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Film Study: Steelers Use Empty Set to Flex Receiver Talent

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The Steelers pulled out a win against the Cowboys on Sunday by a hair. However, their path to victory from their last week was very similar.

With the offense looking sluggish and failing to get its wheels going, the Steelers went back to well and let Ben Roethlisberger call the shots.

Why did the Steelers go back to this gameplan, and what did they see that made it so effective to implement in the game?

Steelers Give Roethlisberger the Keys

The Steelers saw themselves shut out until late in the second quarter when they finally started to spread the Cowboys defense and attack the secondary. The Cowboys had run many concepts that clogged the middle of the field, and the Steelers seemed hesitant to attack outside the numbers. To feel confident doing that, they decided to go back to the old reliable, their 01 personnel or empty set with four wide receiver and tight end Eric Ebron.

The Steelers ran their 11 or 10 personnel all game up until this point, even on that drive. With that, they often let Chase Claypool run a lot of slants to great success. The Steelers have weaponized this against cornerbacks who try to cheat up against the slant in a big way. Anthony Brown had been against Claypool all game seeing those slants, so when James Washington takes an inside stem, he is thinking slant the whole way. It was a nice way to set up the double move for Washington, who cuts back up the field and accelerates to create separation for the touchdown.

The Steelers saw that the Cowboys did not have the personnel to match up with their receiver talent. They forced the Cowboys to go deep into their cornerback depth chart if they wanted to stop the Steelers receivers. Here, they get an excellent numbers game from this alignment. It is two-on-two with a one-on-one opportunity for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the alley. The Steelers rely on Smith-Schuster’s yards after catch ability to extend this play into a big rip, but the blocking numbers up front were favorable in this man coverage scheme as well.

The entire question of this second half was that the Steelers knew their receivers were better than the Cowboys’ cornerbacks. The Steelers allow Claypool and Smith-Schuster to win off the line. Both of them win on this play, but the immediate middle of the field option is the first read. Smith-Schuster stems it outside, which gets the cornerback to stop his feet and open up the gate as his outside hip freezes. As such, Smith-Schuster can stem the route back inside and get wide open.

The Steelers get Smith-Schuster on safety here as Dallas decides to get out of their dime package. That is a mismatch that the Steelers want to take advantage of all day. The Steelers clear out the middle of the field in this cover two scheme by running two deep routes with Diontae Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud on opposing sides with Smith-Schuster running a copper route. The Steelers have run this play at least as far back as 2017, and Smith-Schuster had a touchdown on a similar play against Houston in that season. It is a fantastic route as Smith-Schuster sells it with his eyes and gets the defensive back biting. He fights for the extra yards and a touchdown.

The Steelers knew they needed easy ways to get completions in short-yardage areas. Out of 01 personnel, a great way to do that is with the big tight end creating traffic. Ebron acts as a huge traffic cone here to ward off the Dallas secondary from scraping over top. As such, Johnson gets an easy completion and space to make something happen. The Steelers use traffic to dismantle man coverage. It gives yard-after-catch receives like Johnson opportunities to make plays.

The bunch set is another way to cause traffic for the Steelers. However, here they do it pre-snap rather than post-snap like the last play. It forces the defensive back to play with a huge cushion on a crisp route runner like Johnson, who he can not compete with given that cushion. Johnson works wide open and shows off some flashy moves in the open field to get more yardage. It is that schematic and ball-carrying combination that makes this work so well.

There is a similar situation here. Roethlisberger creates traffic with two-seam routes which give Ebron room underneath to work open. Jaylon Smith, the linebacker, does not follow him for some reason, but if he had, the seam routes would have caught him up in all the traffic. As such, Ebron gets to work in space and use his athleticism to clinch this touchdown and the go-ahead score.

The Steelers implementation of 01 personnel was all because of the talent they have at receiver. These guys can win against man coverage and win after the catch, too. It was essentially daring Dallas to try and beat them in man coverage, but they had no answer for it. By creating space and traffic, the Steelers give talented YAC receivers opportunities to do what they did best. That is why the offense suddenly caught fire in the second half.

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