If there is one thing that I am curious to follow as the Pittsburgh Steelers head into their second season without Heath Miller, it will be how the team chooses to utilize their tight ends. The fact of the matter is that the Steelers made greater use of multiple-tight-end sets during the 2016 season, their first without Miller, than they did in 2015, when they used an extra blocker on a little less than 28 percent of their offensive snaps outside of the Victory formation.
In comparison, Pittsburgh used an extra tight end (or two) on closer to a third of their total offensive plays, and this parallels with a lower usage of the standard 11, three-receiver set. While the Steelers ran out of that look nearly two-thirds of the time in 2015, it was a little below 61 percent last season.
Now, there are some obvious extenuating circumstances to these numbers. For one thing, Pittsburgh lost two of their top three wide receivers due to suspension (Martavis Bryant) and injury (Markus Wheaton, then Sammie Coates), so there was less incentive to keep the likes of Cobi Hamilton on the field as extensively.
Of course, it can’t be ignored that Chris Hubbard played nearly 120 snaps as a tackle-eligible tight end last season, with the vast majority of that coming during the second half of the season when the Steelers turned more to the running game and relied upon Le’Veon Bell down the stretch en route to a nine-game winning streak. The fact that fullback Roosevelt Nix missed much of the season is also to be considered.
What are some factors that could influence the tight-end usage this season? For one, the quality of play at wide receiver. With presumably Bryant and Coates both back, among others, there is a lot more incentive to utilize three of them at a time.
The inclusion of rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in particular could factor into this equation, as I have written previously. A big-bodied player who prides himself in his physicality and his blocking assignments, he can be an asset in the slot on screen passes and in the running game, which would reduce the reliance upon two tight ends.
But the quality of play at the tight end position has to weigh in here as well, and they can—and will have to—compete for their opportunities. If Ladarius Green is ready to go, then that should greatly increase the number of two-tight-end sets that they might run otherwise.
While that was not necessarily the case last season, one has to consider the fact that Green’s usage was limited a year ago, and some of his most extensive playing time came when they wanted his receiving threat on the field in hurry-up situations at the end of halves. On a more regular playing schedule as the top tight end, he will be paired with Jesse James, David Johnson, or Xavier Grimble more frequently.
You can check out the personnel breakdown for the 2016 season in my regular season charting notes column here. I took the liberty of going back and breaking down the 2015 numbers, so I might was well post them here for posterity and reference.
- 01: 8/1097 (.7%)
- 02: 1/1097 (.1%)
- 03: 4/1097 (.4%)
- 10: 6/1097 (.5%)
- 11: 714/1097 (65.1%)
- 12: 141/1097 (12.9%)
- 13: 58/1097 (5.3%)
- 20: 4/1097 (.4%)
- 21: 46/1097 (4.2%)
- 22: 85/1097 (7.7%)
- 23: 10/1097 (.9%)
- Victory: 20/1097 (1.8%)