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.
When watching a team over the course of an entire season, rather the impossible, which is perfection, you have to hope to see improvement each week. That improvement each week is the hope that the team “peaks” at the right time toward the end of the season to make playoff run.
When watching the Steelers’ receiver group, I can say I’ve seen them improve each and every week, with Week 5 against the Denver Broncos being the best performance of the season so far.
If you were able to catch the game Sunday, you were able to see an offense that finally founds its legs. The offensive line helped things open up in the running game, which ultimately helped things out in the passing game.
The other thing I was pleasantly surprised with was the play of the receivers without the ball in their hands, which was a point of emphasis for me in weeks past talking about this receiver group.
The things I saw this week excited me and am pumped to show you. So let’s get into it.
Anyone else feel like they had some deja vu, Sunday?
I sure did after the second-straight week with an opening drive touchdown in almost the exact same fashion to Diontae Johnson.
The Broncos are in 2-man, which is simply man coverage with two high safeties. This is why you see the cornerback covering Johnson give him the inside leverage because that’s where his help is.
The problem is the route by Chase Claypool after motioning into trips. He runs a wide release post, and gets a natural rub from the defender covering JuJu Smith-Schuster.
This freezes the safety to help out on Claypool, leaving Johnson one-on-one, and he does his job. While he’s not your typical “burner,” Johnson excels on vertical routes because his underneath and intermediate routes are so good. This is always in the back of the mind of defenders, as you see here. A simple, tempo’d outside stem is all Johnson needs to beat his man. Great throw. Great catch.
The wifi connection has gone from three bars to four the last few weeks for quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and Johnson.
Below, is a look at the second touchdown pass of the day that was what I wrote about in more detail in my weekly ‘Steelers Turning Point’ article.
Seeing the play develop as an offensive coordinator had to be an elation. At the snap, the Broncos look to be in 2-man again, but the defenders all sink and sit around the sticks for a true Cover 2 look.
This helps Claypool not have anyone walling off this throw underneath and Roethlisberger is able to freeze that safety on the left side of the field just enough to squeeze this ball in there to Claypool. Notice the subtle nuance of the route as well from Claypool pressing outside right before his break to the post, also known as a “rocker step.” This further leverages the safety, on his side, and creates the space he needs to make the catch.
Lastly, kudos to Claypool for making this tough contested catch in the end zone, knowing you’re about to take a big hit. That’s a big-time play that we’ve been expecting to see from him.
The next play we’ll look at is straight out of the Keith Butler defensive playbook.
— Steelers Depot 🎃🧙♀️👻 (@Steelersdepot) October 11, 2021
The Broncos chose to stay in their base defense against 12 personnel, giving up the extremely advantageous matchup of Chase Claypool against Von Miller.
It ended as you’d expect. Claypool essentially gets to run a slant route against air. Then he uses his strength and speed to get a load of YAC. While he’s not technically a wide receiver, I want to point out the effort by Freiermuth to get down the field and throw some blocks for Claypool.
Claypool really excelled Sunday generating yards after the catch. 81 of his 130 yards came after catching the ball.
It’s been something I’ve been banging the table for more out of this receiver group, other than Smith-Schuster, as it seemed like everyone was going down too easy.
Here on third down, Claypool gets away with a subtle push-off at the top of his route (keep doing it until they call it) and is able to put his foot in the ground to get upfield for an extra 10 yards after the catch.
When you have an offense struggling as the Steelers have, those extra yards are so important.
I thought the next play was an underrated one from Claypool.
He comes back to the ball on the speed out, (terrified me seeing Ben throw this late), and in turn, ruins the CB’s angle for bonus YAC & a first down. It’s almost a carbon copy of what James Washington did on a similar play last week vs. the Packers.
The part I loved most was his awareness to know the clock was just a tick under five minutes & went down in bounds to keep it running. Those are the types of heady plays, I don’t feel like we see enough out of the Steelers’ entire team.
It cuts off in the clip here, but you could see how jacked up the sidelines was that he did this too.
Continuing our YAC party, let’s go to the slant by Diontae Johnson.
With the outside leverage the corners continued to play against the Steelers’ receivers, this was another play that was extremely simple, yet so effective. It almost looks like a hot route, but really is just Johnson running into a void. The corner has no shot and then it’s up to Johnson to do what he does best, be elusive and slippery. Look at the trail of bodies he leaves behind him as he almost springs this for a touchdown.
Our next clip is where preparation meets execution. Something that’s been lacking, especially the latter, with this Steelers’ passing game.
Watch as the defender follows the motion man across the formation and the near safety rotates down into the box. Roethlisberger sees this and knows it’s going to be Cover 1. So, he checks with a helmet signal. Claypool, at the bottom of the screen, repeats it to show he’s got it.
They again attack the outside leverage of the Broncos’ corners with a three-step slant. Both receiver and quarterback are on the same page. Easy money.
A deep slant against 1-high honestly is not the most ideal thing to run, as you’re almost guaranteeing a big hit to your receiver. However, with the safety playing 16-17 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap it’s an almost impossible play for a defender to make.
And for our last “good” clip of the day, we’re going to mix it up a bit with Ray-Ray McCloud.
Watch McCloud’s secondary release here against a squat man defender. He’s able to get on the DB’s toes & get him off balance with a “rocker step” before pushing vertical. This keeps him clean & is wide open on the deep over route.
Unfortunately, the interior pressure forces an overthrow from the QB.
Normally I’m unable to have this section as it’s normally me critiquing the receivers’ blocking. However, on Sunday we finally saw some “want to” out of the guys not named Smith-Schuster.
We’ll start with Ray-Ray McCloud. Standing at 5’9″ and 190 pounds soaking wet, McCloud’s stature isn’t going to scare anyone. Don’t tell him that though. He really impressed me with his toughness and want to in the blocking department against the Broncos.
The Steelers moved him all over the place:
- Lead blocker at the line of scrimmage
- Crack toss on force defender
- Blocked EDGE defender on toss
And oh yeah, he likely saved an interception caused by a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage, lighting up a defensive lineman after he started the play as the widest receiver in trips. Great hustle all-around by McCloud.
Continuing with the blocking, Cody White also threw his hat in the ring.
Watch as he’s used as a lead blocker through the whole. He absolutely swallows the Broncos’ safety and opens a huge hole for Najee Harris to run through.
Lastly, on our extended blocking section, is the most unlikely of names, Diontae Johnson.
I’ve essentially given up on him in this area as he hasn’t shown me anything at all and with his body type, it’s somewhat understandable. However, the below clips show just how far a little effort can go.
While these clips don’t show Johnson burying his defender you can see just how effective a little “stalk blocking” can go. More often than not, cornerbacks are going to be able to be blocked in this manner. Occasionally there are uber-physical guys that will rip through this, but for the most part, this will do the job. Both times, Johnson’s effort stalk blocking adds on an extra 5-10 yards to Harris’ runs.
On top of the Steelers only passing the ball 25 times this week, in general, the receivers played really well. Thanks to that we have a relatively small “bad” section this week.
Starting out with the one I’m sure everyone remembers, the Cody White drop. The Steelers ran a “Yankee concept” against the Broncos’ Cover-1. The quarterback’s read is then to throw wherever the high safety doesn’t go as both receivers should be inside leverage crossing the field.
If the ball was thrown on target, White likely has his first NFL touchdown. However, even with the severe underthrow, it still should have been an explosive play through the air as it goes right through White’s hands and hits his legs.
It was uncharacteristic of White, and I’m sure if the moment happens with him again, the moment won’t be too big for him.
Now it is time for our weekly Claypool contested-catch part of this article. The below play is yet another example for Steelers fans to grumble about.
While the initial view looks like Surtain may have broken up the pass, in the second view you can see the ball clearly go between Claypool’s hands and bounce off his facemask. While it is great coverage by Surtain, Claypool either has to start coming down with at least ONE of these or the Steelers should stop throwing them at him. At a minimum, do not do it on 3rd & 2. WIth Smith-Schuster going down we’ll likely see Claypool work more out of the slot where contested catches are critical. We’ll see if he can build off of his touchdown out of the slot later in this game.
As previously mentioned, the loss of Smith-Schuster is going to change the entire landscape of this receiver group in the coming weeks. As head coach Mike Tomlin alluded to in his press conference, one man won’t replace JuJu. We’ll definitely see more of James Washington and then there’s new options like Claypool playing the “big slot,” an extended role for McCloud, or even guys on the practice squad coming up to the 53 like Steven Sims or Anthony Miller. It’s something to keep an eye on as we try to keep that arrow pointing up for this progressing group.