Every week I’ll be giving a look inside the Steelers wide receiver meeting room and breaking down their performance as a group. We’ll be taking a look at the plays the receivers impressed then working down to what they need to improve on in the next week.
Sunday was a roller coaster ride for the entire team and the receivers were no different. There are some variables that I’ll address early on. There were some open receivers Sunday that quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger either missed or simply had no time to throw to due to the offensive line play. However, the receivers were far from perfect Sunday in their own right. We’ll waste no time let’s get into the tape.
We’ll start with what may have been the best play of the day by any Steeler, Chase Claypool and Roethlisberger’s lone deep connection.
Claypool is able to get off the line clean and stack the cornerback vertically. This was something we were worried about him coming out of Notre Dame but proved he could do last year. He does it again here. At the catch point, he gets away with the subtle push-off to give himself room to make the diving catch. I was most impressed by his awareness to know he wasn’t yet touched and get back up to gain a few extra yards.
If #24 on the Raiders isn’t hustling on this play, Claypool likely takes it in himself.
Next, we’ll go with another deep ball connection, this time to Diontae Johnson.
Johnson surprisingly doesn’t get any separation on his release, but he’s able to muscle through the contact to make the play. This is a similar play in my mind that Roethlisberger mentioned last week, as one I’m not sure “The Old Diontae” makes in the past. We’ve seen all too much, once he’s contacted he’ll quit his route. And we will look at an example of that later in this film room as well, unfortunately.
Ben on Diontae: "I thought Diontae started the game out really well. Got his knee banged pretty bad. I don't know that the old Diontae would have come back in the game and kept playing and making plays for us. I think that showed a lot of growth." #Steelers
— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) September 15, 2021
If you want to nitpick (which is my job), I would have liked to see Johnson at least attempt to stay in bounds after catching this ball. I see he is giving a small shove by the corner, but I know Johnson has insane body control and balance. He may have been able to turn this into a touchdown or, at minimum, a few extra yards by tiptoeing down the sideline.
Sticking with Johnson, just as it was last year, he seems to be the only receiver on this team that is consistently able to create separation. Watching below, Johnson is at the top of the screen. Look at his tempo and burst off the line. This gets the corner accelerating upfield with all of his momentum. Then, Johnson is able to stop on a dime. Creating five yards of separation on a seven-yard curl is impressive.
One last play from Johnson here and then we’ll move on. Lined up at the very bottom of the screen, Johnson presses vertical. The key thing to watch is how he presses outside to get himself into the blind spot of the defender. This is something that ex-Steeler, Antonio Brown, has mastered.
Then, while in the defender’s blind spot he has the advantage of beginning to break down for his comeback before the defensive back knows what is going on. Great route.
Unfortunately, we only have one more “good” clip before we move on to the ugly.
Not sure if JuJu Smith-Schuster is even allowed in this article as the Steelers have turned him into a running back the last two seasons. This play is no different. I’ll gloss over the fact that the below play is an awful play call for the situation. It’s 3rd & 8 around your own 40 yard-line and your play call is to hit a receiver behind the line of scrimmage.
The only way this play was getting anywhere near a first down is Smith-Schuster breaking three tackles. Luckily, he did just that.
JuJu has been such a monster on these types of plays. He doesn’t get enough respect for it. He had a similar one last week against the Buffalo Bills where he ran over two defenders on the sideline. He’s just a rugby player in a football uniform.
For the sake of not having you count. There are only six “good” clips I pulled for this article and nine “bad” clips. One clip will have two plays, in case you try to double-check my counting.
As many good plays as Johnson had, there’s just as much bad. Think his high variation level of play is just who he is at this point. If it’s still occurring this often in year three, think that’s just who you got.
This play I don’t want to say falls squarely on Diontae, but I’d say he’s a large share of it.
The post/wheel concept is a great cover 3 beater. The point is for the post to carry the corner out of his third of the field and vacate it for the wheel. If you want to see how a post-wheel can be successfully run against cover 3. Look no further than Artie Burns against the Packers in 2017.
He sticks with his man on the post and Randall Cobb is able to go in untouched for the score.
Diontae Johnson, however, breaks for the post and just stops running. This is when the light-bulb goes off in the corner’s head and he breaks off to make a play on the ball. If Johnson carries this post full speed, the corner may stay with him just long enough for Roethlisberger to fit this ball into Claypool cleanly.
Those small details are the differences between a successful play and possible disaster in the NFL.
The last thing to note for this play is just how wide-open Smith-Schuster is out in the flat on this play. Could have been an easy first down.
Sticking with “The Old Diontae” coming out, let’s take a look at Roethlisberger’s interception.
Was it an ill-advised throw? Yes.
Should it have been such an easy interception for the Raiders? No.
Both the Raiders, Trayvon Mullen, and Johnson start at the exact spot, both looking at Ben Roethlisberger. However, Mullen actually reacts to the ball whereas Johnson just assumes it’s an overthrow. It may have still been picked off, but it should have at least been a 50/50 ball.
Then after the interception, Johnson goes for tackle. Good. But after his missed attempt, he looks to be getting up to chase him more but quits on the play a second time. You truly never know what will happen on the play. Maybe, Mullen cuts back and you get a chance to rip the ball out or make the tackle again. Just no reason for the effort here on this play.
One last clip of the bad for Johnson and we’ll move on.
I’m going to take some creative liberties to assume I know the Steelers’ offense here. Often times a receiver has options for his route depending on the defensive look for a given play.
So looking at the route tree below, a reciever’s route may be something like a “3 to 9.” Which is either a comeback (3) or go route (9) depending on the look.
On this play, I assume a “3 to 9” is what both outside receivers have to run. With a 2-high look that the defense initially shows, presnap as a receiver, you’re going to be thinking comeback because it’s extremely hard to hit a go route against 2-high coverages.
However, after the snap, the defense rotates into what looks to be a Cover 1 Robber look. Which is a single-high look with the one safety staying deep and the other looking to “rob” anything in the middle underneath.
Roethlisberger sees this, however, neither receiver does. So when Roethlisberger sees Johnson even with the corner, he wants to test the deep ball here. (Think: “if he’s even, he’s leaving.”) That’s where the miscommunication comes between the quarterback and receiver.
As a former receiver having to read things like this, is extremely tough. You’re reading something presnap, have it in your head. Then, have to try to get off a press, while seeing the defense move, all at 100 mph. It’s tough, but something you have to be able to do in order to be on the same page as your quarterback.
This is not as egregiously bad, as the other clips from Diontae, if I’m even right about the Steelers’ offense here.
Next up on our list is James Washington. I’ve always been in the Washington hive saying he could thrive with more opportunities, but that time is running thin. IF you’re trying to become a bigger part of an offense, flat out dropping the one ball thrown your way all day is NOT the way to do it.
The entire route and catch attempt look off to me. So lackadaisical. It looks like the type of route you run when your uncle tells you to “go deep” at the family BBQ.
It’s an overlooked play in this game. It came on the 2nd & 6 just before the Pat Freiermuth catch short of the line to gain that prompted a Steelers punt on 4th down. If Washington hangs on to this ball, we could be looking at an entirely different ending.
We’ll finish with some blocking clips before we put a bow on this week.
Steelers “run game” the last few years consists of these little bubble screens to receivers. For that, you HAVE to be good at blocking on the outside. Smith-Schuster is far and away the best blocking receiver this team has but has to be better at not getting grabby when guys get outside his frame.
Very clear hold here from JuJu has you can see him turn the corner back inside while grabbing his shoulder pads. Easy call for refs and negates a first down.
Later in the game, same play call. JuJu is lucky he isn’t called for the same exact thing. His hands outside the around the sleeve numbers of the Raiders defender and turns him.
As I mentioned, Smith-Schuster, in the run game has been the Steelers best blocker on the outside. His desire and want to is appreciated, but the technique has to be better or he’s going to be dinged with some more holds this season.
From a willing and able blocker to one that is seemingly the opposite. Claypool isn’t showing me nearly enough in this part of his game. He’s big and strong enough to truly dominate in this area and has said himself that he wants to be great at it. The below tells me differently.
Claypool overruns both defenders and gives them a small push. In both cases, that defender is the first to contact the ball-carrier. The offensive line is having enough trouble as it is to create lanes for the running backs, the wide receivers don’t have to compound the problem.
In contrast to Claypool in these two plays, watch how Smith-Schuster keeps his frame square and runs his feet on contact. That’s the way to block someone. I get Claypool has a middle linebacker in the second clip, but JuJu is blocking a defensive end on the first clip and controls him just fine. More times than not it’s not about size, it’s all about correct technique. And with Claypool, size isn’t really a factor here.
The receivers for the most part as a group are extremely up and down with the rest of the team. You can tell they want the ball and want to make plays, but they have to learn to play without the ball to give themselves more opportunities to get it. Most of the bad plays were ones away from the ball that could have helped sustain drives, therefore, giving yourself more opportunities to makes plays. There’s a lot of work to do, we’ll see which way that roller coaster trends this week against Cincinnati.