The Pittsburgh Steelers finally had a breakout performance last Sunday, totaling over 400 yards in their first game without former offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Because of the timing of the decision, it was unrealistic to expect wholesale changes but there were some tweaks that paid immediate dividends. One of those tweaks was an increased usage of 13 personnel. In week 12, the Steelers deployed this grouping on 11 snaps compared to just seven snaps all season previously. The results were actually quite good, with eight of those plays being deemed successful.
With a tight end room of Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward along with the addition of third-round pick Darnell Washington, this was something fans expected to see from day one. But that never transpired for one reason or another. Quarterback Kenny Pickett and running back Najee Harris both admitted to being fans of the idea this week during their media availability. So what is the idea behind this new plan and how could it develop moving forward? Here’s a look at where they are now and how it could evolve moving forward.
In Cincinnati, Pittsburgh ran for 53 yards on seven carries out with their three tight ends on the field at the same time. The game plan featured two of the Steelers most familiar run plays: zorro toss and duo. As expected, the Bengals countered each time with their base 3-4 defense. These 5-man fronts can cause some issues for wide-zone teams but zorro toss, a Shanahan staple, uses an escort motion (Connor Heyward in the Steelers case) to provide some assistance dealing with the end man on the line of scrimmage.
Harris went full beast mode on duo. pic.twitter.com/aL4yncotFB
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) November 27, 2023
Any time that you get into these heavy personnel packages, you are bringing more people to the party up front. This means that you must be confident that you’re going to win the matchups in the trenches, specifically with the tight ends. Earlier in the season, the Steelers were struggled tremendously to run the ball out of 12 personnel, with Darnell Washington only a handful of games into his career and Pat Freiermuth struggling due to him being more of a receiver type. However, Washington had arguably his best game as a pro, showcasing his tantalizing skill set which led to him being a hot commodity coming out of Georgia.
In order to keep the Bengals honest, the Steelers did pass out of the personal grouping four times. These plays calls varied: a deep shot off four verticals, an 4×1 isolation play leading to a check down underneath, a running back screen and a bootleg keeper. It was refreshing to see a screen play work to perfection after their execution on such calls this year has left much to be desired. Washington was the recipient of the check-down underneath on the isolation play, originally designed for George Pickens on the backside, and he carried multiple defenders forward for a first down.
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) December 1, 2023
The two unsuccessful plays were due to Freiermuth getting his legs tangled up down the field with no penalty flag in sight. The bootleg keeper in the fourth quarter barely crossed the line of scrimmage before the Bengals defense corralled Heyward in the flat. The Steelers are a heavy bootleg team but with them now preferring to use the toss instead of a hand off on outside zone, the play-action effect is diminished because the plays no longer work in unison. This goes back to the illusion of complexity approach from Sean McVay and his early Rams teams. Essentially every first down play was wide zone, a bootleg or a screen with everything looking the same until it wasn’t.
When you have three tight ends with various different, but useful, skill sets, the possibilities on how to attack are many. One of the more frustrating things about the Steelers offense over the past several seasons is just how disjointed the passing game looks. There needs to be a purpose behind why you’re getting into heavy personnel to throw the ball. One example of this can be found just last week from the Jaguars-Texans game. Jacksonville comes out in 13P but spread the defense out by shifting into empty. They’re running a simple hi-lo concept (spot-dig) to the strong side of the formation.
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) December 1, 2023
The reason this is important is because the Texans are in their base defense so instead of an extra defensive back being placed in the slot, the strong side linebacker is still in the game. Trevor Lawrence knows the linebacker can’t be right, he either has to take the sit route or drop into the dig window. By throwing out of heavy personnel, you can dictate these advantageous matchups for your quarterback and his receivers. If defensive coordinators trusted their linebackers to cover receivers, they wouldn’t take them out of the game in passing situations. So, attack them and prosper. NFL teams, including the Steelers, steal concepts all the time. This is a good one to take.
Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin III made an interesting point this week about how previously, they weren’t really sure why they were running a specific play. Those details have been missing from this offense for quite some time now which is certainly a strong, negative indictment of the coaching staff. Being intentional about the “why” behind every formation and play call is what makes a good play caller. Being able to exploit defenses in a multitude of different ways is what makes a good offense.
Talked with Calvin Austin III about the changes last week and he said there was clear communication and detailed meetings throughout the week. Players never wondered 'why' something happened or what it was called.
All the details were ironed out before the game. Here's a quote: pic.twitter.com/YwxQRI6p7Z
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) November 30, 2023
The Steelers may not have either just yet, but Sunday was a good first step towards a new, more productive beginning. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see if they lean into this approach more or if this was simply a one-off scenario. There’s certainly some untapped potential here. Last year, the Chiefs used this personnel grouping to help them win a Super Bowl. This year, it could help the Steelers make it back to the playoffs.