The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: 4- and 5-WR personnel groupings will continue to be a staple of the offense in 2019.
Explanation: Still the Steelers had occasionally flirted with getting that many wide receivers on the field at the same time in the past, it never expanded to more than a handful of snaps in a game, and quickly faded in usage. That is, at least, until last season. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner stuck with those groups as key personnel packages from the start of the season to the finish. Will that continue, or was it a product of circumstance?
The deciding factor as to whether or not the Steelers will continue to deploy four- and five-receiver sets in 2019 is if it works. Last season, it worked. They probably won’t even run it in the preseason, so there’s no reason to think they’ll have any setbacks in wanting to use it between now and then.
Even with Antonio Brown gone, there are still plenty of wide receivers the team wants to get on the field, perhaps especially rookie Diontae Johnson, who looks like he may not immediately crack the top three. So using four-receiver sets would be a good and easy way to get him some playing time.
The Steelers’ wide receiver group has a good mix of players that they can use to their advantage to create stress on the defense, including inside zone-beaters like Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers. These are the packages where they can be the most effective for the team in 2019.
While the look did work, for the most part, last year, the reality is that it was mostly done as a response to the issues at the running back position stemming from Le’Veon Bell being a no-show. The team started using five-receiver sets after James Conner got injured, which is a further reflection of that. The offense is going to enter 2019 much more stable, and that should result in greater use of more traditional packages.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be used at all, but it will be much more niche than it had been, where they ran entire drives with four or five receivers, or even up to dozens of snaps from the look per game. A handful of snaps in the average game, and some not at all, sounds more likely.