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.
While the offense looked worse than ever last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, all in all, I thought the receivers looked better than week 2.
This Sunday presented a unique opportunity for a few receivers due to injuries.
Chase Claypool got some time to step in the X-role with Diontae Johnson hurt.
James Washington’s role expanded with Claypool moving to X.
Ray-Ray McCloud got some extended slot snaps with JuJu Smith-Schuster exiting the game early with a rib injury.
And lastly, Cody White brought in his first NFL catches spelling the starters.
There’s always good with the bad, but there was more good on film from them than I expected upon a deeper look. Let’s dive in
One of the Steelers biggest problems this year has been their receivers creating separation. Some of this is on the scheme, as if you watch a team like the Los Angeles Rams, for example, they constantly scheme receivers open. We simply haven’t seen that in Pittsburgh for years. So, in turn, the Steelers have been relying on natural separators like Antonio Brown and Diontae Johnson.
Without them, you see what the offense can look like. Smith-Schuster, Claypool, and Washington are not guys you’re going to see naturally separating on a play-by-play basis. Because of that, they have to make a lot of contested catches, and we’ve either seen them fail in these opportunities or the quarterback hasn’t been able to consistently give them catchable balls to even have a chance at the contested catch.
Take a look at the separation across the league on contested catches per our very own, Clayton Eckert.
You can see Johnson is the only one getting above-average separation, while all three of the Steelers starters are on or well below the trend line.
That’s not to say there isn’t separation to see on film. We’ll start with what I think was the team’s all-around best play from a separation standpoint all day.
Front side, the Steelers run a form of smash, with a corner route from the slot and a mini dig from the outside.
Starting with the ball catcher, McCloud, he gets a great vertical release on former Steeler, Mike Hilton. He presses Hilton’s outside shoulder, bursts, and stacks before breaking for the corner. McCloud finishes the play with the nice grab and ability to stay in bounds for a few bonus yards. This may be the most impressive play we’ve seen from McCloud in the back and gold as a receiver.
Claypool also does a nice job here at the line of scrimmage, getting the corner to believe he’s pressing vertical enough for the corner to fully turn his shoulders before breaking inside.
Washington, at the top of the screen, also gets a contactless release where the corner ends up on his back.
Think it’s the only play I’ve seen all season that you could make a case for Roethlisberger to throw to any of the five eligible receivers.
We’ll continue to stick with separation clips for the first few plays.
James Washington and Ben Roethlisberger have had so much trouble connecting on deep balls throughout Washington’s relatively young career. Sunday was no different. We all saw this live, but want to take look at how great of a release this is from Washington. He foot fires and explodes past the Bengals corner. There was a few plays (including the previous clip) I thought Washington looked great getting off the line and stacking. I think his explosiveness actually surprises corners. A real shame Roethlisberger couldn’t find him on this ball, as it not only could have changed the entire outlook of the game but also gained some confidence for the connection that’s never really been there.
This is probably a hot take, but I’d really like for the Steelers to attempt to work Washington on deep throws more. Until Claypool can prove he can come down with more deep ball. Sunday’s tape proved Washington can get open deep. He came out of Oklahoma State with deep balls being his forte and we simply haven’t seen enough of it. He still seems uncomfortable in intermediate routes. Give him more chances to play to his strengths. He may not be the “Mike Wallace 2.0” this offense could use, but a few completed deep shots like this one may help the defense back off a bit.
Sticking with another missed opportunity with clear separation, it turns out this play seems to be a hot debate upon Steelers fans (somehow).
Contrary to popular belief, Claypool indeed runs the right route here. It’s a beautiful route, run smoothly and with tempo. All it is is an outside-stem post. Claypool presses outside to get the corner to commit that way vertically, and as soon he does Claypool bursts inside. He’s WIDE open. Roethlisberger simply misses him. I know he’s about to get hit, but that’s a throw an NFL QB needs to be able to make.
There’s no time for Roethlisberger to get the ball to Claypool here, but he gets another nice release, completely turning the cornerback at the line of scrimmage. Claypool struggles with physical press corners but thrives when you let him come off clean. If Roethlisberger has time here, he has a great look to take a deep shot to Claypool with the cornerback in tow.
The same type of look from the corner, Claypool again eats him up with his release. He’s able to stack him but unable to bring down another contested catch. While Claypool 100% needs to bring down more of these, he’s done his job. He’s open. If Roethlisberger is able to put this in front of him, this should be a routine catch for a touchdown, instead, he has to slow down, turn and torque his body. If it’s in front of him, the DB has no shot at a play on this ball. The blame goes both ways. Luckily, there was pass interference on the play so it wasn’t all for not.
The way the corners were playing off Sunday, it was basically daring the Steelers to throw outside the numbers. And while there were a few completions, the Steelers didn’t take advantage enough in my opinion to no fault of the receivers.
We continued to see some spark plays in the YAC department from JuJu. He’s given us a play a week that really made you appreciate his ability in that department.
Here he takes a simple middle sit route at four yards and turns it into a first down on 2nd and 15. Any time it takes four defenders to bring down a receiver, you have to respect it.
Another good YAC play here, by Claypool, on one of those outs that the Bengals were giving the Steelers. He catches it at about five yards and is able to drive his legs, bringing the cornerback with him, for seven extra yards and a first down. Now THAT is something to get excited about Chase.
Last good play here from the receivers and we’ll move on.
Cody White, an undrafted receiver out of Michigan State, was able to make the practice squad after a solid preseason. He was brought up to the 53 due to injuries and didn’t look completely out of place. This play in particular was a great fundamental play from him.
On a 3rd & 10, White is tasked with a comeback. He gives himself enough room past the sticks to be able to come back to the ball. He hakes the adjustment, goes down, and gets it, keeping the drive moving. As routine as this play looks, it is plays like this that have been anything but this year for the offense. Way to deliver when called upon Mr. White.
As I said, the receivers surprised me with their performance upon rewatch, that being said there still was some bad to go over.
We’ll start with one of Roethlisberger’s interceptions. While it was an atrocious decision by the veteran QB and at no fault of the receivers, the attempt of a mesh concept by Claypool and Smith-Schuster is less than ideal.
Mesh forces defenders to track underneath routes in man or zone coverage. If run correctly, the concept creates a natural rub for defenders as the receivers pass each other which creates separation for players to catch the ball on the move. Against zone coverage, those underneath routes continue their same path but settle into open space.
However, here, both Claypool and Smith-Schuster tiptoe through the middle of the field before settling. Just zero sense of urgency at all here. Everyone looks to be in slow motion. Just a terrible play all around for the offense.
The next clip is a mental error that simply can’t happen. The Bengals all-out blitz with eight defenders all coming from the line of scrimmage. This is the opportunity for a big play. You catch the ball and break one tackle, it can be a crib call.
I’m not entirely sure who’s at fault here. It looks like Claypool is going for a block here, but neither JuJu or Washington look for the ball. Someone HAS to be hot here. Roethlisberger seems to be throwing in the direction of Claypool, here so it may be him, I’m not entirely sure, but one of the three messed up. Inexcusable, this should be a routine 3rd down completion.
Here’s a “the little things” clip. Claypool has to know to turn outside here. You saw earlier how he can dominate and run through defensive back tackles. There’s hardly ever a time to turn back inside after catching a ball in this part of the field. All you’re going to be met with are linebackers and defensive linemen chasing the play.
He turns outside here, this may be a first-down play instead of a small four-yard gain. Claypool’s body may thank him for it too.
We have two more clips to go through and I’ll send you on your merry way. The last two clips, however, truly upset me.
Whenever you have an opponent talking about effort levels towards the end of the game, it’s time to look in the mirror regardless of the legitimacy of the accusation. And the next plays, while they didn’t occur at the end of the game, are ones I’d circle for the receiver room as “how much do you really want to turn this thing around?”
Please look at Claypool at the top of the screen throughout this play.
You have your running back who has been taking countless hits so far in this game, giving his absolute all to put this on his back and get down the field. It takes six Bengals to take him down. Meanwhile, Claypool is a spectator. It’s called “finding work.”
Watch Gentry on the same play. His small effort of looking who to block downfield allows Harris to gain an extra ten yards.
I don’t expect him to hold the cornerback here, but go block the safety. He’s the one that eventually gets in on the tackle. Save some abuse on your running back. And your guy just made a fantastic play, go help him up get excited, something. This play shows me NOTHING.
This play from Washington, is in the same realm.
Let’s just throw both of my shoulders into defenders and then walk while the running back is still breaking tackles. These effort levels don’t show me guys that want to win.
Work has to be done to turn this thing around. I get the guys are frustrated, I’m sure this isn’t how they saw the season beginning for this offense and the pressure is on, but these types of efforts aren’t going to do it.