What Kevin Colbert’s “starting positions” quote means for the Steelers

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin held a conference call with members of the Pittsburgh media on Sunday in which they covered a variety of topics, from the quarterback situation to Stephon Tuitt’s availability, and the impact of Brian Flores.

One of the most interesting nuggets from the call, however, was a statement from Colbert in which he said the Steelers have “all their starting positions in place right now other than strong safety.” The obvious takeaway from this quote is they are not done in free agency and are likely to make a play for a veteran safety, whether by re-signing Terrell Edmunds or pursuing someone like Tyrann Mathieu or Damontae Kazee.

Less obvious, but no less compelling, is the suggestion they are a complete unit on offense. While the Steelers will look to bolster the offense in the upcoming draft, Colbert, if he’s being genuine, believes they’ve done enough in free agency to start the season with the personnel on hand. This means they view some combination of Dan Moore Jr, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Mason Cole, James Daniels and Chuks Okorafor as the starters up front, with Najee Harris at running back, Mitchell Trubisky or Mason Rudolph at quarterback, Pat Freiermuth at tight end and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson as the receivers.

No real surprises there. There is, however, one problem. The group I just named is short a skill position player. For the past decade, Pittsburgh has typically been an 11-personnel team, using one running back, one tight end and three receivers as their base offense. They have rarely deviated from this approach, running 70-75% of their plays from 11-personnel. However, with the free agent departures of their primary slot receivers, Juju Smith-Schuster and Ray Ray McCloud, they lack an obvious candidate to fill the third-receiver role.

This makes Colbert’s quote rife with implications. First, that the Steelers believe they have a viable slot candidate on the roster, likely in Anthony Miller or newly-signed Gunner Olszewski. Also, that they anticipate playing less 11-personnel next season, and that they see themselves in more 12 and 21 groupings, with Zach Gentry or Derek Watt replacing the third receiver in the lineup.

While the Steelers are sure to add a receiver or two in the draft, it’s entirely possible Colbert is being honest and their opening day starters are already in-house. What might the offense look like if that’s the case? Here’s a breakdown.

11-personnel with Miller or Olszewsky in the slot

It’s possible the Steelers will operate under the business-as-usual formula. This means heavy doses of 11-personnel. In this scenario, Colbert’s quote suggests Miller or Olszewski will occupy the third receiver role.

Miller is the most likely candidate for the job. He has experience, having caught 134 passes, mostly from Trubisky, as a member of the Chicago Bears between 2018-2020. Miller took the majority of his reps in the slot, where he displayed a good feel for the position. Here, from the right slot, we see him clear the linebacker and find open space for an easy touchdown against a heavy blitz from Miami. While this is a bad job by Miami’s safety of vacating the middle of the field, it’s good recognition on Miller’s part of running to the open grass. Miller doesn’t cover himself, which is something slot receivers often do by failing to space their routes properly:


Here, Miller is aligned on the inside of a trips formation. He runs an out-cut at the goal line on a designed sprint pass. Watch how Miller chops down the hands of the defender as he exits the frame around the 12 yard line. Once he re-enters near the end zone pylon, he’s created enough space to make a play on the football. The catch at the end is pretty as well:


I’m not going to cherry-pick two frames from a highlight reel on Miller and tell you he’s the answer at the slot position. I don’t know if he’s good enough to succeed in this role, and I’d be shocked if the team doesn’t take someone high in the draft who can compete for these reps. But Miller does show good burst off the ball and has some of the intangibles, like spatial awareness and how to release properly, that good slot receivers possess. The Steelers are thought to be high on him, too. So, when they align in 11-personnel, he may be the third receiver.

Olezewski is an option, too, although with just 9 career receptions it’s hard to know what to think of him. He was primarily brought to Pittsburgh to return kicks, and his ceiling from him may be as the fifth receiver in the rotation. His best attribute of him is his ability to run after the catch, which you can see below. As a return man, this is something you’d expect from him. Whether he can do the other things that make an effective slot receiver remains to be seen:



12-personnel with Gentry as the 2nd tight end

With the absence of a returning receiver slot on the roster, and the odds that a draft pick will take some time to develop, I expect the Steelers to run less 11-personnel next season than in years past. This likely means more than 12-personnel. The Steelers did run 16% of their plays last season from their 12 grouping, which is a slight uptick in frequency over previous seasons. Canada would probably like to see that figure increase, given his fondness for it as a college coordinator and the fact that Ben Roethlisberger, who loved spreading the field with receivers, has retired.

Incidentally, the most the Steelers have used 12-personnel over the past decade was in 2019, when they ran it 20% of the time. That was also the season Roethlisberger missed with an elbow injury. So, subtracting Roethlisberger likely means adding bigger personnel.

To do so, the Steelers would swap out their third receiver for a second tight end. Last week, I wrote about the possibility of Pat Freiermuth playing more in the slot. You can read those thoughts in the link below. Playing Freiermuth in the slot means in-line blocking duties would fall to Zach Gentry. Fortunately, Gentry showed last season he can handle that role.

Gentry resembled a newborn giraffe during his rookie season in 2019. At 6’8 and a questionable 245 pounds, he was overmatched in pre-season games trying to block guys destined for the waiver wire. Honestly, I thought he’d take his place with the likes of Rob Branchflower and David Paulson as late-round picks who failed as Steelers’ tight ends.

Quietly, though, Gentry put on twenty pounds of muscle the next two seasons and made huge strides as a blocker. He got off the ball faster, used his legs well and played with both power and leverage at the point of attack.

Watch him here, highlighted in red to the left of the formation, caving down a pinching end on an inside zone run. Gentry’s base was good and he never stopped moving his feet from him, which allowed him to wash the end past the center and create a huge hole for Najee Harris:


Here, against Von Miller, Gentry delivered a block that illustrated his strength and technique. He won inside with his hands from him, allowing him to gain control of the block. He then jolted Miller backwards with a shove, locking out and turning Miller so he couldn’t pursue the run. This block was unspectacular but professional. It’s the type of block you see from a player who has worked hard to hone his craft from it:


Gentry is not a huge receiving threat, but he has soft hands and he runs well after the catch. With Freiermuth occupying more of the vertical receiving role, Gentry could be used on flat routes, delays and screens, where defenses will be forced to tackle him in space. This can be a challenge, as we see below. It’s no picnic trying to get him to the ground once he works up a head of steam:


If all of Pittsburgh’s starting positions are in place, as Colbert indicated, this is how I envision the offense evolving. They will incorporate two tight ends the way they once used three receivers, with Gentry as the in-line blocker and Freiermuth playing a beefed-up version of Smith-Schuster in the slot.

21-personnel with Watt at fullback

A third look we may see will put Derek Watt on the field with a tight end and two receivers. The Steelers have not used this grouping on more than 4% of their snaps since 2015, but we’ll probably see it more frequently now that Canada has full control of the offense. Canada loved fullbacks as a college coordinator, and he used them extensively.

One of his favorite sets is shown in the GIF below. It pairs a “twins” look to one side of the formation with an off-set fullback aligned as a wing to the other. It’s one of the most useful sets in football because it puts the run strength to one side of the field and the passing strength to the other. Defenses must roll down to defend the wing, making them vulnerable to the pass on the twins side, or remain two-high, giving the offense numbers to run.

On this play, from Canada’s 2012 offense at Wisconsin, Purdue stayed two-high, making it seven-against-seven in the box. Canada opted for a split-zone run, using jet motion to get the defense moving and bringing his fullback across the formation to kick the backside end. The end spilled the play and the fullback did a great job redirecting him inside. Running back Montee Ball bounced outside his block, avoided the safety and was off to the races:


(Side notes: Notice the effort of Wisconsin’s receiver as he came down to block the safety. The safety beat him inside, but the effort allowed the receiver to pick off the defensive tackle, which ended up springing Ball. This is what the Steelers need, and did not get last season, from their receivers in the run game).

The Steelers have used Watt as a wing before. Here he is in 2020 blocking a counter-gap play for James Connor. The wing can also be used to block down on sweeps, as an outlet receiver, as the pitch-man on shovel options and as an extra pass protector to help with edge rushers. It requires a versatile player who can execute a variety of roles, and may be ideal for Watt. Watt has not been used enough on offense to justify the 3-year, $9.75 million contract the Steelers gave him in 2020. That could change next season.


Conclusion

All of this is moot if Colbert is being disingenuous. The Steelers may have a free agent slot receiver on their radar, or a player in the draft they believe can step right in to the role. That would mean another season with heavy doses of 11-personnel. But odds are, at least initially, he’s being honest. My guess is the Steelers will use much more 12-personnel with Freiermuth and Gentry, and will integrate 11 groupings situationally. It will be a big change from their approach in recent seasons. But, given the way the offense has been performed, it’s a change that should be welcomed.

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