Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged some time ago that he had begun to ‘manage’ rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool’s workload, with an eye toward preserving him to a degree for the team’s anticipated postseason run, and helping him to avoid hitting a rookie wall.
He never did hit a rookie wall, per se, but his snap count and his production did take a hit. Over the past five games, he failed to get into the end zone even once, and was held to under 55 yards each week, sometimes much less. He only caught more than four passes once in that stretch.
On Sunday in the Steelers’ season finale against the Cleveland Browns, Tomlin had a different plan in mind. It was time to get his big young stud of a wide receiver going again as a tune-up for what was to come. And he made the plays, finishing the game with five receptions for 101 yards, his second of the year, and a touchdown.
“It was our intention to feature him a little bit today”, Tomlin told reporters after the game about Claypool’s usage. “We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his play-making ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box”.
And that, of course, came with third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph under center, with Ben Roethlisberger being rested for a season finale that bore little meaning to the Steelers as a team, having already clinched the third seed with little chance of improving their situation.
Rudolph was able to connect down the field a couple of times with Claypool, first for a big 41-yard gain, and later, in the fourth quarter, finding him inside the five-yard line for what would go down as a 28-yard score. It was his ninth receiving touchdown and 11th overall, both tying team rookie records.
“When he’s one-on-on, for such a big guy, he really wins on go balls”, Rudolph observed. “Maybe his 40 time isn’t as fast as those guys on paper, but he’s a pretty darn good football player when he puts the pads on. You give him a chance in those situations”.
Perhaps he’s unaware that Claypool actually fan a very good 40 time. Perhaps not an elite mark, but the fastest on the team at this position, and while there were questions coming out of college whether he showed that speed on tape, he certainly has since entering the NFL.
The 6’4”, 234-pounder finishes his rookie regular season having caught 62 passes (also a team rookie record for 873 yards (46 from breaking JuJu Smith-Schuster’s rookie yardage record), with nine receiving touchdowns and 11 total touchdowns overall, including two rushing scores.
But the great ones make their marks in the postseason, and that’s what Tomlin wanted to gear up his young weapon for. Claypool is coming into the playoffs with a spark, with momentum, and that’s just where they were hoping him to be.