It’s funny how little a player saying something can end up meaning in the long run. Remember early in the season when the Pittsburgh Steelers talked about how they really wanted to utilize all of their wide receivers this season, and that in order to do so they would be running a healthy dose of four-receiver sets?
Yeah, that ain’t happening anymore. Like, literally.
It has been four games now since the Steelers last utilized a personnel grouping on offense that featured four wide receivers on the field simultaneously. They ran nine plays out of the 01 personnel—four receivers and a tight end—during the first game of the season, but have done so just three times since then.
They ran the package twice in week two against the Vikings, and one of those was technically not even a play, but rather a defensive pre-snap penalty that blew the play dead. It was used just once more a week later in Chicago, and has not been heard from again since.
Way back when, in the middle of September of the Before Time, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talked specifically about the four-receiver sets and said that it was his belief, following its prominent display in the season opener, that they would continue to use it.
“I think you’ll see more of it because it was very good to us”, he said at the time. And it was very good at the time. Roethlisberger completed eight of nine passes out of the set for 108 yards, averaging 12 yards per pass attempt, which included a 50-yard gain.
But they only ran two plays out of the set over the course of the next two games, and in both cases they were used on third and long—third and nine, and third and 15, specifically. Those two plays gained eight and 14 yards, respectively, which is frankly just annoying.
So what exactly has changed between now and then?
The big change was simply the fact that running back Le’Veon Bell got some snaps under his belt. I have no doubt that a key cause of their significant use of four-receiver sets in the opener was because they weren’t fully comfortable yet with where he was conditionally or relative to the playbook.
Aside from that, the Steelers no longer have to attempt to get rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the field. He is now routinely on the field, passing Eli Rogers on the depth chart, and has outsnapped Martavis Bryant for most of the season as well, so they don’t need to use this set as an excuse to play him.
So they don’t need to lighten Bell’s load, and they don’t need to get creative to get their rookie receiver on the field. But why not keep using it? It was a successful look, after all, and you could run it with Bell on the field instead of a tight end.