One of the things that stuck out in the Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday night, that I pointed out earlier this week, was the amount of three wide receiver sets, or 11 personnel, that the team used on offense.
52 of the 71 offensive plays ran Sunday night used that personnel group with 38 of them being pass plays. Head coach Mike Tomlin was asked on Tuesday why so many three receiver sets were used in the game Sunday night, and he chalked up mostly to the use of the no-huddle and the success that they had with that personnel group as the reason why.
“We feel comfortable with our wide receiver group, not only three but four. Jerricho Cotchery is (also) a valuable member of our group,” Tomlin said. “Of course, the way the game unfolded, that personnel group was a consistent one for us. We felt like we were capable of moving the ball. It’s an asset to us so we utilize it.”
Now the lack of overall success that the Steelers offense had running the football, combined with how the ebb and flow of the game went, I firmly believe led to this unbalance. 11 personnel is likely to once again be the primary grouping after we look back at the game this Sunday against the New York Jets, but the run versus pass balance while using it needs to be more balanced in my opinion.
In my pre game analysis of the upcoming game against the Jets, the Steelers need to use more of the 21 personnel group, which means either two running backs or 1 running back and a fullback to go along with a tight end and two receivers. Now the use of the fullback will likely not be any more than 10 plays, but Will Johnson is a much better pass catching threat at the position than David Johnson every was. So there is 8-10 plays there.
Another 8-10 plays can utilize either Chris Rainey or Baron Batch as the second back along with the feature back, either Jonathan Dwyer or Isaac Redman. I showed in the breakdown of the first half touchdown to Heath Miller, in the game against the Broncos, how effective that group is at creating space, and that was just one play and one formation.
Rainey is play-maker that needs the ball in his hands on offense at least 5 times a game. He can always be lined up in the slot for a three wide receiver look in addition and defenses must account for him. On early downs this most likely would be a safety covering him, which would leave a linebacker to cover Miller. Out of the backfield it would most likely be a linebacker that would be responsible for spying Rainey, or Batch for that matter. Imagine the space for the running game if that is done more consistently. Imagine flaring that second back out and running play action to the feature back before dumping it off to Rainey or Batch out in space.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was asked Thursday about the use of Rainey going forward. “I think every week it will be semi-similar,” said Haley. “It will depend upon what mode we’re in. Last week we got into a bunch of no-huddle which he wasn’t particularly a part of. That doesn’t mean he won’t be this week. It will ebb and flow with him early on especially.”
Now I am not saying that Rainey needs to be on the field for 25 snaps, but 15 is a very realistic number in a close game. Those extra 6 or 7 snaps would likely come at the expense of Emmanuel Sanders, but I think it would be a healthy swap because of the play calling options it would present, especially on early downs. Should the Steelers get themselves in several third and long situations Sunday, it is obvious that 11 personnel will be needed in those situations. Hopefully that doesn\’t wind up being the case.
As I stated early in this post, I am not against the three receiver packages, as much as the offense needs to be able to run out of them more when used to avoid predictability as far as a run pass ratio goes. If not, teams will not respect the run threat, which means more blitzes and faster starts for edge pass rushers with no worries about protecting against the run.
The Sunday game will be a fun one to chart for this reason alone and I bet we will not see 11 personnel used on 73% of the plays. 60% or slightly higher would be my guess. We shall see if I am right. Let\’s also see if we get around 15-20 plays that utilize the 21 personnel group in addition.