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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Offense Must Embrace Under Center Play Action in 2024



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett
Steelers QB Kenny Pickett against the Arizona Cardinals, Dec. 3, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH and ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Steelers offense came on at the end of the year to play a much better brand of football than they had been playing early on. But it still wasn’t enough, and Najee Harris had comments after their loss against the Bills that illuminated some coaching and schematic limitations.

Buffalo was a team that played mostly two-high shells with some two-man, quarters and cover six before this game. But Pittsburgh noticed to start the game they were living in one-high and never came out of it, rolling the extra defender down to slow down Pittsburgh’s run game and force Mason Rudolph to complete the ball and beat them.

“They’re typically, and we thought they would be more 22-man and more two-high, but first play, they came out in one-high, and them throughout the game, even when they were up.,” running back Najee Harris said. “They were still playing one-high. I was going to Coach T asking if they were still in it. I came into half and they were still in one-high. But you can see that, they’re agenda to stop the run. That’s what I’ve been saying all year. That’s what they did.”

Rudolph acknowledged they could have backed off the Bills more by completing some passes outside the numbers. But Harris acknowledges the team’s mentality was to keep pounding the ball into the front anyways. That’s what they had to do with their identity and game plan, but nothing worked until they started hitting play-action passes and backing them off. There was no counter punch to the one-high stuff.

“Eh, run it anyway? That’s what Mike T says and we walk around saying run it anyway because we know that what’s coming down in that box,” Harris said. “You know, this isn’t the first time teams have done that. Sometimes we do good, but sometimes we have to build off those plays.”

As you can imagine, this is cornering. But the Steelers did eventually adjust and crack through it all. How? They hit the Bills with a surprising play-action pass from under center, building off their duo series, and Pat Freiermuth created an explosive play off that. After that, Pittsburgh started to get more looks and would even come back to some play action to open up the middle of the field as the game went along.

But under center play action is not something the Steelers have done much of this season. Under Matt Canada, they went under center a lot, and that’s the right way to go about it. You need a diverse run game with multiple concepts and formations, including under center action, to keep up with the latest trends. Pittsburgh did that in the ground game, adopting more gap runs as the season progressed.

But the play-action never came with it. They were still one of the teams that used play action the least throughout the season. But under-center, almost all of their play action, under all three quarterbacks, were rollouts to the flat. Nothing else was designed until Monday, when I saw that break out a bit.

The under center and diverse run game is something the Steelers should intend to keep around with their next offensive coordinator hire. But they need to find someone who will meld a legitimate play-action game off that, both under-center and in the shotgun. Until then, the Steelers’ middle-of-the-field woes will continue. And they will stay behind the league’s curve when they have the personnel to soar with the right mind at the top.

In particular, Pittsburgh’s usage of those ideas on early-downs was lacking. As the table above shows, Pittsburgh was fairly fine running plays under center when they did, but they did not run much play action from those looks. And what the chart won’t pick up is the stunning lack of diversity within those calls.

There are offensive coordinator candidates like Klint Kubiak, Shane Waldron, Jerrod Johnson, and others who also fill this void. It’s about the Steelers embracing the idea of play-action passing being the key to opening up the offense. Without that, specifically in these situations, it’s hard to see the schematic leap coming about in Pittsburgh.