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Steelers Analysis

4 Steelers Takeaways after Russell Wilson Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers made waves by signing Russell Wilson, and now moving forward, the team will have to look in the mirror.



Pittsburgh Steelers Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) before an NFL football game in Empower Field at Mile High Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PITTSBURGH — Let’s ride. Or something to that effect. Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers in a massive move right before the legal free-agent tampering period opens on Monday. As such, Pittsburgh’s entire outlook as a team has changed, especially with Wilson taking the veteran minimum to join the team. But what does this move tell us about the offseason moving forward? Here are four takeaways from the Wilson signing.

The Offense … is Going to be Interesting

I have to say, on the surface, the idea that Russell Wilson and Arthur Smith have any schematic chemistry is odd. So, the fact that Wilson’s camp and the Steelers feel like this is a fit intrigues me. So, to start off, let me take you inside my thoughts of it, right on the surface.

For one, no one attempted fewer intermediate passes last season in the NFL than Wilson. He threw nearly three-quarters of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and 27 percent of those passes behind the line of scrimmage. Warren Sharp laid this out well. However, on the opposing side, the Falcons were 14th in those intermediate throws.

The tape backs it up. The moonball would come out, but Wilson did not attempt those deep bombs nearly as much last year. He averaged just 3.8 air yards per pass attempt, very comparable to Kenny Pickett’s 3.7 air yards per pass attempt. So, he’s joining an offense that historically works the middle of the field, but he does not. It’s a fascinating fit.

It should be noted that perhaps Sean Payton should have had more confidence in Wilson. When they utilized that field area on just 163 passing attempts, they racked up 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But that’s on a low sample size. On the other hand, Smith’s Falcons led the league in interceptions in that area of the field with 14 interceptions thrown. Wilson has not thrown to this area of the field often in his NFL career, especially over the last three seasons.

In addition, for a team that popped so much out of under-center action, Smith started experimenting with ideas last year that might signal where this is going. More on that later, but the top concern of this has to be Wilson’s declining average depth of target and a lack of trust in him throwing over the middle of the field. Maybe those limited numbers provide hope that Smith can squeeze some more juice here. His scheme has ways to employ that change. It’s just not a natural fit. Smith did implement a legitimate run game with his quarterbacks over the last few years. Wilson was 2nd in the NFL in EPA/Rush the previous season and can still move. That is coming to the offense. Designed quarterback runs feel like a must.

Where this Fit Might Click

Alright, so let’s get past the first glaring problem; there’s more to come in this article. What’s the path to this working, and why would these sides feel that this works? Well, I can see this all working out in three ways between Smith and Wilson. First, you have to accept there will be some elements of ‘Russ-Ball’, which include out-of-structure chaos and a guy who holds onto the ball for too long (Wilson was third-to-last in the NFL in time to throw last season at 3.03 seconds).

For one, under-center player action with deep drops to let Wilson unleash his deep ball is a huge factor. The Steelers have two receivers who can win vertically in Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. Get that going, and Wilson can uncork that sucker. His athleticism had diminished, highlighting his issues with pocket management, but when Wilson is comfortable, he slings the pill down the field with the best of them. So, this is a massive must.

The second is that shotgun play-action needs to be utilized more. Wilson can’t see over his offensive line. It’s just a fact. His height has a drawback to it. But shotgun play-action allows him to set up his launch point and uncork the deep ball. Atlanta did this a lot more than Denver did in 2023. It was one of the new wrinkles Smith added to the offense. According to Sports Info Solutions, Atlanta had 98 such plays, while Denver had just 35. But Denver averaged 10.6 yards per attempt there, and Wilson appeared comfortable on those plays. A bigger sample size of those plays, especially to Pickens, is coming. Atlanta was 8th in yards per attempt in the gun on play action.

Lastly, this team needs to work out of empty. The Falcons had 69 such attempts out of empty, while the Broncos had 60 last season. But Wilson is comfortable there. He can decipher a defense before the play and, generally, start to work the quick game. Pittsburgh has to try to get something going in the quick game with Wilson that he can latch onto throughout the season. He has a great deep ball, but teams will sit in two high to remove the deep ball and make the Steelers’ offense one-dimensional. These are three key things to watch, but they are likely crucial to Wilson’s success.

Run Game + Offensive Line

So, if teams want to sit back two-high, the Steelers had better run the football. This is the thing about Wilson, and it’s similar to Pickett or Rudolph, in that staying ahead of the chains and minimizing Wilson’s impact to carry the offense is important. So, Smith’s run game schematics come to the forefront here as a wide zone heavy offensive coordinator. He ran more wide zone than anyone else in the league at 54 percent a season ago, just ahead of Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.

Smith paired that with inside zone and power, starting to mesh in some gap concepts, though nowhere near the amount the Steelers had down the stretch last year at 29 percent. So, this team has to look out for that. But protecting Wilson to uncork those deep balls and running the ball is paramount. It can help work in synergy with one another. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris will be the engines of the offense.

So, center and offensive tackle need to be figured out this offseason. There are no more playing guys who can not cut it. I’d venture to say tackle is the first-round pick, and they could add someone like Lloyd Cushenberry in free agency. This team has to get those positions down pat to maximize the run game and pop the passing game. Wilson will create pressure for himself, but at least giving him the maximum protection is paramount to this marriage.


Is this a competition with Kenny Pickett or some farce? I won’t try to play you guys dumb here and think Wilson at least did not get assurances that he would compete for a starting job, and he is undoubtedly the favorite to become the starter. I would leave that door for Pickett open despite that, though. Listen, it’s the cliche to say that competition makes everyone better, but the Steelers have a new everything here. A new staff, new look quarterback room, new scheme. This slate needs to be open to anything and everything, especially since Wilson and Pickett have similar concerns in the Smith offense.

There is no right answer here. But Pickett will not be thrown aside just like that; I do believe that. And by that, I do mean he gets a chance here. Alright, kid. Show what you’ve got. Wilson has a far better trump trait (that deep ball), but give Pickett a chance to win this thing, and let’s see what he’s made of under the most intense competition that could have been brought in, realistically, without totally discarding him.

The formula to win with Pickett and Wilson remains largely the same. Run the ball, play defense well, protect the quarterback, and let that guy prove what he can do. Smith had a long meeting with Pickett to discuss a vision. He did the same with Wilson. Alright, let’s see which one is better. That’s type of mentality I expect the team to have, with Wilson going into training camp with the obvious advantage.