockers to protect Roethlisberger. “Max protect” is something the Steelers often utilize when they want to take a deep shot. With Antonio Brown running the CB off, the corner pattern should be open, if Grimble can beat his defender. They planned for this mismatch, and got it.

Why didn’t it work? We can see the separation gained by Grimble. The LB appears to gain ground as the route continues, however. Was Grimble’s “linear mover” weakness the culprit here, slowing as he came out of his cut? Or did he simply slow down while tracking the ball? Difficult to say. Either way, this play shows how the Steelers used personnel grouping to put Grimble in an advantageous situation.

I believe this is also an example of what you hear about Grimble “showing flashes, but needing to be more consistent.” If he wants to take that next step, these are precisely the type of plays Xavier needs to make.

The final play we’ll review shows the most successful route run from the most successful personnel group. Here we have Xavier Grimble on a seam route out of a 2 TE set. It comes in Week 16 vs the Ravens, and is my favorite of Grimble’s plays:

So much to love here. Grimble is matched on LB Albert McClellan and beats him easily (using his straight line speed up the seam). He “extends to catch,” then uses his large frame to ward off the vicious hit from Eric Weddle and secure the ball.

Indulge me a bit as we take a deeper look at the play, and gain a greater appreciation of how the Steelers schemed to achieve a greater chance of success:

  • 12 personnel has the Ravens counter with their base defense, matching a LB on Grimble
  • Splitting Jesse James out wide (bottom of screen) brings a LB out of the middle of the field
  • Splitting Le’Veon Bell out wide (top of screen) brings a Safety out of the middle of the field
  • Spreading the defense out helps eliminate “traffic” in the middle of the field. It often requires the defense to “declare” their coverage to the offense as well. If we look at McClellan pre-snap, we can see he is protecting against an outside release. The same is true of CB Shareece Wright on Antonio Brown, and Tavon Young on Eli Rogers. This tells us the Ravens are in man coverage, playing to their help, LB C.J. Mosely, and safety Eric Weddle, in the middle of the field.

This play wasn’t necessarily designed for Grimble. Ben explained what he saw on the play during a segment from his Top 100 piece on NFL Network. “I looked at the hot (Eli Rogers), I was looking at AB on the shallow, and then came back to him (Grimble).”

C.J. Mosely sat in the middle as the “rat in the hole,” taking away any crossing routes. [Note: I recall coming across a breakdown of this play, which noted Mosely’s role, elsewhere. In preparing the article, I could not remember, nor find, the source, in order to give proper credit. No misrepresentation of that analysis as mine is intended]. That prevented any quick throw to Rogers and the crossing route to AB. Grimble won on his seam route, though. When Ben saw that, he let it rip (albeit, in his words, “It was probably late to throw it.”) and the X-man came through with a big play.

That wraps up our evaluation of Grimble’s targets by route type and personnel grouping. Have we answered the questions put forth as we began our analysis?

What does Xavier bringThe strengths listed in Grimble’s profile were supported by the numbers and evident on film. He is a big-bodied, old-school TE, who can absorb hits as well as deliver them. Grimble is too fast for many LB’s, too big for DB’s. Although not blessed with exceptional speed, he does provide an intermediate vertical threat.

How can the Steelers best utilize his talentsWe’ve found that Xavier’s strengths are catered to by routes such as post/seam. There’s reason to believe that short routes which get the ball to Grimble in space with room to run (such as flat and screen passes) can be effective as well. We discovered that multiple TE sets allowed the Steelers to create mismatches for Grimble. He used these to maximum effectiveness in taking advantage of his strengths.

Can Grimble be a weapon for the offenseI don’t feel Xavier Grimble fits the mold of the modern “move TE.” We’ve found that he possesses considerable strengths, however. When those are capitalized on using personnel groupings and specific routes, the Steelers were highly successful. No doubt Grimble has already proven he can be a weapon. The question now is:

How big can that weapon become?