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How Arthur Smith Involves RBs in the Passing Attack (+)



Steelers OC Arthur Smith

With voluntary OTA’s in full swing, we are getting our first real look at the initial vision of Arthur Smith’s offense in the Steel City. Pittsburgh has been consistent with its messaging all offseason: they want to win with their bigs, and with that, the running back tandem of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren seems destined for productive seasons out of the backfield. Their involvement extends beyond the rushing game as well. The latter gushed about the potential of being a key factor in the passing game in their new scheme for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Oh yeah. We’re involved a lot in the pass game, “ he said. “Learning the new offense, it’s a whole bunch we’re involved in. I’m excited for that. … Wherever I’m called at, when I’m called, I just go out there and perform, do what I can for the team.”

Every running back and playmaker, in general, wants the rock in their hands to make magic happen. But in order for that to happen, the offensive coordinator has to possess the creative ideas to get them freed up in space. When studying Smith’s offense over the past couple of seasons, you’ll find some neat ways that he tries to get the ball to his backs in the passing game. Last year, Atlanta drafted Bijan Robinson with their first-round selection, and some of his usage could give us clues as to how Pittsburgh’s backs could be featured next season.

The rookie’s usage picked up down the stretch, amassing over 50 yards receiving in three of his final five outings. The biggest play of his 2023 campaign came out of the backfield on mesh-rail, an old-school air raid concept that has been adapted by many NFL offenses in the modern game. The stacked alignment and release of the #2 WR forces the nickel to work through him, creating just a slight delay in him expanding with the rail route from the backfield. Usually the aiming point for the back is the feet of the departing #1 WR.

So long as the quarterback is on time and puts the ball on the back immediately, this a quarters coverage killer. If for some reason, the bullet route from the backfield is covered, the next read in the progression is typically the shallow route coming from the opposite side of the field. The third read is usually the spot or “over the ball” sit route in the middle of the field, which gives you a nice zone coverage outlet. One key reason that many coaches like this is because everything works into the vision of the quarterback and it’s a true, simple left-to-right (in this case) read.


Because Atlanta had two talented tailbacks in Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, Smith would lean into pony personnel more than most. On this play-action flare screen, there’s plenty of pre-snap motion to make the Packers defenders think. After initially aligning as the #2 to the weak side of the formation, the orbit motion behind the quarterback turns him into the new #3 WR, creating a four-strong or quads look for the defense to defend. Against the penny front, they’re leaving the edge defender, or end-man on the line of scrimmage, unblocked. Instead of reading him, the quarterback is reading a second-level defender which is in this case the Mike backer.

Based on the two-high shell and alignment of the defenders, this looks like a quarters call from a coverage perspective. With the motion, the backer is now responsible for Robinson who is flaring out horizontally at the snap of the football. If he expands, the ball will be given to the tailback on a zone run to the opposite side of the field. If he doesn’t push properly and regain leverage, the ball needs to be thrown underneath. The 21 personnel grouping usually signals a run heavy philosophy to the defense and this is a way to take advantage of the opponent keying too heavily on the box.


Shifting into empty formations with the back out of the backfield is helpful on many levels: it spreads out the defense, gives the quarterback useful man/zone information before the snap and forces the opponent to become predictable because usually defensive coordinators only carry a couple checks per week. In a key situation late in the fourth quarter against the Packers, they placed Robinson out wide as the #1 WR to the trips side of the formation. With the backer following him to the perimeter, this tells the quarterback that it’s more than likely going to be man to man.

The fade-now route combination can be found in the Shanahan system and both are quality answers against single-high looks such as this one. Spreading out into empty is a great way to hunt your best matchups and, in this case, that’s forcing a linebacker into an uncomfortable position where he’s having to drive on a slant from off coverage. The ball is out quicker than the five-man pressure can get home, and this results in an easy conversion to move the sticks. In 2023, the Steelers backs only caught two passes when lined up out wide or in the slot. As a rookie, Harris caught six but only one since that point, but perhaps changes are on the horizon for him in the fall.


Since the hiring, we’ve talked about how the zone run game is the foundation to the Arthur Smith offense, meaning everything else is designed to complement that focus. On wide zone, the backside edge defender is left unblocked on purpose, with the idea that the quarterback’s rollout will hold him long enough to take him out of the play. If that defender stops respecting that, that’s when the bootlegs occur. Good play callers have counters on top of their counters, this is what is commonly referred to as play sequencing and a good example of that came on this throwback screen against the Ravens in 2022.

The most difficult routes to defend off of play-action are the crossers over the middle, which force the off-ball backers to ROBOT and carry those across the field. The throwback screen plays off that with the bootleg action from the quarterback, making everything look like a shot play down the field. Except the back is leaking towards the sideline, waiting for the pass with a convoy of blockers directly in front of him. This is extremely well designed, even if the blocking at the point of attack is subpar. Allgeier does a nice job making the first man miss and scampers towards an explosive pass play.


Atlanta had some struggles in the red zone last year, in part because of a shoddy quarterback play, but there were things to appreciate about some of the designs. One of those was the shovel pass, which allowed Robinson to score a touchdown against the Texans in week 5. With Houston presenting a four-down front, this allows their center to climb to the second level and take out the weakside backer. At the top of the screen, the Falcons are just running a simple stick concept, effectively splitting the field in half by taking those three defenders away from the play.

Robinson makes an incredible snag with one hand and that’s the main reason that this play went viral on social media shortly after. But the beauty of it all is the pass blocking keys from the offensive line hold the second level defenders from coming downhill immediately like they would versus a traditional run. After the catch, it’s a one on one opportunity for the back in space versus a linebacker which predictably goes in the favor of the offense.


Of course, the tailbacks are always going to be deployed as outlets underneath on the majority of five-out passing concepts, but those check downs aren’t always successful plays for the offense depending on down and distance. However, only four NFL teams targeted running backs more than the Falcons did in 2023 so it’s completely understandable why the guys in that room are excited about their inclusion into the passing game. Smith is looking to rebuild his reputation as a coach in Pittsburgh and both Steelers backs are approaching free agency in the near future. All parties involved should be just a little more motivated to produce big numbers which will hopefully also lead to some more team success as well.

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Edward Carmichael
Edward Carmichael
June 2, 2024 10:08 pm

as a true Steelers fan, throwing the ball to both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren is a plus for the Steelers offense