PITTSBURGH — When it comes to offensive football in the NFL in 2023, there are the Miami Dolphins, then there is almost everyone else, and then there’s the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In what has been a historical outlier of a season in terms of a lack of overall offense, Mike McDaniel has his Miami unit humming along at a historic pace. The Dolphins have averaged 37.2 points per game so far this season. Only one other team has averaged more than 30 points. The Dolphins are a full touchdown per game better than the second-best NFL offense.
The Steelers are near the bottom, in 30th at 15.8 points per game.
The NFL has long been known as a copycat league, and it’s hard for any team to do anything for very long without others latching onto the same trend. While it will be hard for others to replicate the otherworldly speed of Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Devon Achane and Raheem Mostert, they can certainly crib some of the looks from the Fins flip card.
The thing that jumps out immediately is Miami’s usage of at-snap motion. According to data collected by ESPN Stats Info, the Dolphins have used at-snap motion an incredible 62.2% of the time, and have had some kind of motion on 80% of their snaps.
That’s not only the highest percentage in the league right now, it’s the highest percentage since ESPN started tracking that data. The second highest percentage was the Dolphins last season at 46%. Compare that to 2017, when the Rams led the NFL with 9% at-snap motion.
Not only are the Dolphins using at-snap motion more, but they’re also doing it differently. At-snap motion has traditionally come in the form of jet action, which Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada helped popularize during his time as a college coach last decade.
But what the Dolphins are doing now is something different, mostly with Hill. The Dolphins call it exit motion, where Hill takes off running just before the snap, getting a free release and the ability to cross the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam.
Mike McDaniel used "cheat" motion 7 times in Week 1, mainly with Tyreek Hill.
Sean McVay & Kyle Shanahan come back the next week and run a similar concept with Tutu Atwell and Deebo Samuel.
The motion gives the WR a running start into his route.
It's a copycat league. pic.twitter.com/NmOan6gK1S
— KP (@KP_Show) September 28, 2023
Some others have called it cheat motion. Because it’s basically a cheat code. The motion basically makes it impossible for the opposing defender to use press coverage — which is important against a smaller player like Hill. It also changes the coverage rules for the defense at the last second, which creates an incredible amount of stress on defenders.
“I think it’s a cool thing,” Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin said. “It allows him to use his speed and be on the run. It kind of takes away your ability press him. I think it’s a great tool.”
So why haven’t the Steelers — and everyone else for that matter — jumped on the bandwagon and started using a ton of at-snap motion?
The answer is that they’re trying and it’s complicated.
For one, not everyone has Tyreek Hill, or even a player anything like Hill. So there won’t be a similar advantage for all offenses.
“I think it’s obviously just where you’re at and where you’re focused on and trying to get your players in the best positions to make plays,” Canada said on Thursday. “They’re doing a tremendous job. They’re doing great. Hats off to them for what they’re doing. I don’t think you can just jump in and see something and put it in. That’s not something you can do. But obviously, guys are looking at copying certain things that they’re doing.”
The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams have jumped on the train with success over the last few weeks, while some other teams like the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants have tried and failed.
The concept is simple, but the execution is not. If the snap comes too soon after the motion starts, the motion man could fail to create the desired conflict or even end up running into one of his teammates. If the snap comes too late after the motion starts, the defense has more time to settle the conflict, and the player can be penalized for an illegal shift.
When Hill starts running toward the sideline, his back is to the ball. He is relying on the rest of the offensive operation happening on time in order to prevent him from taking a penalty or simply running out of real estate and having to stop at the sideline. The offense is also giving up a part of the surprise of the timing of its operation. The defense knows that the ball must be snapped before Hill goes offside. That challenge becomes even more heightened in road environments when communication can be difficult.
“At this level, timing is everything,” Austin said. “That’s why we practice in detail is much as we do. The timing is extremely important, especially sometimes you’re doing it at away games, crowd noise, silent snaps — all of those are factors. Once everybody (else) gets a comfortability with it, I think you’ll see it expand more. Obviously, they’ve been doing that since day one. It’s just a matter of continuing to rep it and getting that timing down.”
It might not be a solution for all teams. But the Steelers offense is run by an original at-snap motion innovator, and they have a player that is extremely close to Hill in terms of size and speed in Austin. So where’s the cheat motion for the Steelers? They’re working on it.
“We have something ourselves,” Austin said. “So it’s just about finding time to work it into the offense and get comfortable with it. … I think it’s something that you’ll see more of. I think that can be a real weapon.”