The Steelers have some new offensive ideas with Matt Canada taking the reins as the new quarterback coach. There is a clear emphasis on motion, misdirection, and play action, all of which are things the Steelers have neglected over the past few seasons. However, with the addition of Eric Ebron, Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner has made it clear that the Steelers 12 personnel packages would be expanding.
They seem to like the mismatches it can present to defenses when talking about it as a whole. The Steelers have seldom used 12 personnel, although they did use it a lot last year. Still, that was mostly for run plays. So, how do they implement a more expansive package to fit both tight ends onto the field?
The Steelers must work around Eric Ebron’s blocking
The first and most important thing to any 12 personnel package is that you threaten both the pass and run. Yes, that sounds very basic, but as a team, you have to keep the defense on their heels to take advantage of the flexibility that two tight ends give you. Eric Ebron is one of the cases where the Steelers will have to scheme him correctly since he has never been a great blocker.
Mike Tomlin has worked with Ebron to make sure his blocking is up to snuff. That in and of itself is a good thing, but it also does not mean that Ebron is a great blocker all of a sudden. The fascinating thing about Ebron is that there can be a clear, defined role here because he is an effective stalk blocker.
The Steelers, in 12 personnel, need to use Ebron as a moving chess piece. We know his great athleticism allows him to stretch teams vertically and work from almost anywhere in the offensive formation. However, by using him as an H-Back chess piece of sorts, you get Ebron matched up not against defensive ends and outside linebackers, but instead against linebackers and safeties. That would be nothing new for him. He had done quite well in that role in Indianapolis.
Using him in that role immediately makes him a vertical threat if the safety comes down and plays overaggressively on any given play. Ebron’s field-stretching ability is what is going to make these new 12 personnel plays churn well.
The passing game will be far more dynamic
The Steelers passing game is going to get the added boost of the vertical threat of Ebron. We know Vance McDonald can work well underneath, but he has never been a real seam buster quite like Ebron. The deadliest route that Ebron has in his arsenal is the corner route. His size and route-running skills make it deadly for him. The Colts employed Ebron on crossers, posts, and seam routes a lot because Ebron was able to stress the safeties, slot cornerbacks, and linebackers.
Ebron shows those skills on this corner route right here out of a 3×1 look, but you can see how it would function from a 12 personnel look, too. He is flexed out or condensed more towards the line, and more importantly, it is still a mismatch on safety heading for the endzone. The Steelers can even implement something that made Indianapolis’ two-tight end sets great, which was the tight end cross.
This is a very realistic play for McDonald and Ebron to run effectively. Against cover two, this is quite effective. It gives Ben Roethlisberger two easy reads. Ebron’s threatening on the corner route, so a lot of teams will key in on that, thus leaving McDonald wide open over the middle of the field on the crosser. The Steelers love to create traffic in space out of looks like these, but especially bunch sets. I can see this as a play they go to often because it fits the personnel so well.
Then, you have the vertical threat of Ebron as well up the seam. This is all that 12 personnel wishes to accomplish. Let’s put some teams in binds. The Steelers can do that this year. Again, this is another 3×1 look, but the Steelers, similar to the Colts, like to use the near inside receiver to run up the seam or run crossing routes. This would be someone like JuJu Smith-Schuster or the quicker Diontae Johnson.
However, now that they have the size and athleticism mismatch, Ebron fits perfectly into this alongside McDonald. Ebron gets a free release off the line, and teams would still have to worry about the running game. The versatility of these two tight ends is what is going to allow the offense to open it up through the air out of 12 personnel in multiple different looks.
The Steelers still have Derek Watt, too
The running game could be the cause for concern in this look, but do not forget that if the Steelers are not happy with their blocking or McDonald gets injured, there is still fullback Derek Watt who can help. In training camp, Watt took some reps from the tight end spot, and it makes sense. Watt has great blocking ability with his elite functional strength and powerful hands.
The Chargers did not use him much in the passing game, but he did show off that he had nice hands as well. Watt is one of those X-factors that could come in handy in 12 personnel packages if the Steelers wish to hammer home the running game out of this formation.
In the past, the Steelers have used a lot of guard action out of the 12 personnel sets. That means counters, power, and a lot of that great stuff that the Steelers are known for. Recently, Fichtner has dabbled in some split zone and inside zone, but this is still mainly a gap package.
We can go back to when Le’Veon Bell was a Steeler to find evidence of this. The Steelers love running counter out of their 12 personnel looks whenever they feel confident in their blockers. The tight end often becomes a puller. Here, someone like Watt can come in extremely handy. As a fullback, he is excellent at these things in the running game and could spring James Conner on a few carries with this.