Through the first six games of the 2021 regular season, we have seen the Pittsburgh Steelers make some minor strides and especially in their running game. Some of that run game improvement has come as a byproduct of the offense focusing more on RPOs, run-pass option plays, which incorporate short and quick passes as run game alternatives in addition to regular designed running plays by rookie running back Najee Harris. While that running game improvement has been nice to see, the offense still isn’t producing nearly enough splash or explosive plays.
On Wednesday, Steelers wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard highlighted the fact that the offense needs to find a way to produce more of those explosive type plays moving forward past the team’s bye week.
“We need a more splash plays,” Hilliard said Wednesday during his media session. “We’re going to continue to work on that as we go forward. We’re getting healthier, which is good. The bye week comes at a good time for everybody that’s playing, outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster, to be ready to go, to make a run at it.”
To date, the Steelers offense has produced just 20 explosive plays of 20 yards or longer, and that has the unit ranked in the bottom third of the league in that statistical category. So, how does the offense go about focusing on creating more splash plays moving forward? Hilliard was asked that very question during his Wednesday media session.
“You know, we’re ramping up everything in terms of what we do,” Hilliard said. “The more the running game comes along, the play action pass is going to hit better. Individually out there, we need to make more individual plays, being on the same page with the quarterback, which is always a work in progress. But we’re looking forward to where we’re going to go the rest of the season with that.”
Steelers second-year wide receiver Chase Claypool figures to be one of those offensive players that the offense will look to get more splash plays out of moving past the team’s bye week. To date, Claypool, who had a team-high 14 explosive plays as a rookie in 2020, has five such catches through the team’s first six regular season games this year. While that amount isn’t awful, he has only caught four of the 12 passes thrown more than 15 yards down the field through six games played. On Wednesday, Hilliard was asked specifically about Claypool and if the second-year wide receiver can be taught to better adjust to the passes in the air that are thrown his direction.
“It’s kind of layered,” Hilliard said. “You know, every play is different. Every ball placement can be different. Like I said, we work really, really hard in order to try to manufacture plays. Chase is unique, you know, with his size and speed and ability to adjust, you know, and then sometimes in situations you just have to make the play as a guy. We haven’t clearly done enough of that for everybody’s liking, including ours. It’s been talked about and addressed. We’ll continue to work and like I said, more of those plays will come. He’s too talented individually and he’s counted on, you know, by everybody in this building, including himself, you know, to make those plays and he will.”
Hilliard’s response about Claypool prompted him to be asked more about Claypool and his overall mindset right now six games into the 2021 season. Specifically, Hilliard was asked if he thinks Claypool might be frustrated right now with his overall production. Hilliard was also asked as part of that question to give his thoughts on where he feels the young wide receiver is at right now in his overall development.
“Chase is about where it needs to be,” Hilliard said of Claypool. “Again, we need those plays and he knows that. We know that. But he’s not the only guy that’s been in those situations. So, you know, Chase’s is obviously a talented dude. We’re counting on him to make that second-year jump. Maybe it hadn’t been seen enough for enough people, but we’re comfortable where he is with his progression. And we’re just going to look forward to more splash plays from him individually and the room collectively going forward.”
While this post seems to be mostly dedicated to Claypool and the want and need for him to register more splash plays moving forward, Hilliard was correct when he said that collectively the offense needs other players besides him to produce more big gains. In my opinion, a lot of that onus needs to go on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who to date, has completed just eight of his 29 total pass attempts that have traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage.
As mentioned by Hilliard, hopefully the improvement in the Steelers running game these last few weeks will lead to the offense being able to rely a little less on RPOs and a little more on a more successful vertical passing game. Such improvements would figure to include more down-the-field completions to Claypool and the other wide receivers such as Diontae Johnson and James Washington.
“Just continue to build reps and rapport in practice and then, you know, you try to carry that over to the game situation and you put your best effort forth and do the best you can,” Hilliard said on Wednesday. “But these young men are working hard with a quarterback that has seen as much as our quarterback has seen, it’s a little bit easier. But we just still have to create more and with those opportunities, we have no doubt that those plays will come.”
Here’s hoping that Hilliard is correct as the Steelers offense needs to register a lot more splash plays moving forward from their bye week.