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Comparing Arthur Smith’s tendencies as an offensive coordinator vs. head coach

One of the Steelers’ biggest questions of the offseason was finally answered on Tuesday, with NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reporting that Pittsburgh had signed ex-Falcons head coach Arthur Smith to be its offensive coordinator. The move, which was made official on Friday, was met with mixed reactions across the black and gold spectrum.

Smith’s three-year tenure in Atlanta was certainly one to forget, going 7-10 every year and missing the playoffs from 2021-23; offensively, the Falcons were 26th in EPA/play and 21st in success rate in that span. However, his time as Titans offensive coordinator was lucrative: Tennessee ranked fourth in EPA/play and second in success rate during Smith’s two seasons calling Mike Vrabel’s offense.

Smith was far from the flashiest or most innovative hire, which renders it somewhat frustrating knowing that’s for what Mike Tomlin and the Steelers settled. However, hypothetical choices are moot; it’s time to analyze Smith and move forward.

What personnel groupings does Smith typically turn to, and were there marked differences in his time in Atlanta vs. Nashville that explain disparate results? Was his allocation of targets/touches as bad as it seemed? Let’s turn to a heavy statistical sample to find out more about Pittsburgh’s new playcaller.

First, a few notes.

1. These stats are not the full extent that will be used to evaluate Smith, but they’re several that I think are telling (and without making this article excessively long).

2. Not all offensive production/efficiency stats align with a unit’s overall success. For example, the Chiefs were 31st in Average Depth of Target and still won the AFC this year. Certain offenses may succeed incredibly well in some departments and be dreadful in others, so a full picture needs to be painted.

3. This piece really isn’t saying whether or not Smith is a good/bad hire. Rather, it’s meant to provide context to what the Steelers will be getting, and what fans can expect.

Personnel Tendencies

To start, let’s break down Smith’s most-used formations on the field based on the number of running backs and tight ends, whether as an OC or head coach.

During both years he was with the Titans, Smith defaulted to 11 personnel (one RB/one TE); however, Smith never turned to the grouping more than 50% of the time, and never ranked higher than 27th in 11 usage, per Sharp Football Stats. In other words, even though 11 was the most common formation for the Titans, they still didn’t use it a lot relatively.

Indeed, this is where Smith’s second-favorite contingent comes into play: 12 personnel, with two tight ends. The Titans were fourth in 2019 and tied for first in 2020 in 12 usage, leveraging Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser — and it tended to work.

When Smith got to the Falcons, then, it might not be surprising that he attempted to utilize a similar philosophy. According to Sumer Sports/Sharp Stats, Atlanta utilized 11 the most in 2021 and 2022, although the frequency (31% and 33.6%, respectively), was diminished. Meanwhile, the rate of 12 in both seasons was at least at least 25.8%.

Then, this past year, the amount of 12 personnel the Falcons ran spiked all the way to a whopping 41.8% of plays — the highest rate by a team in the last two years. If you couldn’t tell by now, Smith has a penchant for having two tight ends in a formation.

In many ways, that’s perfect for Pittsburgh, which has Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward and Darnell Washington, all of whom need to see the field. However, Matt Canada/Mike Sullivan/Eddie Faulkner generally failed at that task, implementing 12 on only 17.4% of snaps (19th in the league). What was prohibitive was the Steelers’ 11 personnel tendency, which sat a ludicrous 73.1% — sixth in pro football.

That’s a gap of 55.7% between the team’s most and second-most common groupings, which generates almost zero confusion for defenses. Meanwhile, Smith’s offenses have been much more multiple in the last five years, regardless of result. More specifically, the highest differential between the first and second personnel units under Smith since 2019 was 21.1%.

It bears mentioning, too, that the Falcons turned to 21 personnel (with two RBs on the field) 20.7% of the time in 2023. The four offenses that ranked higher in that stat — Miami, San Francisco, Baltimore and Houston — were all juggernauts, which probably isn’t a coincidence. Expect Smith to maintain or even proliferate that clip with both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren at his disposal, arguably the best ‘back tandem in the league.

Other Offensive Structures

One of the other major focal points that people tend to wonder about an offense is how often it leverages play action and/or RPOs. The good news is that Smith’s units have rather solid experience with at least the former.

In the last five seasons, only once did a Smith offense (2022) rank below 15th in play action passing attempts, per Pro Football Reference. In fact, Smith ranked top-five in PAP during two of those years.

For context, Pittsburgh was tied for 31st in play action usage in 2023, and 28th the season before that. Canada and his comrades did not believe in the concept, which has proven time and time again to a) put a strain on defenses (specifically linebackers) and b) render easier reads for the quarterback. With Smith now at the helm, the Steelers should see a major boost in this department.

On the other hand, RPOs were more seldom used by Smith, especially in Tennessee — where the Titans were 22nd in such plays in 2019, and tied for 29th the year later. Notably, Smith dabbled in them more from 2022-23, finishing in the top 10 both years, but this disparity could be due to their overall increased popularity around the league in the last 2-3 seasons.

The Steelers were 22nd in RPO usage this past season, and 15th in 2022. As with play action, RPOs throw an appropriate curveball in offensive rhythm while simultaneously generating a quick, simple read for the player under center. Smith’s pattern of turning to more RPOs seems to be a good thing for an offense that generally did not incorporate them enough in recent memory.

Another considerable problem for Pittsburgh was its lack of mixing and matching of shotgun and under center formations. The Steelers passed out of shotgun 88.3% of more of snaps in each of 2022 and 2023, per PFR; in other words, defenses almost never needed to have the concern of an under-center pass in the back of their minds. Likewise, not passing under center reduces the deception of play action.

Yet, Smith was more balanced in this approach. In 2019, 70.8% of the Titans’ passes were out of shotgun, with 29.2% under center; the year after, Tennessee used a 67.5%/32.5% split. Even in Atlanta, that remained largely consistent, with the Falcons ranking well below league average in shotgun snaps for both run and pass, the latter of which they attempted just 68.1% of passes in 2023. In layman’s terms, that’s a lot less easy for a defense to decipher, and much more of a traditional offensive format.

Despite rather sound offensive tactics, one of Smith’s major Achilles’ heels in The A was passing on early downs. The Falcons ranked 31st and 32nd the last two years in Sumer Sports’ Passing Rate Over Expected mark on early downs. I should mention, too, that Pittsburgh was 31st in that same category this year.

In simpler terms, Smith did not throw anywhere close to what would have been anticipated on first and second down, a passive strategy that yielded few on-field results. The top-notch OCs in the sport defy “traditional” thinking by throwing earlier to keep rhythm and set up second- and third-and-short, but Smith isn’t yet up to speed in this department.

Player Usage and Development

For many around the NFL, the Falcons became a laughingstock in part because it seemed like they refused to give their best players the ball when it mattered most. To some extent, that narrative is true, but only in a limited form.

Yes, Atlanta’s red zone touch numbers were definitely weird. All-world rookie Bijan Robinson had 11 fewer RZ carries than Tyler Allgeier. Likewise, star tight end Kyle Pitts had only 10 combined targets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in the last two seasons (granted, he missed seven games two years ago). Those numbers are kind of inexcusable.

However, in a more macro sense, things weren’t as skewed as they seemed. From 2021-23, first-round wideout Drake London and Pitts both exceeded 227 targets, while third on Atlanta was Olamide Zaccheaus with 114. London, too, posted 16 red zone targets in both 2022 and 2023, so it wasn’t as if Smith didn’t incorporate him enough when it was time to score.

Similarly, Smith had a multi-faceted running game in terms of who got the ball. Over the last three years, the distribution was as follows: 396 carries for Allgeier, 347 for Cordarrelle Patterson, 214 for Robinson (in just one season) and 138 for Mike Davis.

In Tennessee, though, that looked strikingly different, and probably not shockingly so. From 2019-20, Derrick Henry amassed 681 carries, the most in the league in that span by 119 (!) totes. For context, the Titan that ranked second was Ryan Tannehill with 86. That’s almost comical.

At receiver, A.J. Brown was the star, and Smith fed him appropriately; his 190 targets from 2019-20 were 29 more than Corey Davis in second place. Further, Brown had 21 games with at least five targets.

The formula for Smith in Tennessee wasn’t a secret: feed your superhuman players, and let them make plays. If you were an OC, would you have done it much differently? I can’t say I would have.

Unlike the 2019-20 Titans, the Steelers don’t just have two dominant skill-position players, though. Harris and Warren both need ample carries, while George Pickens/Diontae Johnson/Freiermuth necessitate a sufficient number of targets. I’d expect to see similar ground allocation to what Smith ran in Atlanta, plus an emphasis on Freiermuth in the red zone. After all, Jonnu Smith — who played for Arthur Smith for three years — saw at least nine red zone targets in two of those campaigns.

Ultimately, maybe Smith’s biggest indictment was not developing even a solid quarterback during his three seasons with the Falcons. Desmond Ridder, Marcus Mariota and Taylor Heinicke really never gave Atlanta much of a chance to compete in Smith’s final two years, and Smith must shoulder the blame for those woes.

Yet, things were markedly better in Tennessee. Tannehill thrived in 2019, finished third in adjusted EPA/play. The year later, he was second. Interestingly enough, the Titans didn’t seem to avoid mistakes under center — accumulating 20+ turnover-worthy plays in both years — but still were hyper-efficient and effective at quarterback. The inability of Smith to get anywhere close to that level of quarterbacking doomed both his offense’s production and his ability to survive and succeed in Atlanta.

2024 Outlook

In a myriad of ways, I think Smith should help bring the Steelers’ offense much closer to league average, if not better, in areas where it’s been fully lacking. That’s especially true in terms of personnel variation, play action and under-center passing, all of which were severely deficient under Canada & Co.

Regarding personnel rates, there appears little wrong with maintaining 11 as Pittsburgh’s default look. However, it’s nearly malpractice to not incorporate more 12 and 21 personnel based on the strengths of this roster. I fully anticipate Smith will accommodate that and make things considerably more even than before, because his history indicates as much.

Where Smith still needs to show growth is with early-down passing and touch distribution in order to have a successful stint in Pittsburgh. If Smith wants to mimic more of his explosiveness in Tennessee, Harris and Pickens could fit the physical lead back (Henry) and dominant, physical, home-run hitting receiver (Brown) molds — that might not seem detrimental, except for the fact that the Steelers have so many other players capable of changing a game with the ball in their hands.

Collectively, there weren’t lots of obvious differences between Smith’s tendencies with the Titans or Atlanta, which elucidates this conclusion: quarterback play proved the defining factor. In Pittsburgh, that’ll be the case, too. Smith’s ultimate goal is to save Kenny Pickett’s career on the precipice of a make-or-break Year Three.

If Smith can harness a Tannehill-like arc from No. 8, then Pittsburgh should have offensive cohesion and real promise under center. But if Pickett’s development remains stunted like Smith’s failed Falcons quarterbacks of yesteryear, it’ll be hard to view the new OC in a positive light.


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