When it comes to understanding why the Pittsburgh Steelers have been as successful as they have over the course of the past two decades in drafting wide receivers, there is plenty of praise to go around, as the production line involves many components.
One of the more recent components that probably doesn’t really get talked about as much as it should is the philosophy that offensive coordinator Todd Haley brought in with him when he joined the Steelers’ coaching staff several years ago. Darrius Heyward-Bey has learned to see and appreciate it over the past four years.
“With Todd and this staff, they understand, ‘hey let’s let these guys do what they do best’”, the veteran wide receiver told Jason La Canfora. Heyward-Bey said. “I’ve been to a lot of other places and it’s — this is our offense and this is what we do. And that’s not how they go about it here”.
Haley was of course quick to deflect praise, citing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for making his receivers look good. But he did say that, “as a coordinator I’m just a big believer in playing to guys’ strengths and not making guys do things that isn’t their forte”.
This might seem like a simple and obvious concept, but frankly, this is not what every team or every coach does. As Heyward-Bey said, he’s been on other teams—namely, the Raiders and the Colts—who did not run things that way.
“We have that structure”, the receiver said, “but at the same time Todd’s not going to stick somebody outside if that not his strength. He’s not going to stick somebody inside if that’s not their strength. But you all still have to know the entire offense, because you never know what happens in any given game”.
That is probably one reason that Haley is a fan of Heyward-Bey, who has transformed himself since being a first-round bust. Embracing his role as a frequent blocker, he has learned to play every wide receiver role on the field. But with his strength being his speed, they still primarily target him on go routes.
“Find out what they do well, evaluate that, and play to their strengths”, Haley said of his approach. “If you do that, most of the time you see guys start to climb the ladder a little quicker”. The veteran coach is hoping to see a shallow learning curve for his youngest prospect, second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster.
So far in training camp, he has gotten some time on the outside, but with everybody available healthy, he has primarily rotated with the first-team unit in the slot, seemingly favored in the red zone more over Eli Rogers.
That may be how things shake out by the time the season rolls around. Rogers can get you down the field with his nuanced route-running and separation. Smith-Schuster’s size and combat-catch ability can help the offense win when the windows get narrower. Play to your receivers’ strengths. That’s the key.