The Pittsburgh Steelers have taken the "bunch" set to new levels, and it explains why their run game was so effective against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game.
Before breaking down what the Packers are up against when they face the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday, let's look at a few concepts that will help in following along.
Diagram 1: A bunch principle is when three eligible receivers are close together before the snap of the ball -- usually all within 5 yards of each other. Because of their close proximity, it makes it very difficult to play man-to-man coverage because if the three eligible receivers crisscross at the snap of the ball -- better known as a "star" route -- one defensive player is going to lose the receiver he is assigned to and there is an easy quick completion. Most defenses check to a zone call against a bunch look in order to be sound against the star route.
The Packers -- like the Jets -- prefer to play man coverages at times, and I expect we will see the Steelers run at least 15 to 20 snaps of some form of bunch principle in the Super Bowl to thwart that man coverage. The Steelers have expanded the traditional bunch package that features one tight end and two receivers. Against the Jets, they used the following combinations; one tight end/two wide receivers, three wide receivers, three tight ends, two tight ends/one wide receiver. The Steelers didn't just line up in the bunch set; they motioned and cheated to it. The Packers are going to have to recognize which three-man combination they see on the field because each one presents different problems. They really can't play the pass against it, either, because the Steelers' run game out of their bunch principles is very effective.
Diagram 2: In the first play of the AFC Championship Game (14:56 mark of the first quarter), the Steelers had three tight ends on the field and motioned the outside tight end Matt Spaeth from a wide receiver spot back to the other two tight ends, creating a bunch set. They then ran a toss play to the bunch, with tight end Heath Miller pulling and leading the way. That they ran the play to start the game provided a huge clue that they would rely often on the formation. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might want to bring a corner off the edge to stop this run. But, what if it was a bunch pass? The flat would be wide open and likely would result in an easy completion for Ben Roethlisberger.
Diagram 3: Later in the first quarter, Pittsburgh lined up in a bunch set (6:30 mark of the first quarter) with two wide receivers -- Mike Wallace and Hines Ward -- along with tight end Heath Miller in a second-and-5 situation. Capers will look at this play and realize a jam on Wallace on the line of scrimmage could have disrupted the three-man release and made it easier for the defense to play the star route. But the receivers all got off clean and the Steelers added a wrinkle that made it very tough to defend. They brought the opposite-side tight end -- Spaeth -- all the way across the field to clear out the zone coverage, and Ward -- an original bunch receiver -- went inside and came back as a trail route behind Spaeth for the completion. The bunch package is perfect for Ward at this point in his career. He really isn't very fast but can shake himself open in all these star-route plays. He's also an excellent blocker when the Steelers want to run behind the bunch set.
Diagram 4: Close to 10 runs in this Super Bowl are going to be out of the bunch formation, and a second-and-10 situation from the AFC Championship Game (10:25 mark of the second quarter) is a prime example of the damage Pittsburgh is capable of doing from the set. On that play, Mendenhall Rashard Mendenhall followed his bunch set for 35 yards. This time, it was built with two tight ends and one wide receiver. The key block was Miller on a kick-out of the force player. The more I study the Steelers' bunch package, the more I see the importance of Miller, and I know Capers is seeing the same thing.
Diagram 5: Even though the Jets struggled to slow the bunch down in the first half, the Steelers' second-half adjustments caused more problems for the Jets. Expect the Steelers to have a few adjustments for the Packers. In the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers lined up in a bunch formation to the left with Emmanuel Sanders, Ward and -- you guessed it -- Miller. On the snap of the ball, Miller pulled and led Mendenhall on a run to the opposite-side counter-sweep for 9 yards. With so many variations of the bunch set, it will be difficult for Capers to blitz this package.
Look for Pittsburgh -- with all the run success it had against the Jets -- to throw plenty. When you see Wallace in the bunch formation, think "deep" route, with Ward think "shake" route, and with Miller think "anything goes." The bunch formation also sets up well for Roethlisberger to use his quick count and not let the defense make adjustments. Capers is going to have his defense ready to go and understand the play happens fast whether it is run or pass, and Pittsburgh can set the rhythm of the game by employing this package.