By Matthew Marczi
As the season goes on, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley continues to tinker with his sparsely-used Wildcat packages. While I am undecided as to the efficacy of even running such plays, they have not as yet been a detriment to the offense.
Furthermore, the continued variety of looks that they present out of both similar and dissimilar formations should only serve to prolong the shelf-life of the direct-snap offense by masking its predictability.
Haley, in fact, may well have found the most interesting look out of the Wildcat package to date in this past Sunday’s victory over the Buffalo Bills. And he broke it out on just the second play of the game.
Depending on how one chooses to interpret the formation, the play was run out of a 21 personnel package. Or maybe it was an 11. Perhaps it was just a 1. With an unbalanced line, a running back under center, and a quarterback flanked out wide, it is forgivable if things get confusing.
Practically speaking, though, the Steelers did run an unbalanced line, shifting right tackle Marcus Gilbert over to the left of Kelvin Beachum, with tight end Heath Miller lining up next to right guard David DeCastro. Will Johnson lined up to the side of Le’Veon Bell under center while Antonio Brown was in the slot and Emmanuel Sanders motioned in from the outside in order to fake an end around.
The result of the play was not wildly successful, netting four yards, but the potential for this play to work is clear. Bell had a bit of trouble fielding the snap, which prevented the Steelers from properly running the fake handoff to Sanders. The play thus took a bit longer to develop than it should have, which allowed the secondary to close in swiftly, sealing a sizable hole that flashed for but a moment for Bell.
Later on in the game, early in the second quarter, the Steelers broke out the exact same formation (excepting Guy Whimper in for Gilbert), giving the exact same look with Sanders motioning in from the far right. The only difference is that Sanders actually took the handoff this time.
Bell handled the snap cleanly this time and did such a good job of selling a keeper that he nearly got clotheslined by a defensive tackle that believed he still had the ball. Ben Roethlisberger faded backward, acting as though he expected to receive a lateral, which sucked in Kiko Alonso. Though Whimper got off his block on Mario Williams to watch the linebacker fly past him, Sanders was still able to beat the outside linebacker to the edge and race up the sideline for a 25-yard gain.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Wildcat look in this offense, or how long it will last. The Steelers have only run about eight or so snaps or so out of the package so far, and only in three different games, though that may partly be because Bell missed the first three games of the season.
As long as it maintains the potential to create an explosive play every now and then, as it did thanks to Sanders against the Bills, though, I suspect that we will continue to see it every now and then provided that Haley is still in town.