In 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers' red zone offense ranked dead last in scoring, converting drives into touchdowns inside the 20 yard-line just 35% of the time. The low mark was a drastic change from a league-leading 73% conversion rate the year prior, leaving much to be desired in a year that saw nearly every twist and turn possible.
The Steelers made a handful of changes in the offseason in an attempt to once again find the red zone regularly in 2020. Pittsburgh welcomed the offensive-minded Matt Canada as their new quarterbacks coach, while also adding weapons such as Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool through free agency and the NFL Draft, respectively.
AllSteelers Publisher Noah Strackbein believes the differences between 2019 and 2020's red zone offense begins with the signal-caller:
"Last year the Steelers weren't able to throw the ball, and therefore teams could just stack the box and take away the run game, take away the short passing game and basically shut down the Steelers entire offense just by crowding that intermediate field," said Strackbein.
"This season with Ben Roethlisberger back, you now have the ability to pass the ball, which means defenses have to spread out more. They have to play that pass, which opens the short game, and also opens up the run game. So whether Ben's there to actually throw the ball or just hand it off to James Conner, Benny Snell, whoever, defenses have to play him, and therefore it's a guessing game rather than just stacking the box and saying 'whether you're going to throw or run against us, we have it covered."
With plenty of weapons at their disposal, we can expect the Steelers' red zone offense to improve significantly this season. With various weapons at their disposal, let's take a look at how each skill position group can contribute to continually adding points to the scoreboard:
We've stated time and time again: When healthy, this is still James Conner's backfield. This includes the red zone, where Conner's proved to do damage as a back who's capable of running through and around defensive players with the ball in his hands. As a three-down back (when healthy) who can catch the ball out of the backfield, Conner is the best candidate in Pittsburgh's backfield to do the most damage.
He can also go over the top when asked, too.
Out of the remaining backs, second-year running back Benny Snell figures to have the biggest role after Conner, as Snell's north-south running style has proved efficient when the Steelers called upon him last season. Head coach Mike Tomlin has classified Snell's tough running style as "Benny Snell football", as Snell figures to have some opportunity in goal line scenarios this season depending on the package.
As for other backs such as Anthony McFarland, their role in the red zone remains unclear yet likely minor. McFarland has been lauded as a back that thrives in the open field, so it's possible the Steelers are interested in utilizing the rookie running back in scenarios such as screen passes and draw plays. As a described "home run hitter" from Tomlin, McFarland appears more likely as the guy to take Pittsburgh to the red zone rather than finishing drives.
Pittsburgh's receiving corps is loaded with an impressive amount of young talent, with names such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool ready to make an impact in their respective ways.
They also feature a duo of fairly big pass-catchers, as the size differentials may pay dividends when throwing to the end zone to guys like Smith-Schuster (6-1, 215 lbs) and Claypool (6-4, 238 lbs). While Claypool is expected to remain on the outside/boundary of the field thanks to his stature and ability to high-point the football, Smith-Schuster can be played in either the slot or opposite side of the field of Claypool thanks to his versatility. Smith-Schuster has proven the ability to make the plays with his body on the outside or with his agility/route-running in the slot against typically smaller opponents.
Although smaller in size, a player like Johnson will also prove to be a handful for defenders thanks to his superb quickness while route-running and pure athleticism before/after the catch. Depending on the package, the Steelers may opt to have both Johnson/Smith-Schuster on the field in the red zone, as both players can be swapped in and out of the slot/boundary.
Near the goal line, I'd imagine Smith-Schuster is the preference in the slot with Johnson playing as the X receiver.
While James Washington has flashed some of his potential, his skill set as a deep-ball receiver doesn't bode well inside the 20-yard line, though he's proven to come down with tough catches.
In 2019, the Steelers used two tight-end sets just 21% of the time. With the signing of Eric Ebron, I'm convinced that number will jump, especially when the Steelers enter the red zone and the ketchup bottles at Heinz Field tip over.
Let's be real: Since the departure of Heath Miller, Pittsburgh has tried desperately to replace the blocking/security blanket Miller provided. Vance McDonald has flashed some of the dominant athleticism (cue the Chris Conte stiff-arm). Though McDonald hasn't quite been the red zone target, they've wanted at the tight end spot.
Enter: Eric Ebron.
Ebron, who signed a two-year deal this offseason, is the current touchdown leader for tight ends since 2018 (16 receiving, one rushing) thanks to an impressive 13 touchdown campaign with Andrew Luck two seasons ago. Many believe Ebron, now with Roethlisberger, can replicate that success.
With many mouths to feed, I'm not quite sure Ebron hits the record mark for touchdowns again. However, Ebron's 6-4, 253 lb presence, and Pittsburgh's other play-makers make an already lethal Steelers red zone offense even more dangerous. Adding McDonald's 6-4, 267 lb frame next to Ebron further complicates duties for defenders as well.
While Ebron is the more prolific pass-catcher, McDonald's athleticism can be utilized in the red zone. I'd peg Ebron for most of the goal line snaps/targets out of the two.
So long as Roethlisberger remains upright and healthy, Pittsburgh's offense appears ready to vastly improve upon their red zone performance from a season ago. With backs for every scenario and a plethora of sizable, potent pass-catchers at both receiver and tight end, Roethlisberger appears to have his choice of target on any given play in the red zone.