“Well, well, well, how the turntables…”
To quote Michael Scott, that’s how I feel about the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023. For years, they were tortured by opposing offenses that would come out in heavy personnel, multiple tight end packages, keeping the Steelers in their base 3-4 defense, and spread the field in empty and pick Pittsburgh apart.
No one hurt them more often with that than the Cleveland Browns. But they were far from the only ones. The Steelers rarely had good answers, leading to linebacker-on-wide receiver matchups that made you cringe. In their defense, it’s a hard spot to be in, a base, run-defending personnel suddenly tasked to cover the entire width of the field. For offenses that can employ it, there’s real value there.
And that’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers need to do in 2023. They finally have the personnel to do it.
Sure, they’ve tried it in the past. But the “weapons” they were floating out there were laughable. Zach Gentry and Derek Watt can’t be your “space” players if you want any semblance of a running game. They were true run-only personnel and trying to present them as a threat in the pass game is laughable. Defenses easily accepted that bluff.
Stats don’t lie. Here are the Steelers’ 2022 passing numbers out of empty:
30/58 (51.7%) 277 yards, 1 TD 3 INT (5 sacks) – QB Rating: 49.3
Every time the Steelers threw out of empty last season, they were asking for trouble. It was a negative formation to work out of.
That’s going to change in 2023. Pittsburgh has made a full-throated commitment to its power running game and the players brought in to drive that bus can make an impact in the pass game, too. Pittsburgh’s 13/22 personnel could look like TEs Pat Freiermuth and Darnell Washington along with TE/FB (you can call him whatever you want) Connor Heyward. That’s a grouping you should see often this season. And all three of those guys can make plays with the ball in the air. Freiermuth’s best asset is his receiving ability, finding soft spots in zone and leveraging away from linebackers; Washington is an obvious size problem; and Heyward is a quality athlete who just makes plays as a receiver. Najee Harris is a capable receiver as is Jaylen Warren if he ever rotated in. Good luck tackling any of those guys 1v1 in space.
So take those three guys and spread them out. Now you’re asking linebackers to cover them 1v1. Or they can play zone, Kenny Pickett can pick it apart, or safeties rotate down over slot, which limits a defense’s coverage playing single-high and makes the pre-snap read easier on the quarterback.
This isn’t going to be a core of Pittsburgh’s offense. But it should be a complement. They can play this cat-and-mouse game of going heavy and being bunched and tight with Washington and Freiermuth in-line and Heyward off-ball, either as a lead blocker at fullback or pulling across on split-flow action and run the ball effectively.
These empty sets make for simple reads on Pickett. Not that he needs them but when you can hit the soft spot against zone or exploit a matchup in man coverage against some slow-footed, displaced linebacker, they’re quick wins to start drives. Get seven yards on 1st and 10. Move the sticks with a five-yard gain on 2nd and 3. And sometimes they’ll break for something better than that. It’s something that can be mixed and match. Come out heavy, go empty the first two plays, then align tight and run the ball downhill.
Big empty can be a serious weapon for the Steelers’ offense. It meshes well with the old-school way they want to go, big people imposing their will, with the new-age game of utilizing every inch of the field with the shorter and horizontal passing game.
Defending empty has been a thorn in the Steelers’ side for years. Now it’s time to flip the script. Turn those tables. And go create some offensive headaches.