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Rumors of a “Death Star” formation hint at just how creative this Steelers offense could be

While the Steelers offense struggled to find success over the past few seasons, one thing fans could count on was its predictability. Play concepts were identifiable by formation, so much so that opposing defenses called them out at times based on how the Steelers lined up. Shifts and motions were used ad nauseum but to no real tactical advantage. Incompletions on 1st down were inevitably followed by unimaginative run plays.

I don’t know how much that will change under new coordinator Arthur Smith, but if the rumors coming out of OTAs last week are true, the difference could be significant.

Many of the team’s veterans were said to be thrilled with what Smith was implementing. Russell Wilson raved about Smith’s philosophy and scheme. Jaylen Warren said Smith has complete command of the meeting rooms and has shown great mastery of what he’s doing. One player told Mark Kaboly of The Athletic that working with Smith so far has been “unreal.” That’s a high accolade for a coach who was just fired by his previous employer. Smith is a highly-respected offensive mind throughout the league, however, while the man he replaced is not. So perhaps the praise is more than hyperbole.

There haven’t been many specifics so far on the offense, other than it’s expected to be run-heavy and feature a good amount of play-action passing. One report, though, did provide details, and they were intriguing. The report said Smith plans to use a “Death Star” formation that puts Justin Fields, Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield together. I don’t know where term “Death Star” comes from, other than as a “Star Wars” reference, or if the report holds any weight. It’s not from a traditional source, and there are plenty of rumors out there this time of year that turn out to be false. However, I have coached against some four-back formations in the past, and they can be a nightmare to defend, especially if a team has an athletic quarterback and some good running backs. The Steelers have both, and getting into such a package would allow them to take advantage of Justin Fields as both a runner and a deep-ball thrower. Rumor or not, a package like this would make sense.

Most four-back packages are set up in a “Diamond” configuration. This features a quarterback in the shotgun flanked by two running backs and a third back in Pistol position directly behind him. The benefits of such a set are many. They allow an offense to target multiple areas along the line of scrimmage, whether pounding the ball in the A-gaps on zone runs, hitting off-tackle on power runs or attacking the edge on zone read and option plays. The misdirection an offense can generate with multiple potential ball-carriers and attack points is significant. There can be myriad fakes, counter steps, and split-flow schemes to confuse or slow down a defense. This package also puts nine or even ten offensive players within the tackle box, which requires defenses to drop a safety to support the run. This allows wide receivers to operate one-on-one on the outside, providing an opportunity for big plays.

Penn State using a Diamond formation against Maryland, 2022.

The package has its limitations, of course. With so many players in the box, a team must have backs who are willing and able to block. Pittsburgh has one for certain in Warren, but if they want to maximize the deception this look offers, Harris and Patterson must be willing to bloody their nose as well. And, with just one or two receivers along the line, there isn’t much one can do in terms of a quick passing game. This is not a grouping or formation an offense could run consistently throughout a game. But a package of, say, four to six plays each week could be effective, particularly in situational football like short yardage and the red zone.

Take the play below. This is Arizona running a red zone play-action pass from a Diamond set in a 2020 game against San Francisco. Quarterback Kyler Murray starts this play under center, where he fakes a counter run to his left. Notice how the right guard and the back off-set to Murray’s right both pull to the left, which draws the attention of San Francisco’s linebackers. Meanwhile, the back opposite the pullers (Chase Edmonds) slips underneath the play-fake and into the right flat, where he’s uncovered. Murray pulls the ball, boots away and hits Edmonds for a touchdown:

You can see in that clip how the deception created by the backfield action and the pulling guard freezes the defense. The eyes of the linebackers are going in multiple directions, which causes them to react late. Any scheme that can slow down a fast defense like San Francisco’s is a good one, and Arizona does just that.

Here’s another. This is Baltimore under former coordinator Greg Roman running Lamar Jackson on a read-option from Diamond formation. The Ravens flank Jackson with a pair of tight ends and have Gus Edwards behind him as the Pistol back. Edwards dives up the gut on a zone scheme to the right while Jackson opens and faces the unblocked end to his left. When the end squeezes down on Edwards, Jackson pulls the ball and is escorted into the alley by both tight ends:

This is a great way to get the uber-athletic Jackson out in space with blockers providing protection. I’d expect something similar from the Steelers with Fields, although with three running backs in the backfield they can get even more creative with their misdirection and ball handling.

Another enticing element of this package is how it forces a defense to single-up on the lone outside receiver. With ten offensive players in the box, the defense has no choice but to drop a safety and play one-on-one on the outside. That could open up great opportunities for George Pickens, who has proven exceptionally good at winning 50/50 balls and contested catches in man-to-man situations.

Presumably, then, the “Death Star” would look like this:

This package could be as imaginative and diverse as Smith wants it to be. Provided it actually becomes a package. “The Death Star” may be nothing more than a rumor. Still, its mere existence underscores how creative Pittsburgh’s offense could be given the players they’ve acquired. With three versatile backs, two mobile quarterbacks, and potential deep ball threats in Pickens, Roman Wilson and Calvin Austin III, this offense is built for diversity. A creative, dynamic scheme which utilizes all of the talent at Smith’s disposal would be a revelation to a fan base for whom predictability has recently been the norm.


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