Steelers' Arthur Smith, Eagles' Kellen Moore and Seahawks' Ryan Grubb are among intriguing play-callers in new places

Entire NFC South also brings a fresh approach in their plans of attack

The NFL has long stood for “Not For Long,” and that applies to just about every part of a team’s organization these days, including whoever the offensive play-caller is. Nearly half of the league, including the entire NFC South, has a new coach calling plays for their offense. I perused the list and highlighted a chunk of these new play-callers, which include familiar names, a new head coach, an old head coach, former college coaches and plenty of coaches from the Shanahan-McVay tree.

Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, center, talks with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) during warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, center, talks with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) during warm-ups before the Apple Cup in November. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

How will Ryan Grubb (and the rest of Seattle’s contingent of college coaches) and his mortar-based attack adjust to the NFL?

Grubb, an experienced and successful coach and play-caller at various levels of the college game, and his offense will translate well at the next level. That’s it, I answered the question, let’s move along.

In all seriousness, Grubb’s offense at the University Washington, which had plenty of input from then-head coach Kalen DeBoer, used wrinkles like varying tempos and formation tweaks — bunches, stacks, receivers in the backfield, motion, all the good stuff — to keep defenses off-balanced.

It was not gimmicky.

Grubb made it easier on his players, but the yards and points weren’t accumulated in a cheap and hacky way. The Huskies used plenty of tried-and-true offensive staples with sound rules in the route distribution and protection (Seahawks offensive line coach Scott Huff was Washington’s O-line coach and followed Grubb down the road and through traffic in Seattle). There was purpose with what Washington sought to accomplish on any play, which is notable considering the assortment of different concepts that it ran on a weekly basis.

The Huskies were aggressive, unlocking talented playmakers and trusting their talented offensive line and triggerman, Michael Penix Jr., to keep things clean as they attacked down the field. That chunk-play-first-and-always mindset will fit the modus operandi of Seahawks starting quarterback Geno Smith, who is never shy to stand tall in the pocket and test downfield windows that others wouldn’t dare. It will even fit the other player currently in the Seahawks quarterback room, Sam Howell, and his downfield mindset.

The Seahawks also have DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, three wide receivers who they have committed resources to (plus folk hero Jake Bobo). This helps picture what the offense might look like at least for this year.

Most important for Grubb and the new Seahawks regime to have early success on the offensive side of the ball will be to shore up something that has sunk recent Seahawks campaigns: the offensive line, especially the interior spots.

After signing Laken Tomlinson in free agency to at least have a passable starter at left guard, the Seahawks added guard Christian Haynes in the third round of the draft. I was particularly high on Haynes and him ending up in Seattle was one of my favorite selections in the entire draft, especially when considering the hole the Seahawks still had at right guard and the fact that Haynes started his entire career at Connecticut, all 49 games, at only that spot on the line. Seattle's center position looks like it will be a competition, but if the Seahawks can find at least tolerable play and if (it’s a big if) tackles Charles Cross, who had All-Pro flashes as a rookie, and Abe Lucas can stay healthy, then they're in solid situation for their trenches.

I am overall bullish on Grubb, Huff and new Seahawks head coach Mike Macdonald. Their units have consistently been well-coached and showed a keen sense of how to deploy their own personnel. The Seahawks' offensive line still has plenty of question marks, but even with those potential blemishes, I am excited to see what Grubb unveils and how he mitigates any speed bumps, all while finding ways to let Smith fire some rockets and mortars from the pocket.

What will the passing game look like with Arthur Smith and Russell Wilson and/or Justin Fields under center?

I really liked how the Steelers have gone about their business this offseason. Offensive line was the biggest glaring weakness on Pittsburgh’s roster, and the Steelers followed Mike Ehrmantraut’s advice in taking no half-measures. They added two potential Day 1 starters (rookies starting early is notable in Pittsburgh) in the first two rounds of the draft, nabbing Troy Fautanu, who will start somewhere along the line, and center Zach Frazier to shore up their front five. They also added another interesting guard prospect in Mason McCormick for depth and another potential starter down the road.

Smith is all about pounding the rock and using play-action concepts to create explosive plays and open up space in the offense. His run games while the play-caller in Tennessee and Atlanta have been among the league’s best and most creative, using the entire spectrum of personnel groupings and concepts available. And when you look at Pittsburgh’s personnel, you don’t have to squint too hard to see how the pieces that the Steelers have and how they will align with Smith’s preferred jab-cross-haymaker style.

There’s the influx of young offensive linemen to join 2023 first-round selection Broderick Jones, who had some strong stretches during his inaugural campaign after starting the season as a backup (told you about those Steelers rookies). There are two running backs who can play all three downs; does Smith even allow Jaylen Warren, who I think is the better player, to overtake Najee Harris? Their tight ends can contribute as pass catchers and can especially help in the run game (Darnell Washington is about to be weaponized as a blocker in this offense). Their wide receivers, including third-round selection Roman Wilson and George Pickens’ knockout shots, are willing to do the dirty work in the run game.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 07: Jaylen Warren #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers breaks a tackle by Deatrich Wise Jr. #91 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium on December 07, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Could Jaylen Warren emerge as the star rusher in Arthur Smith's offense in Pittsburgh? (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Even how Smith uses the quarterback in the run game when Fields is on the, well, field, has me excited. Smith has been one of the best utilizers of the quarterback in the run game as a play-caller, especially in high-leverage situations like the red zone, and pairing him with Fields is giving him a whole new type of dynamism in that area of the play-call menu than Smith has had in the past. So, yes, I am pretty high on the potential of the Steelers' run game.

The passing game, though, especially with the preferred style of whoever is behind center, has me curious on how Smith sorts it out. This offense can get some spacing because of the deep-ball capabilities of Wilson and Fields, as well as being able to cobble together some deep speed from the grab bag of wide receivers.

Wilson and Fields, who funnily enough operate quite similarly as quarterbacks, are among the league’s least-frequent operators over the middle of the field when throwing. They often arrived late to their destination when they attempted to do so or bypassed available options in an attempt to create something outside of structure or down the field; it's a tendency that has caused Wilson’s career to regress as his athleticism started to wane. This matters because the initial void in the defense that is created by play-action is typically that exact intermediate area, and Smith’s offenses have been one of, if not the most, frequent users of play-action in the NFL whenever he’s been a play-caller. So, while the deep ball will be available in this type of offense, the type of quarterback style that unlocks this offense, or at least the one that Smith has utilized in the past, is when the middle intermediate parts of the field are attacked by a quarterback who is willing to stand in the pocket and deliver the throw. Ryan Tannehill’s career found a new life in this offense because of his willingness to do both, come hell or high water.

That is not exactly how Wilson or Fields have typically played as professionals. Both prefer to attack downfield or toward the sideline in an attempt to create explosives and let their wide receivers win (both should synergize well with Pickens for these reasons). There is a bit of a square peg in a round hole situation going on with this aspect of the Steelers offense.

I have been a fan of Smith as a play-caller for what he does scheme-wise (the fantasy implications are a different discussion), but Wilson and Fields aren’t the type of quarterbacks that I thought Smith would ideally be paired with. While I am excited, like really excited, for the Steelers' run game, which will be weekly viewing for scheme nerds, and the passing game will create some explosions, my question on the passing game's sustainability and how Smith will do it will linger until the season gets going.

But what Smith has done in the past, even with patchy personnel, makes me think there is a path to making this all work.

A superfecta in the NFC South! All four teams will have new offensive play-callers at the helm, with each worthy of a deeper look than what I’m about to give for the climb to the middletop that this division is shaping out to be.

The Carolina Panthers’ question is a simple one: What can Dave Canales get out of Bryce Young?

The Panthers invested heavily into the interior of their offensive line, adding a Natural Disasters-esque hoss tag team in Damien Lewis and Robert Hunt at the guard positions to add size and a pummeling style. Their strengths will almost certainly help out a stagnant run game, something that Canales will surely lean on no matter who was behind center, but also help create space in the middle of the pocket for Young to operate from when dropping back. Young’s lack of size and arm strength showed up when under pressure during his rookie season, but he still has ways to mitigate it with quicker throws that take advantage of his accuracy and intelligence. He can push the ball, too, when given space. Young’s intelligence for the position would often leave him to take safer options, deferring to checking the ball down when moved off of his launch point.

Canales showed a good understanding of his quarterback’s strengths in his one year (!) as an NFL play-caller in Tampa Bay. The Bucs' passing game had Baker Mayfield use straight dropbacks the most he ever had since his days in Norman, which narrowed his focus and the Bucs' talented wide receivers took advantage of Mayfield’s dice-roll throws. Canales said he's going to run the ball, but how he focuses Young’s strengths and the use of the Panthers' motley crew of pass catchers (Mike Evans isn’t walking through that door) will help open up the offense and give Young a path to success. With Young’s underneath accuracy and the strengths of Xavier Legette and other pass catchers, I expect a lot of crossers and yards-after-catch opportunities.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 31: Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) throws a pass during the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers on December 31, 2023 at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Could more room and cleaner pockets make for a good second season for Bryce Young? (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For Canales’ old team, there are more things that are easier to project, even with a play-caller getting his first NFL experience. Liam Coen alternated between the Los Angeles Rams and the University of Kentucky over the past few years, where he also alternated play-calling duties. Coen is a McVay-Shanahan-Kubiak disciple through and through. There will be runs, perhaps with better results considering the Bucs' injection of offensive line talent and another workable running back in Bucky Irving to pair with Rachaad White. My question is tied to what I brought up in the last paragraph: How does Coen tie in what he wants to do (under center play-action) with what Mayfield does well (straight dropbacks from the shotgun)?

This is another team that will get a bump in the run game (easy to say as they couldn’t get worse than last season), but will be more than workable because of what Coen has done in the past and the personnel bump. Coen has been a part of Sean McVay’s staffs in Los Angeles, merging his preferred method of attack with Matthew Stafford’s gunslinging ways. How Coen bridges these two worlds, and stave off any Mayfield regression, will give the Bucs a chance of repeating in the South.

Speaking of Gary Kubiak offenses, there’s another Kubiak, this one in New Orleans. Klint Kubiak is now calling plays for the Saints, so *pulls back string on back* expect a commitment to the run game and play-action. My main question will be hanging over the Saints until I see proof they can find an answer to it: How do the Saints salvage this offensive line?

The run game will help raise the floor of what the Saints have (shoutout Erik McCoy), but their current answers on the left side have me apprehensive of how they will hold up when throwing the ball. Taliese Fuaga was projected by some, including myself, as a right tackle-only type prospect or even best served kicking inside to guard. Well, Fuaga is currently being slated to start at left tackle. That has me holding my breath. I'm not saying it won’t work, because Fuaga has plenty of high qualities, especially in the run game, and I suppose the left side makes sense because Ryan Ramczyk is still on the team (for now). It does have me a tad apprehensive to see Fuaga kick over to the blindside right away, especially paired next to insert-name-here at left guard. Kubiak will have to answer this question every single week to keep Derek Carr in the pocket and firing to Chris Olave, Rashid Shaheed and Juwan Johnson.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 22: Drake London #5 of the Atlanta Falcons dives and is stopped short of the goal line by Antoine Winfield Jr. #31 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third quarter of the game at Raymond James Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

This leaves us with the Falcons, who now have a play-caller with, let’s say it all together now, a background in a McVay-Shanahan offense. We know the tunes now: run game, play-action, Kirk Cousins. My question for Zac Robinson: Who is playing opposite of Drake London on the outside?

London is prepared to make “the leap” this year and has all the makings of a star. The Falcons also added Darnell Mooney in free agency and traded for Rondale Moore. Throw in Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier, Kyle Pitts and we’re all set, right?

A ton of interesting pieces! More interesting will be how it will all come together. I can picture the run game, and the Falcons already have the personnel to adapt to what Robinson, down to the three-down running backs, will likely prefer. London is an ideal wide receiver for this type of offense, part of the Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua receiver archetype that can play outside or as a power slot.

Mooney is best as a slot, too. And Moore has been best as a gadget player and really was more of a running back than anything last year in Arizona. Pitts has been used as an outside receiver often in his young career, and the Rams loved using Tyler Higbee as a lone receiver with three wide receivers on the other side to create match-up indicators for Stafford, so that’s a possible path. But, that spreads out the attack and gets Cousins away from his strength as a player. This isn’t an unsolvable issue. This offense has a high floor, even with Cousins coming off an Achilles injury. There is powder to have an explosive passing offense here, too, but how it blends together will determine how big of an explosion it is.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 14: Jalen Hurts and Jason Kelce on set of Amazon Thursday Night Football Postgame Show after the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 14, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

How does Kellen Moore help fill the Jason Kelce-sized void in the middle?

Kelce was a weapon for the Eagles, even up to his last game of his career. Not only was he dangerous out in space on screens or as a puller, he was also one of the most intelligent players, at any position, in the entire NFL. Kelce was a true stabilizing force for the Eagles' offensive line, getting everyone pointed in the right direction and taking the mental load off the other linemen and even their quarterbacks.

I touched on this a few months ago, but Kelce’s work in the pre-snap process will be what Moore, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, Jalen Hurts and new starting center Cam Jurgens will all have to get on the same page about. Every offensive unit has to figure out how its pre-snap process works. Variables like the cadence, who handles the defensive identification, how involved the quarterback is with the operation are all (hopefully) sorted out during the offseason months and training camp. In Moore’s previous stops as the play-caller for the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers, he relied on the center to set everything up. The quarterback was given veto power and full control to set the cadence, protection and final play-call. Essentially, Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert were given the license to be the true “field generals” that quarterbacks sometimes get labeled as.

How do the Eagles now balance what they’ve done in the past, which relied a good amount on Kelce, with Hurts’ developing maturation and a center starting in the NFL for the first time (although with experience at the position in college)?

Jurgens is athletic and talented. He has experience last year at right guard, with varying results, but that is not the position Jurgens was best suited for in the NFL, nor one that he was drafted to play. (Sidenote: I like Tyler Steen at right guard, especially with more schooling under Stoutland).

Moore will certainly have to adapt aspects of what he has been used to as a play-caller (a quarterback handling protections makes everybody’s life easier). Stoutland will be a great shoulder to lean on for everyone on this staff and roster, and Jurgens has experience playing in the league and at center in the past. But I would love to see Hurts continue to handle more of the pre-snap operation and take his game to a new level. He’s done it a bit more as his career has progressed (Shane Steichen put more on his plate as the 2022 season went along). It would be really fun to see Hurts and Jurgens develop as batterymates in Philadelphia and slow the game down even more for Hurts as a passer and quarterback.