The NFL is forever evolving. Logic dictates that if you want to keep up with all the philosophical changes, you must be willing to change as well. While most teams are on board with this, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain somewhat resistant, preferring instead some very old principals steeped in tradition.
In their defense, their tactics have yielded perennial success.
They like to get old school with their "21 personnel" (two running backs, one tight end) grouping—a set that directly contrasts that of most current day NFL approaches. While most teams currently carry a fullback, they tend to utilize them only in sub-packages for short yardage and goal-line situations. By contrast, the Steelers are not afraid to employ a fullback at any point in the game.
I charted the first half of the Week 3 preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The reason being, Week 3 is traditionally the game where teams play their starters the longest. For this reason, it most closely resembles a regular season game plan. The Steelers ran 33 offensive plays in the first half with their starters—13 of which were out of some 21 personnel grouping variation.
When we delve a bit deeper, we can identify a more traditional set using an offset-I formation with the fullback to the play, or "power" side.
When the Steelers line up like this, they are attempting to create a mismatch on the play side, which allows them to run the football more effectively. In the aforementioned game, running back Jonathan Dwyer had lanes on the play side but chose to cut back for a minimal gain. It made the formation appear to be ineffective, but the blocking was there.
The Steelers also used this traditional 21 personnel grouping to throw the football. This is a great personnel grouping for which to run play action—one of Roethlisberger's unequivocal strengths.
When tight end Heath Miller is in the game, he is adept at finding spots behind the linebackers who bite and pull up on the play fake. Ben does a remarkable job dropping the football in front of the safeties so Miller has additional running room. This important TE role will fall upon the shoulders of David Paulson until Heath's return.
Admittedly, it was a bit surprising that the Steelers relied upon this grouping so heavily in the preseason's most important game. Perhaps the goal was more about evaluating the starting offensive line's run blocking and giving Dwyer one more shot to keep his job? Regardless, the imbalance between 21 personnel and their more dynamic 12 personnel group paints a picture of a team preparing for a future without their best tight end.
In one more example from the same game, the Steelers slightly modified their 21 personnel. As you can see above, the Steelers employed their same personnel grouping, but did so out of the shotgun. This created a split back look that the Steelers chose to throw out of. In this case, the fullback lined up opposite the tight end on the "off" or "weak" side of the formation. This is done for a variety of reasons, including creating passing game mismatches.
Now, this formation wasn't something they ran often, and it did appear as though they were still trying to work out the kinks. Nevertheless, the inside fake and the fullback swing pass were both effective. Still, I cannot help but imagine it as a package where instead of the fullback, the Steelers will ultimately pull their tight end off the line in a formation shift and use him in the backfield instead.
To be sure, some of these adjustments are the result of problems the Steelers are having with their offensive line, particularly in pass protection. The backs have option routes based upon pressure, and can either stay in to pick up rushers, or drop out to the flats as a safety valve for Ben.
In the final analysis, I worry about the potential of this offense if more than one-third of the play calls are going to come out of this personnel 21 personnel grouping. As much as I pine for the old days of power Steelers football, the fact remains—you cannot win in today's NFL if it's the foundation of your offense.