Film Room: How to Improve Pittsburgh Steelers offense

There are loads of problems with the Pittsburgh Steelers offense that would make any fix seem like a fairy tale. Whether it be asking players to execute plays that are well out of their capability, the sequencing of play calling, the misuse of offensive talent, static concepts, and too many mirrored designs, the list goes on and on.

What may seem like a herculean task isn’t quite as daunting as it may seem at first. The Steelers already have, at the very least, a base level of talent to make an acceptable offense. Right now, the Steelers offense is near the bottom of the barrel in EPA/play, and that quite simply has to change.

At the very least, the goal should be to help turn what is one of the worst offenses in the league and at least be somewhere near the middle of the pack for the rest of this season. How can they do this? Well, here are some possible solutions.

Move James Daniels to Center

This one probably should have been done a long time ago, and it is not because James Daniels is bad at guard, oh heavens no. The reason it should have been done is because Mason Cole has too many limitations for what they ask him to do.

Right now, not only is Cole not being able to execute these levels of play, but whatever serviceable level of play the Steelers were getting out of him last year is no longer there. Currently, according to PFF, Cole has the 9th worst pass-blocking grade out of all qualifying linemen with at least 20% of a team’s offensive snaps.

This has gotten to the point where he should not be relied on to be a starter, and it may be time to see what Nate Herbig can bring as a starting guard next to a much more athletic center in Daniels. Remember, Daniels was a center coming out of Iowa, and he has played over five hundred snaps at center in the league, according to PFF’s charting. Many smart offensive line analysts believed when Daniels signed with the Steelers in free agency, he was going to be their starting center.

Currently, Kevin Dotson is playing right guard for the Rams and has put up a very respectable level of play and, as a matter of fact, is the top-graded offensive guard on PFF. Kendrick Green, before going down with injury this season, was putting up serviceable level of play at left guard in pass protection and actually had a positive grade there.

This is a topic for a different time and place, but clearly, there was some potential to get better play out of the Steelers offensive line sooner, and it is quite mystifying how the Steelers didn’t really explore this combination. 

It’s still not too late to explore the option of moving Daniels to center and seeing what Herbig can provide.

Better Use of Motion and Blocking Personnel

When Sean McVay took over for the Rams in 2017, folks at home witnessed the birth of the motion revolution for NFL offenses. Many people, including analysts at the time, thought more motion was the key to success for offenses at the time because of how often that motion was taking defenders out of the picture and making it easier for quarterbacks to read the defense.

The problem is as defenses have adjusted to motion, they’ve learned to filter out what does and doesn’t work. The Steelers are actually among the league’s average in use of motion, according to ESPN Sports analytics writer Seth Walder.

If there is anything to take away from this, it’s that the Steelers should actually continue to stay around this percentage in terms of how often they use motion, because motion itself does not necessarily equal an efficient offense. Often, they’re utilizing the speed threat of a guy like Calvin Austin to try and help move guys out of the box, and it definitely has had some success here and there.

The problem in the run game is they’re often asking the wrong personnel to make key-pulling blocks at the first and second levels.

What the Steelers are asking out of Allen Robinson as a blocker is actually very similar to what the Rams used to ask out of Robert Woods and now Puka Nacua. The problem is Robinson is just not that type of blocker at receiver, very few are, and there has to be a way to mitigate that issue going forward. That said, the way the Rams use Nacua could provide a blueprint.

According to PFF, Nacua has logged most of his snaps on the outside, with him logging 204 out of his 374 snaps as an outside receiver, yet he’s a consistent threat as a frontside blocker. There is a very obvious candidate here to be inserted in this type of role at receiver, and his name is George Pickens.

Some possible suggestions here are perhaps playing Pickens tighter to the formation, having him motion as a puller to the frontside, instead of being restricted to mainly the backside block. Also, since Diontae Johnson will be coming back, the need for Pickens to play strictly as the X receiver will go down somewhat. Given that Johnson is very talented at beating press man coverage, this is definitely something worth exploring.

There’s also the option of using Jaylen Warren more in this role or something similar.

Warren is one of the best pass protectors on the team, but he’s also one of the best skill position players on this team at blocking period. He’s able to stone blitzers who have a running start in a static position, so why not get this guy more involved as a moving blocker?

Warren is also a capable receiver as well, and they don’t necessarily have to tie him strictly to blocking, as they could create a lot of favorable looks for him out of different formation looks that they haven’t really delved into quite yet.

Part of why pony personnel ends up being mostly confined to “good in theory” but not really used in practice is because you very rarely have two backs who can seriously block. Often, that ends up just confining the 2nd back mostly to the pass game, which, at that point, teams would rather just stick to 11 personnel.

Of course, the single biggest frustration with this offense is undoubtedly how disjointed the passing attack is in terms of design, along with its predictability. It does not take an expert film watcher to see that this offense relies far too often on static concepts, like curls, hitch routes, and comebacks.

An expert film watcher, though, can take note of those concepts and better understand how to make those plays work, which is what made Brett Kollmann’s takeaway so fascinating.

Kollmann is currently working on a video for this week on Matt Canada’s offense, and it’s highly encouraged people check it out when it releases. He has a great point here about how motion through the snap can make these plays not seem as stationary, both to the viewer’s eye and the defense.

To better illustrate this, let’s look at some examples:

What is interesting about both of these examples is for Georgia, they motion out into trips bunch, which creates an isolation throw attempt to the boundary side, but it’s also very easy to note the space underneath for the motion man if he had run a stopping route versus the blitz here.

In the second play here, Washington short motions the tight end inside to run the sit route in the middle of the field. It’s hard to tell what concept they’re running here when the outside receiver gets knocked off his route, as it could be some variation of smash or hank. Regardless, it’s easy to see how motioning on static routes can cause havoc for defenses looking to rotate or switch over a bunch set. 

This is something Washington loves to use, and there are plenty of examples for the Steelers to take ideas from.

Pittsburgh has used these trips bunch sets before, so much of what Washington does here could definitely be implemented, but there’s also something very important about these two plays. These are two very similar formations, with both involving Rome Odunze short-motioning all the way into the snap.

The first one essentially turns into a smash concept on the field side, with the motion man running the drag route that would act as a pick versus man, with the tight end becoming the third read on what basically becomes mesh. The running back delays the release, which turns into a flat, or what almost becomes a pseudo rail that is typically run with mesh.

The second play is pretty much the same formation, but this time, the motion runs the over, which creates a lot of chaos to sort out and helps open up the curl underneath. Both of these plays utilize similar formations and tendencies to run different plays out to fool defenses, something the Steelers simply do a good enough job of.

As shown in the second play, the motion does not necessarily have to be a static route either, but rather, it can help free up the static routes around it. It’s information the defense has to process and that in itself is enough. Credit to Kalen DeBoer and Ryan Grubb for what they’ve done this season on offense.

Mentioned the short motion quite a bit in those previous examples, but what is really interesting is how many teams have started to use these short, fast motions to give the motion man almost this head start into their route, which is almost reminiscent of what you’d see in the Canadian Football League.

Kyle Shanahan had some terrific comments on this motion that’s begun to takeover the league, which really fascinated me. Obviously, giving guys like Tyreek Hill and Deebo Samuel a running head start into their route would almost seem like cheating, hence why he called the motion “cheat.” 

Shanahan also wasn’t lying when he said he’s seen about every team implement it since the end of week 1, which also includes the Steelers.

This play should have gone for a significant gain, but obviously, execution issues on the quarterback here placement-wise did not help. That said, it’s incredibly frustrating how the Steelers implemented something like this. The process was great, the result, not so much, and they didn’t really try it again.

Conclusion

Obviously, it’s not going to be a perfect fix, but there was a lot to point out that could be fixed with the Steelers’ offense. Whether it be personnel decisions, play design, tendencies, or how they use motion, there are clearly a lot of areas to address. With defenses becoming more privy to offenses nowadays, there’s become a lot less room for error.

Being an offensive coordinator in the NFL is a very difficult job, and what was touched on here is what most experienced play callers would call surface level, but even with that, this surface level was the best this writer could suggest to help fix this offense. 

Whether the Steelers elect to try some of these ideas from other teams suggested here coming off the bye week is ultimately up to them.

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