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.
The Steelers were able to pull off their first back-to-back wins of the 2021 season against the Seattle Seahawks. However, in terms of the receiver play, this was one of the more disappointing performances of the season, and honestly was a major reason why the game turned out to be as close as it was.
This week’s article and the weeks following will be a little different than in the past articles as I normally split the sections into “good” and “bad.”
We’ll now be separating into the following sections (if applicable week to week):
- Yards After Catch
- Hustle / Effort
Within these sections, I’ll continue to have our “good” and “bad” clips, but I think it’ll better organize the thoughts of the articles. With that being said let’s get into week six action.
While there was a lot to be disappointed in from this game, this section may be the most frustrating.
The focuses of this group all year have been highlighted by two main things:
- Diontae Johnson fixing his drops
- Chase Claypool’s lack of contested catches
And both are going to be the highlight of this section this week too.
We will start with Diontae Johnson.
While this may not show up on the stat sheet as a “drop” due to the offsides on the play, this was the first one we saw from Johnson all year. It was bound to happen at some point. I’ll never expect a guy to never have a drop. He was looking extremely comfortable catching it over his shoulder the past two weeks for touchdowns. He gets his subtle push-off to create space at the catch point but is only able to get one hand on the ball.
This is a play we’ve grown accustomed to Johnson making, he just has to make it. I don’t think this will be a problem going forward, but it’ll never NOT be frustrating to see. The Steelers luckily still were able to get seven points out of this drive.
A lot has been talked about regarding quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger’s, lack of mobility in this stage of his career. The lack of mobility also has cut down on Roethlisberger’s ability to create plays out of structure, which Steelers Nation was so used to seeing from #7 throughout his career. While the extended plays have been cut down, I can also add the receivers haven’t helped much in the department either. Time and time again this season, we don’t see the players make the necessary plays in extended play situations.
Here, Roethlisberger steps up into the pocket and throws it to Johnson, who is running an inside stem corner. While it’s good coverage, due to the corner’s back being to the quarterback, he has no chance to make a play on this ball. Roethlisberger does what the quarterback’s job is, giving the receiver a chance to make a play. Johnson does a good job at the “throw-by” of the cornerback and coming back to the ball. But again isn’t able to finish off the play.
Sticking to the same realm, here is another drop on a play where Roethlisberger is out on the move.
I’m not sure what Roethlisberger is reading here that makes him pull this ball to throw, but either way, it should have been completed. He puts it where only Claypool can get it. He simply can’t reel it in as it bounces off his chest plate and to the turf. (we’ll just ignore the fact that Chuks Okorafor is ~10 yards downfield on this play as well)
Now instead of having the ball 1st & goal from the five-yard line, it’s 2nd & 10 from the 17. The Steelers would stall out for a field goal on this drive after a block in the back from Claypool the very next play. That will be looked at later in this article.
One last “bad” clip from the catching department and we’ll switch over to some good.
While we won’t get into this route concept in general that I’m less than thrilled about, Claypool needs to learn a thing or two about the art of the subtle push-off that Diontae Johnson has mastered. This ain’t it. I think the most upsetting part about the play isn’t even the push-off, it’s the complete lack of awareness for the sideline. Even if the refs decided to keep the flag in their pocket, Claypool doesn’t get a single foot in bounds. Just a poor play all-around.
We expect Claypool to be able to play like a big tight end or a power forward going up for rebounds and I simply haven’t seen it from him this year at all. If you want to see what peak-Claypool would be like, turn on some Michael Pittman Jr. tape for the Indianapolis Colts. He’s been making plays just like this one consistently. Until Claypool can prove that this is a part of his game in practice, the Steelers have to find another way to utilize him in this offense, because this isn’t it.
While a simple five-yard catch being one of two “good” clips for this section isn’t the most inspiring, it’s a play I respect for a couple of reasons.
We’ve seen numerous times on third downs this year the receiver’s and quarterback not being on the same page, especially after a check at the line. You can see Roethlisberger point to his helmet to check at the line just before the snap. Everybody is on the same page and Claypool is able to bring in the third-down converting catch, all while he’s staring a 300+ pound defensive tackle in the face. After the catch, he holds the ball with two hands and withstands a few licks from the defense. A solid rep that helped keep a touchdown drive alive.
The following play is more quarterback than receiver, but it’s far too pretty not to include in this article.
In case you were wondering what Ben Roethlisberger’s best throw of the season was this far, here it is. Against cover 2, Johnson takes the route of least resistance inside on his press release. The cornerback wants Johnson to go inside him on his release, to go towards the safety. Johnson knows this and works his way back outside of the numbers to give Roethlisberger space to make this throw into the “turkey hole.” It showed great awareness from Johnson. He’s able the play by twirling around and making an all-hands catch while keeping his feet in-bounds and taking a hit. Great rep by both Johnson and Roethlisberger.
Debated calling this the Diontae Johnson section as he often dominates my articles when talking about route-running, but due to also including the bad in this section, I held back.
Many have asked why Johnson doesn’t get more time in the slot, and it’s because he is the one player on this team that can run a variety of routes and win in 1-on-1 situations, the number one job of the x-receiver.
This “blaze out” he ran was a prime example of that. I don’t think there’s another receiver on this team that would be able to run this successfully.
A “blaze out,” dubbed by San Francisco 49ers head coach, Kyle Shanahan, is best described as a “comeback from inside the numbers.”
Diontae Johnson’s biggest strength is constantly attacking the defensive back’s leverage in coverage. Watch as he first attacks their outside shoulder as if he’s running a go-route. Then cuts for the post before exploding outside. The leverage changes constantly keeps the defender guessing and leaves him feeling like he’s never fully in control.
Take a look at the TV view.
Johnson needs his own master class at how to create separation.
Sticking with Johnson here. He’s able to again take the path of least resistance as the corner tries to force him inside towards the safety. Once he gets past the corner he quickly stacks him vertically and is wide open.
Unfortunately, the ball is greatly underthrown and the corner also makes a great play on the ball. If this is put out in front of Johnson, it’s likely a third deep touchdown for him in as many games.
Ignoring the throw here, which is one of numerous third-down 50/50 balls thrown against the Seahawks, I want to send your focus to Claypool working as the WR3 in trips. He gets a nice release inside on a simple slant route and is likely where the ball should have been thrown for another easy completion and conversion.
One could argue both Claypool and Najee Harris would have converted the third-down play here.
I’m not sure about the Steelers’ and Ben Roethlisberger’s fascination with these types of throws on third-downs. They have rarely been effective since a certain receiver who dawned the number 84 were on the team and even then they were still questionable at best.
Sticking with that theme, while this play wasn’t on 3rd-down it adds fuel to the fire as to why these types of throws shouldn’t be considered on money downs.
The Steelers motion Ray-Ray McCloud to the right-side of the formation to ensure a 1-on-1 matchup for Claypool. They get the Cover 1 look they’re looking for and there’s simply a miscommunication between Roethlisberger and Claypool. It’s clear that the quarterback viewed this as a back shoulder look and, with the cornerback perfectly in phase, it was.
For further confirmation, you can see Roethlisberger’s frustration right after the throw and Claypool taps his chest. The TV version carried it further as they showed the two continuing the conversation in the huddle with Roethlisberger again showing frustration.
Claypool’s still young and raw, but with as many games under his belt that he’s had with #7 under center, you’d like for there to be more chemistry than there has been at this point.
Here’s a play that should never happen with this group and it almost cost the Steelers the game.
The Steelers have been running this RPO as their base play since Green Bay. It’s a read with two slants to the two-receiver side and either a quick out or a vertical route by the backside receiver. They’ve ran this play no less than 20 times in the past three games.
Somehow, Ray-Ray McCloud simply doesn’t run his route. He blocks right away, then looks to (MAYBE?) run his slant, then blocks again. This is the reason Roethlisberger does this hard pump-fake.
The number one rule as a receiver on quick throws is to not be indecisive and confuse the quarterback. This is teach tape to show why that’s important. Truly inexcusable from McCloud, anytime, but especially in the second half of a tie game. Luckily, the Steelers defense generated a three-and-out and was able to have the Seahawks punt from the 39-yard line following the fumble.
Yards After the Catch
I’m cheating this week for this section as it’s actually a rush, but for the sake of not having a “rushing section” for receivers, we’re putting it here.
Diontae Johnson is motioned into the “sniffer” formation and runs a jet sweep. What makes this play so good is Johnson’s vision and ability to set up blockers. As he makes his way outside watch as he takes one extra step outside of Pat Freiermuth’s block before cutting inside. This makes Freiermuth’s good block a great one as it essentially takes both defenders out of the play. That ability is what made Johnson such a dangerous punt returner.
He then continues to be slippery, breaking a tackle and picking up an extra 10 or so yards. Great play by Johnson in space.
We finally saw some improvement in the blocking department outside of the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud.
I’ve been very hard on Claypool, as someone with this body type should dominate in this department. He had a decent day against Seattle.
This rep, Claypool fakes the jet sweep and continues to kick out all-pro safety, Jamal Adams on a toss play. He drops his level, stays square, and drives his feet, successfully allowing Kalen Ballage to run off his back.
Below is another solid rep from Claypool and McCloud.
The result of tosses is almost exclusively dependent on the blocking from the receivers. Claypool successfully “closes out” and drives the corner back four yards. While he ends up making the tackle, I think it’s fair that when you’re that far out you’re blocking to keep the running back cut off your backside. He did his job well enough and didn’t hold.
McCloud does a solid job as well, however, you’d like him to get up a bit more upfield to cut off the angle to the outside. If he’s able to do this, Harris then may be able to cut off Claypool’s block inside.
If you look at the bottom of the screen, look how quickly Johnson gets up the field to cut off the angle of the linebacker, that’s what McCloud needed to do. By the look of Johnson and the line, this must be a decision Roethlisberger checks at the line with Harris, in terms of which way the toss is going.
I was genuinely excited watching Diontae Johnson throw his hat in the game in terms of blocking… and then there was a penalty.
While Johnson was flagged for offensive pass interference on the play I want to focus strictly on the block because it was the most effort I’ve seen from him in this department. I applaud it as he has a great close-out and seals off the inside for Claypool. Now that he’s proven he can do it, I want this weekly.
In regards to the penalty, the coaches need to figure out what is allowed and relay it to players in practice. We’ve seen numerous OPI’s in the last few weeks and everyone seems confused. It needs to be figured out and in this instance, I blame the coaches more than the players, because it seems these plays are being run exactly as they’re designed.
We’ll finish up the blocking section with Claypool’s block in the back I mentioned earlier in this article.
I’m honestly unsure why Claypool takes two steps upfield on this play. I don’t know if he thought this was more of a tunnel screen than a pop pass or what because his two steps forward completely take him out of position to make this block.
I want to point out, regardless of positioning, this is an extremely hard block to make. However, he makes it an impossible one. He has to see where this corner is lined up pre-snap and understand you have to take a direct line to have any shot at the block.
Then he compounds the mistake with the block in the back. This play successfully helped stall out a promising drive where the Steelers ended up having to settle for a field goal.
Hustle / Effort
Just like blocking, I may be one of the tougher evaluators of the Steelers’ receivers in this department. There’s always one or two plays it seems a week that really stand out to me one way or another.
I’ll start with the negative so we can end on a positive.
Let’s watch Chase Claypool in this clip below and we’ll discuss after the clip.
Claypool starts out well, sizing up the “force” player in case Roethlisberger throws the bubble on the RPO. It looks like Harris is bottled up until he isn’t. The one guy that likely stops Harris from getting into the end zone is the Seahawks #2. He doesn’t quit and not only tries to force a fumble but also wraps Harris’s legs before other defenders converge.
Is this tough for a receiver to keep blocking here? Absolutely, yes.
However, one of these weeks they’ll have to realize that with Harris’ contact balance, the play is never over. I truly think if Claypool is able to block for a second longer Harris is able to turn this into a touchdown.
Let’s finish with a play where Claypool shows great hustle.
This is was an extremely sketchy decision by the quarterback around the end zone. Luckily, a Seattle defensive lineman is able to get his hand on it so we don’t have to see the result of the throw.
Watch as Claypool turns into a defensive back and rakes through the hands of Jamal Adams. Great play that likely saved a pick.
The Steelers would score their first touchdown of the game, the very next play. A little hustle goes a long way.
While I viewed this game as a step back overall for the receiver group, I do have to account for it being the first game replacing Smith-Schuster. We may see some new faces coming out of the bye and as guys start to settle into their new roles, hopefully, we see more confident players.
Things like injuries and shuffling of personnel and positions are something out of players’ control, that’s why I harp so much on things they can control, catching the ball, knowing their assignments, blocking, hustling. If they do that everything else should start to fall into place.
They’ll need to against the AFC North rival, Cleveland Browns, in week eight.