Film Room: How Pittsburgh Replaces Antonio Brown

With the Steelers ditching Antonio Brown for a third and fifth-round picks, the Steelers have just lost an elite WR talent and will have to fill the void somehow this offseason. It is not just exclusive to free agency or the draft, but more so, what can the Steelers do schematically with the guys they already have? Is it possible to isolate JuJu Smith-Schuster so he can work one-on-one instead of being double teamed?

I have great news for you. Randy Fichtner is already ready for every bit of this with his schematic complexities. I have full confidence, so be it the Steelers add another weapon this offseason, that they’ll be fine because of what Fichtner has installed into the offense, and that is a deep, complex web of routes and versatility that allows the offense so many different looks that it will be incredibly tough to keep JuJu and the passing offense all that quiet. Thus, here is how the Steelers can replace Antonio Brown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Meet the Steelers’ new number one receiver in life without Antonio Brown. JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to meet a bevy of double teams next season, there is no doubt about that, but he’s versatile, able to play any of the three positions a receiver can play at, the X, slot, and Z. His large route tree only helps with this. He is a full fleshed WR1 with his ability to win contested catches and separate.

Now, if the Steelers want to get him open or move him into space, it is not that hard to imagine them using more of the bunch set that they used so much in 2018.

Here, they have Ryan Switzer, JuJu, and Vance McDonald in a 3×1 bunch set while  Brown plays the X. Now, obviously, the Steelers will need a threat to play that X to prevent the inherent, whether that be James Washington or another new receiver, but this is an excellent way to get Smith-Schuster one on one and into space.

Fichtner showed a lot of love to those pick plays and Smith-Schuster being sent into motion and freeing him up with the pick is an easy way to get Smith-Schuster open and into space. Smith-Schuster lives in the slot and can also be used from there as a threat that is not doubled up from that spot due to leaving the boundaries open with deep threats like James Washington.

Here, Smith-Schuster comes over from the left side and makes this a 3×1 set, which means he is pretty isolated unless the safety and CB come down to play him over the middle, but that is easily voided by crossers and digs. With the quickness of guys like Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer, they are not going to be covered LBs and they certainly will find separation off of those double teams. It is either that or, like on this play, the Steelers use the screen as to James Conner as a decoy and instead Smith-Schuster breaks wide open over the middle.

It is those kind of routes that simply will isolate him in space and allow him to gain separation. Obviously, the screen game could see an increase as well to just get him open off of quick passes, but even using downfield concepts like switches and 2×2 sets that require exchanges and safety coverage over top should allow you to get Smith-Schuster open. There are ways to decoy the defenders away from him or force them to lose so be it you trust those receivers.

And with the Steelers, they have a duo of quick, shifty slot receivers that should make things much tougher for defenses to cover Smith-Schuster.

Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers

I love these two guys. You can call them only alright, but I see them as dynamic weapons that expand an offensive playbook tenfold. They are big play machines, and you saw what Eli Rogers’ impact can do in Week 15 and Week 16. Rogers and Switzer both are guys who can separate and give you reliable weapons over the middle due to their fantastic route running skills.

Switzer, in particular, has far more versatility than people would like to realize. Sure, he is a jitterbug who is as quick as anyone out of the slot, but Switzer can play in the backfield in the shotgun or even as the X receiver, and he had reps that were genuinely successful from the X spot. Not only is it because of route running prowess, but it is because Switzer’s quickness and high IQ allow him to beat zone, off-man, press whatever you like. He is one of those threats that can make a defense pay for double teaming JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Switzer works A.J. Bouye as well as anyone does on this double move. That is taking full advantage of his quickness and ability to make breaks on a dime. He has a TD here if Roethlisberger just throws it to him instead of to Brown. If they decide that bracketing Smith-Schuster over the middle is the call, then Switzer can make them pay deep with quickness and vertical speed or his quickness over the middle from the slot. He is a dynamic receiver that adds a ton of value to this offense.

Eli Rogers is not without praise, however. He’s currently not under contract, but with Brown’s departure now confirmed, the Steelers ought to bring him back to allow the empty set to return. Rogers was a thrilling watch against the Saints not due to what he did with the ball, but the route running he did without it. The guy was legitimately open all game against the Saints, but against the Patriots, it was the quick concepts for 5-8 yard gains that showed the dividends of having a guy that can create after the catch and still get open due to the same attributes that Switzer has.

I don’t think Rogers has the ability work outside as often as Switzer, but from a five receiver set with Switzer, he has the potential to be a really lethal weapon that can move the chains and be a problem if you can isolate him onto a linebacker, which Randy Fichtner absolutely loves to do.

It honestly would not be a stretch to say that the empty set saved the Steelers Week 17, especially since that allowed more isolation and opportunities to win in space as the game went along, and Rogers was instrumental in those sets.

James Washington

Washington just might be the most vital player on the team next year outside of Ben Roethlisberger. It feels like no matter who they add, or what they do, something has to happen with Washington. He was drafted to be a vertical threat that can win in contested catch situations and late into the season he got that more and more. His route tree was expanding and he started to show excellent foot speed and the ability to snap off curls and comebacks. That might be where he will be of value underneath, but when he is tasked with a one-on-one opportunity, he will have to make plays much like this one.

Washington showed this off in the preseason against the Packers and then showed it off against Jason McCourty and the Patriots. If he can high point the ball and start becoming confident in his game like he was at Oklahoma State, I think Washington can really take a leap to being a real weapon in this offense. I never was high on him coming out of Oklahoma State, but I projected him to be a decent WR3 that takes pressure off the rest of the rest of the offense. Now, he is going to have to do just that as he enters his second year.

With that in tow, Washington will have to develop his route tree and learn how to separate with that. His transition was always going to be rough, but now it absolutely is imperative he grows.

Vance McDonald

This trade is going to continue paying more and more dividends. Having an athletic TE that can block and utterly destroy guys in the open field is something that is always invaluable, but when you can put him in the slot or even outside, that is when that TE opens up the offense. McDonald did that and more in 2018 and as long as he is healthy, should do that more. Fichtner used him in a variety of ways.

Fichtner loved to use McDonald in space in the intermediate and short game this year. He used it out of flood, and he used in in-line with a doubles set on the other side with Brown and Smith-Schuster. Considering that McDonald is a virtual battering ram in space and is hard as anyone to stop, this seems to be a very likely plan for Fichtner. If Smith-Schuster is doubled on a flood concept, it should spread the defense out and allow McDonald to be open underneath. And if he is not, there should always be a guy open to the sideline. It is a dynamic concept that McDonald allows to thrive and really help take pressure off of Smith-Schuster.

In addition to that, McDonald was used in 3×1 sets that allowed him to be one-on-one with safeties all the time. That is a matchup you should take every single time as an offense and McDonald thrived doing it. Exploiting those mismatches and playing match game is exactly how Fichtner allowed McDonald to win, and he should look to that as he goes on an offense without his most dynamic player.

Jaylen Samuels and James Conner

Pittsburgh has running backs that can catch, and catch the ball well and out of a variety of sets. Conner and Jaylen Samuels are both guys that are going to be tasked with picking up some of the slack in the absence of Brown, but even more importantly, they are going to be asked to catch the ball a heck of a lot more. I would not be shocked to see both of them on the field at the same time often. They are both just that good at catching the ball that it is a natural conclusion to throw them both out into the slot or even out wide.

Samuels especially has a knack for receiving the ball. He worked out just about every spot you could have wanted to him at NC State, and with his former RB coach now coming in to help him get right back to that, I expect the Steelers to expand Samuels’ role by a lot this year, and it’s not just as a RB.

When you can make catches like this, I’d like to think you can play some receiver at the next level. Samuels is also planning to slim down a bit to give himself some burst, so that will obviously be a huge help when they get him into space and really open up his game. There, he is coming out of a bunch set and simply running a delayed crosser and makes a great catch through contact.

The Steelers, even in his limited playing time, used Samuels in a dynamic manner. He moved around from the X receiver to the slot, to H-Back, and even working some Z receiver into it. His route tree is far more expansive than that of Conner’s so I expect Fichtner to use Samuels to his full exposure.

Samuels ran a slant to perfection and caught the ball even when the DB was making a play on the ball. His natural hands should allow him to take on a far bigger role next year once he is fully adjusted to the perils of the NFL.

James Conner will be utilized in a similar way, and he and Samuels should be a big part of this.

Free Agents

There are some quality free agents out on the market that the Steelers can obviously go out and get. Former Eagles WR Golden Tate is an obvious one, as he did tweet about his interest in coming to the Steelers just last night.

Tate can obviously play just about everywhere on the field, do amazing things after the catch, and run routes just about as good as anyone. If you want to take pressure off of JuJu, Tate is a fantastic distractor, and the Lions used him in just about every way possible you could expect. They motioned him around, even out of the backfield, and got him into space.

Motioning him out into the slot is something the Steelers did with Ryan Switzer last year and they did it well. Tate is simply a more explosive version of Switzer in that regard. He is going to really work out of these 2×2 sets and the 3×1 bunch sets that the Steelers love to use. His vertical ability might be the most alluring part of it all, though.

The only thing I have against it is that he seems to be just a somewhat worse version of JuJu, so I am unsure if we really want that.

However, if we want a guy with the same skillset as Brown who can still burn the defense deep, Ravens WR John Brown seems like an excellent start for that.

His ability to play the slot and X is a key reason as to why this would be a joyous marriage together. Brown would offer that top burner so the Steelers could focus on the possession guy in the draft. He wouldn’t be all that expensive, and he brings value and just what they need.

That speed to win deep is exactly what the Steelers need. James Washington is a field stretcher, but he is not a burner. John Brown is both of those things. It’s a lock and key fit.

The Draft

It is a deep WR draft. And by deep, I mean very, very deep. There are legitimately up to twenty receivers who can start and contribute right away. And there are simply all different types of them. The Steelers will obviously be looking to get an X receiver who can move around still.

They could sure use some size and more so with that size, a guy who can bully guys deep. That brings me to my ideal fit, Hakeem Butler. Butler is a massive 6’6” and a virtual cheat code when going up for the ball. He has the fluidity and athleticism to win not just through physicality, but through genuinely well run routes. Butler is primarily an X receiver, but he has played a ton from the slot and does it extremely well. Also, he is just unbelievably good after the catch.

This play against Oklahoma illustrates a player that would be a starter for the Steelers and the type of contributor they would need to really help out JuJu Smith-Schuster and draw away those doubles. You can not let Butler get one on one matchups down the field with Ben Roethlisberger slinging the ball to him.

A burner that can win vertically and still run intermediate routes is an option too. Missouri’s Emanuel Hall fits that bill as well as any WR in the draft.

He is a guy who can make a Mike Wallace-like impact from Day 1 and really be that dynamic receiver the Steelers will need to take over the game if a big play is needed. The bigger deal is that he blocks about as well as anyone I have seen at the position this year, so he fits just what Darryl Drake wants in his receivers.


Can the Steelers replace Antonio Brown?

Sure they can. It’s not easy task and it will require an acquisition or two, plus excellent schematic work from Randy Fichtner, but if there is something to never forget it is that in these exchanges, the Steelers still usually come out on top.

This one might be harder to overcome, but they have done it before, and I can see it happening again.

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