4 scheme changes the Steelers are making for 2017
Preseason exhibition games offered a sneak peek of what the Pittsburgh Steelers regular season could look like: and that look means some new looks for a team which adds additional weapons on both sides of the ball.
What do the newcomers add which some of the departing players could not?
Flexibility. Both in position and scheme.
It’s no secret the Steelers hope to move their defense from a zone-based attack to one focused on man coverage, but that’s only scratching the surface. Here are four different changes, on offense and defense, that we could possibly look forward to seeing during the 2017 season.
Four wide receiver sets
The Steelers are exploring more four wide receiver sets in 2017. I’d say there are reports of this, but we saw glimpses of an extra receiver on the field during the preseason and in spurts during training camp.
Traditionally, Todd Haley’s offense never puts more than three wide receivers on the field. This allows them to also utilize a tight end and a running back.
While that formation will surely be utilized, you can also expect to see four receivers on the field more than we ever have. The depth at this position surely plays a big part in this, and it looks entirely different than it did in 2016.
For starters the return of Martavis Bryant is monumental. The playmaker is primed for a big year following his year-long suspension. The Steelers also went and spent a second round draft pick on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He’s unique in this wide receiver group because rather than fitting in the mold of players like Bryant, Justin Hunter, and even Darrius Heyward-Bey (who are all known for height, speed, big plays, and dropped passes) Smith-Schuster brings reliable hands, toughness, and nasty blocking. He will be able to act as sort of a pseudo-tight end thanks to his blocking skills.
With all of the talent at wide receiver, including shifty slot receiver Eli Rogers, the Steelers are wise to want to get as many of these players on the field as possible.
More 3-4 base
This is an unexpected shift, but one we saw during the preseason. During the first preseason game against the Giants, the Steelers were in 3-4 formation 60% of the time when the Giants had three receivers on the field.
There are pro’s and con’s to this potential change. While it may expose the defense to the passing attack, the rush defense will greatly improve with Javon Hargrave staying on the field. His presence will also improve the pass rush.
While this formation only leaves them with two cornerbacks on the field, they may rely on the athleticism and versatility of key players like Sean Davis and Ryan Shazier. If you recall, Davis spent time as the teams nickel cornerback in early 2016, while Shazier has proven to be a playmaker in the secondary getting four interceptions in the latter half of the 2016 season.
The change brings a risks of big plays, but the value of having Hargrave on the field to improve the run defense and pass rush may outweigh that risk.
This is an unexpected shift, but one we saw during the preseason. During the first preseason game against the Giants, the Steelers were in the 3-4 formation 60% of the time when the Giants had three receivers on the field.
There are pros and cons to this potential change. While it may expose the defense to the passing attack, the rush defense will greatly improve with Javon Hargrave staying on the field. His presence will also improve the pass rush.
While this formation only leaves them with two cornerbacks on the field, they may rely on the athleticism and versatility of key players like Sean Davis and Ryan Shazier. If you recall, Davis spent time as the team’s nickel cornerback in early 2016, while Shazier has proven to be a playmaker in the secondary, getting four interceptions in the latter half of the 2016 season.
The change brings the risk of big plays, but the value of having Hargrave on the field to improve the run defense and pass rush may outweigh that risk.
While we say William Gay dabble with the role of a dimebacker this preseason, following this past weekend that role for him is likely over. Newly acquired safety J.J. Wilcox may be in line to take over that role.
Dime defense involves removing an inside linebacker from the field in place of another defensive back, giving the defense six total defensive backs on the field. The advantage of this formation is removing linebackers who can be a liability in coverage, in this case, Vince Williams.
The Steelers haven’t hidden their interest in bringing in a dimebacker either. They looked at players during the NFL Draft but none fell to them. They also signed safety Daimion Stafford in the spring, but the safety never arrived at training camp. Gay may have been an adequate stopgap, but Wilcox is a far better option.
Wilcox’ size alone makes him a more appealing option than Gay. He is two inches taller and roughly twenty-five pounds heavier. He also brings more athleticism and a hard-hitting presence (similar to Mike Mitchell).
While he’ll surely need time to become acquainted with the playbook, don’t be surprised to see Wilcox on the field as a dimebacker in passing situations.
Dual tight end sets
While the using two tight ends on the field isn’t anything new for the Steelers, how they will be used will evolve thanks to the trade for tight end Vance McDonald. With McDonald and Jesse James locked in as starters, the Steelers now have the best tight end tandem they’ve had since the days of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
McDonald brings much-needed athleticism to this group and can be expected to be used in a similar role as we saw Ladarius Green used in 2016. He will be used to stretch the field using seam and vertical routes, as well as a big red zone target.
Jesse James meanwhile has sneaky athleticism and though he isn’t much of a threat after the catch, he can be relied on to get open and catch the ball. James will be in a prime position to succeed considering the defense will be more focused on Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and Vance McDonald.
With these two, the offense has much more flexibility. Both are capable as receivers and blockers and their roles can be mixed-and-matched. The acquisition of McDonald brings a whole new wrinkle to this offense.