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.
After a whole week of breaking down how the Steelers receiving corp couldn’t separate, we saw a whole lot of it in week four against the Packers. While much of it is thanks to the return of Diontae Johnson from his knee injury suffered late in the week two game against Las Vegas, we also saw some guys schemed open.
While the blocked field goal touchdown was wrongly called back due to an offsides penalty there were a few missed plays between the receivers and Ben Roethlisberger that certainly attributed to the loss. Overall though, I was impressed with the performance of this receiving group against some tough corners in Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes.
Let’s get into it.
We’ll get the highlight of the day out of the way first. On the roller coaster ride that is Diontae Johnson this is play is one of his peaks. He sees the offsides but keeps playing. He works into the blind spot of Alexander and is able to stack him at the top of the vertical route. Then is able to finish the play like a nonchalant catch in warmups for Roethlisberger’s 400th touchdown pass.
Johnson really has mastered the same exact (subtle or not so subtle, you be the judge) push-off we saw from Antonio Brown in his years as a Steeler. Packers players and fans alike were calling for the offensive pass interference, but until the NFL consistently starts calling this, I’m doing it until the sun comes up.
The other part about this play to note is the fact I’m not sure Roethlisberger actually knew that this was a free play. Normally on free plays, he’ll instantly look to go deep, but here he doesn’t look towards the offsides and casually goes through his reads. This is Big Ben trusting Johnson to make a play and he does.
Spoiler alert time! I want to admit that I myself was thankful that Johnson returned to the lineup as most of these clips are going to be about him. He really showed out Sunday.
Here, Johnson does a fantastic job attacking leverages. He works an outside stem to avoid the reroute from #41 while also working the outside shoulder of the cornerback. Everything about his demeanor and body language looks like he’s running a wide release post. He sells the post for two steps, getting the cornerback to commit inside and upfield before breaking on a dime to the out. Then he finishes the rep with a hands catch away from his frame. Great play.
All of the Steelers receivers have been creating separation this year on speed outs and this held true Sunday. Just look at the space created by Johnson on both of these. Unfortunately, both were checked down.
Moving on to James Washington who easily had his best game Sunday, filling in for the absent Chase Claypool. Here, he makes the easy catch on the out route against off coverage but is able to feel the angle of the incoming cornerback for the tackle. He attacks the ball carrying his momentum inside and upfield, picking up about 15 yards of YAC.
Not a bad release on the slant by Johnson at the bottom of the screen either.
If you read last week’s version of this article, I mentioned wanting the Steelers to give Washington more chances as verticals routes like go’s and posts. I’m not saying the Steelers listened to me, but they listened to me.
Washington looks so in his element running these types of routes, as he should. He racked up ~4500 yards and 39 touchdowns at Oklahoma State on vertical shots. Washington stems outside around 10 yards making the cornerback start his turn directly upfield just when Washington plants inside. Great job by Roethlisberger freezing the underneath safety with his pump fake and opening up the middle of the field of the throw.
All around good play that we need to see more of out of this offense.
Sticking with Washington deep routes, here’s another post by him. Watch how he’s able to press onto the cornerback’s toes before he breaks. That’s tough to do when the cornerback is playing so far off. Even with the corner’s slow peddle you have to be disciplined to hold your break until you are on top of him. The closer you are on the break, the more separation it creates. Here it makes the cornerback open up outside and do a full baseball turn to keep up with Washington. If Roethlisberger has time and puts this is out in front of him, you got the makings of a great play.
Back to Diontae Johnson as we finish up our “good” for this week.
Another simple play as this was the Steelers’ base play of the week with the double slants to the two receiver side and a backside speed out. The same play as Washington caught on his play with 15 yards of YAC. Johnson is able to make the same cornerback miss and burst up the sidelines for an extra seven or so yards and an easy first down.
With the underneath passing game we all know the Steelers are deploying, these are the types of plays you have to see from the receivers, after the catch, for the offense to succeed.
As you may have seen there were no “good” clips of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Coincidentally, I don’t have any “bad” clips of him either that’s why we’re going to throw them into the limbo that is this section because I have three pulled.
We’ll start chronologically. This one happened on the third drive of the game and only set the tone for the rest of the day.
It’s a play-action play and it seems Ben hitches one extra step before releasing which throws off the timing. The reason this one is not in the good or bad section is that there are too many variables here to know who’s at fault. I like that JuJu, in the rain, is careful to keep his feet on his cuts while the cornerback falls. However, I have to wonder if this is supposed to be more of a wide release post than a dig. Or if Roethlisberger was planning on Smith-Schuster sitting, which against cover 1, doesn’t necessarily make sense to me either. Or the last option of it is just a bad throw from Ben. On missteps like this, it’s always hard to know what actually went wrong.
I broke down this play further and how the Steelers set it up in my weekly turning point article. This was another extension of the Steelers’ base play of the week, including the two quick speed outs to Johnson and Washington shown earlier.
The Steelers ran this concept numerous times in the game. Before this specific play, they ran it three times in two drives. It’s sort of an RPO look. Although it doesn’t seem like Roethlisberger is truly reading anything at the line. In all three plays, there is a mesh with the running back and quarterback, where it’s either a hand-off or the QB will pull the ball to throw. In regard to the receivers, whichever side of the formation has two receivers will be running double slants with a short speed out from the backside receiver.
I’ll post the three plays below.
This time, JuJu Smith-Schuster begins the slant but sticks his foot in the ground for a slant-and-go, accompanied by a patented Big Ben pump-fake. The corner has absolutely no shot.
With the Packers defense in a Cover 1 robber look and the deep safety’s attention being averted to a vertical route from Diontae Johnson, the corner was left on an island with Smith-Schuster — and lost, BADLY.
The Steelers’ offense perfectly set up and executed the play to tie the game. All except for one thing, the easiest part, hit the wide-open receiver.
I’m still on the edge here of who’s actually at fault. While I don’t think Roethlisberger needed to rocket this ball into Smith-Schuster, it’s tough to see from any angle, TV or All-22, if the ball was actually uncatchable, or Smith-Schuster simply missed it with his hands.
I’ll let the readers decide who’s fault it was in the comments below.
Going onto the final Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster misfire of the day.
Smith-Schuster easily wins inside with his release here. The problem again begins to lie on where the fault lands. Smith-Schuster continues to drift towards the numbers while Roethlisberger throws him inside away from the cornerback. You can also see a small hitch by JuJu right around the 40-yard line where you can see him finally start to track the ball. Seems like that hitch may be just enough for the throw to end up long.
I don’t have a problem with throwing this inside away from the corner as it’s actually what I wished Roethlisberger had done with Claypool against the Raiders on a deep end zone shot. One that ended up being knocked out of Claypool’s hands. However, this one seems just a bit far. It’s a clip I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the film room to see who’s actually at fault.
Three clips, three huge misses for Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger. It’s a game of inches and those few inches could have been 14 points on the scoreboard.
Easy way to get an upset JuJu.
Admittedly, these may not be as bad as what you just watched, but I appreciate you sticking it out this far if you’re still reading. I’ll try my best to get through these as fast as I can.
We all know with Johnson’s flashes of greatness he still leaves you scratching your head at times. While he’s eliminated his drops thus far this year (35 targets, no drops), he still has found ways to be frustrating. That was no different Sunday.
On 3rd & 4, he’s able to find a hole in the zone, break two tackles. All he has to do after that is dive forward and give himself up. Instead, he tries to run outside, avoiding the contact, and ends up right back at the line of scrimmage.
This screenshot rubs salt in the wound.
To make matters worse, on the ensuing 4th and 4, Johnson false starts, his second in as many games, and makes it a 4th and 9. The Steelers choose to punt it away down 17 in the fourth quarter.
The below play is another that many placed on Roethlisberger and I have to side with it being Johnson’s fault here. This again was out of that same base play as the JuJu missed touchdown that I explained earlier. With the Steelers pounding the mini-speed outs all game they wanted to try to catch the rookie cornerback being aggressive. However, when the cornerbacks are playing that far off, it’s going to be extremely hard to run an out and up.
As we run the play here you can see the corner easily sinks back to be in a good position against the out and up. Johnson can’t try to go inside here. Without Roethlisberger scrambling, it’s not time to start drawing in the sand yet. You have to at least attempt to get upfield and look back for the ball. Roethlisberger tries to throw a back shoulder and it’s just an ugly play overall.
Speaking of repeated mistakes. The receivers botched another bunch play in as many weeks. Lining up in a bunch is supposed to confuse the defense with switches, but we get a wrong route from someone here.
Ben instantly looks to his right towards the three-receiver bunch. As you can see, Washington and Smith-Schuster are in the same reception area. My guess is Washington is supposed to run some sort of slant or under route to stress the defense. Roethlisberger sees this and tries to make the best of the play trying to throw Johnson open towards the middle of the field but he stops.
One last clip here before we are on to the Denver Broncos.
All around tough clip here from Cody White. He’s running a short speed out and makes it this inside rounded route that is slow and not explosive out of his break. Then, he is weak at the point of attack blocking, forcing Najee to break another tackle and eventually ends up on the ground. Not a great rep.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article I was overall impressed with the Steelers receivers’ performance against the Packers. Even while missing Claypool it seemed to be their most complete performances, depending on how you view the Smith-Schuster plays. However, the arrow for them is still pointing up. They have nowhere near reached their ceiling, and some help from their veteran QB wouldn’t hurt either.
From the looks of things, they’re going to be beat up for the near future with Claypool, Washington, and Smith-Schuster battling injuries heading into week five. So we’ll see if they can battle through the adversity and keep that arrow pointing upwards.