The Pittsburgh Steelers sure love themselves some wide receivers. Of that there can be no doubt. During the 2018 season, no team used more receivers more frequently than did they. Not only did they run with at least three wide receivers on the field the second-most in the NFL at north of 75 percent of the time, they also used four- and five-receivers sets more than anybody else.
Which is precisely why it’s a bit hard to accept that the team will only go into the regular season with five wide receivers on the 53-man roster, as it’s currently constructed. Consisting of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, and rookie Diontae Johnson, this is a strong group of five, but it lacks a spare tire.
By my charting, the Steelers ran 774 plays out of the 11 personnel package last season, which includes three wide receivers on the field in addition to one running back and one tight end. The three primary wide receivers were Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown with a circulating supporting cast that went from Washington to Switzer to Eli Rogers. Out of 1130 offensive plays, that represents a snap share of 68.5 percent, and that doesn’t even factor out victory-formation snaps. They also ran two snaps from an 02 personnel package, by the way.
And they played 73 snaps with four wide receivers on the field. Almost always with the fifth player being a tight end, but it was a running back on one snap. during the final three weeks of the season, after Rogers was activated from the Physically Unable to Perform List, the 00 personnel package—five wide receivers—rose to prominence. They showed that look 36 times over the final three weeks, an average of 12 times a game.
Add it all up, and you have the Steelers playing 885 snaps with three or more wide receivers on the field, with over 100 of those snaps coming with four or more wide receivers on the field. That is 78.3 percent of the time, and, again, does not factor out the victory formation, which would bring it closer to 80 percent on the dot.
So if the Steelers are using three or more receivers on the field on roughly four out of every five plays, and about one in 10 of those plays is going to include four or more—even that number could increase, by the way—it’s hard to buy into the team only carrying five.
And then there is Ben Roethlisberger, who has been vocal at multiple points this offseason about stressing the importance of being able to rotate guys in and out at wide receiver. With only five players, that is not enough insulation to injury. If you lose one player, then that takes any five-receiver sets entirely out of the playbook and gives you no rotation ability with four-receiver sets, with marginal opportunity in your most common package.
Granted,, provided that the Steelers are able to get a player like Johnny Holton onto the practice squad, they would always have the ability to call him up if an injury arises that would allow them to continue to dress five. I’m not sure that the other squad-eligible wide receiver, like Diontae Spencer or Tevin Jones, would qualify as subsantial depth, however.