By now, we’ve had 24 hours to digest the news of Ladarius Green’s release. We can, have, and will, continue to talk about the mistake that ultimately proved to be signing him. But the most relevant part is where the Pittsburgh Steelers are moving forward. What they lose with him no longer on the team, and how they can compensate.
One good point many have suggested is going to 4 WR sets, 10 personnel, or more broadly than that, suggesting JuJu Smith-Schuster can act as the next Green. It makes sense on paper. He’s a big guy who could play in the slot, physical, and dynamic enough to quench the Steelers’ thirst.
There’s one problem with assuming Smith-Schuster can essentially be that guy. And it has to do with how defenses react.
Defenses respond to the personnel you bring in. In a general sense, anytime an offense has at least three total running backs and tight ends on the field (12, 21, 13 personnel), they will stay in their base defense. Their 3-4 or 4-3 front. And if an offense is in 11 personnel, defenses will respond to coming out in sub-package. The Steelers are generally strict about this defensively.
That’s one of the benefits of having that move tight end. Offenses can come out in 12 personnel and defenses will respond by bringing in their base defense. But when one of their tight ends is a big receiver, base defenses have a tough time trying to defend him. Bigger than their safety, faster than their linebacker. And in Green’s 18 catches, we saw three examples of that advantage in action.
Week 12 – 37 Yard Gain
Steelers come out in 13 personnel with Chris Hubbard as the tackle eligible, third tight end. Run heavy look so the Giants remain in their 4-3 base.
Playaction to help suck the linebackers up and Green is able to split the safeties, making the catch before the FS can close on him. Then you see his YAC ability, spinning off the safety and getting five extra yards.
Week 13 – 35 yard gain
This might be the best example. Steelers in 12 personnel, 1 RB and 2 TEs. Playaction again to hold the linebackers. Steelers run a modified version of a sail concept. The Z vertical, the Y (Green) on a corner, with the backside X running the flat from across the field.
Green gets matched up on the Buck linebacker, separating at the top of the route and Ben Roethlisberger hits him in stride.
Week 15 – 23 yard gain
Different look. The Steelers come out of the huddle in 12 personnel but spread the field out, splitting Green out to the top of the screen and then motioning Le’veon Bell into the slot. The Bengals are in nickel on this play, it’s 3rd and 17, but splitting Green out helps tip the coverage. Generally, if a cornerback is lined up on a tight end or running back, especially the latter, it’s zone. If a LB walks out with him, it’s likely it’s man-to-man.
It’s Cover 6 and the CB does a poor job of squeezing the throw. Green makes the catch and moves the sticks.
With a guy like Smith-Schuster on the field, the defense is going to their sub-package. That obviously doesn’t mean he can’t be successful, as you know, my hopes for him remain high, but that is the pre-snap advantage you get with the flex tight ends. Jesse James simply isn’t that guy and while Xavier Grimble resembles Green more closely, he isn’t as good an athlete and offers a much lighter resume. Hard to rely on him right now.
My hope is for the team to explore finding another Green-esque player in next year’s offseason. It’s a dangerous weapon to have and in limited capacity, the Steelers reaped those benefits in 2016.