In Week 11 vs. the L.A. Chargers, Chase Claypool returned from a toe injury that forced him to miss Week 10 against The Detroit Lions. One facet of the game in which the Steelers struggled last week (amongst others) was creating and completing chunk gain plays. Against the Chargers, the return of Claypool aided in that regard. On Sunday night, Claypool caught 5 of 9 passes thrown his way for 93 yards, two of which went for 37 and 28 yards, respectively. While the 28-yard gain was a coverage bust/miscommunication, Claypool’s explosiveness after the catch provided some much-needed juice in a high-scoring affair.
He also added the ability to stretch the field vertically, and even though he isn’t the most elite, dynamic of deep threats, he does offer more in that regard than any other wide receiver on the roster not named Diontae Johnson. According to PFF, Claypool finished the game as the fifth-highest graded Steeler with a grade of 65.8.
A 41-37 finish, what a bizarre game. The team battled back, too bad it ended in heartbreak. Now let’s get into the tape.
This first clip was a crucial first down pickup to start the game. The offense displayed early that at the very least they’d be able to move the ball, ultimately setting the tone for what would be their highest point total of the year, in a rollercoaster of a game. They were far from perfect, but the offense did manage to put up an extremely respectable 37 points, with assistance from the depleted and scrappy defense.
Lined up boundary side, Claypool waits for TE Eric Ebron to clear on his route path before he gets going across the field on a shallow route. Pitch and catch for Ben and Claypool here. The leap at the end of the play made me nervous for a second, but no harm no foul as he goes to the ground still cradling the football.
Next, this clip depicts a questionable deep shot from Ben to Claypool (bottom of the screen field side). The short stuff underneath was open early, and even though I do understand the thought process of trying to catch the defense creeping up, this play didn’t have a chance to be successful. Roethlisberger locked in on Claypool’s post all the way through. Claypool didn’t show any real craftiness on it though, he just ran to centerfield and towards the goal post while the DB worked to glue himself to Claypool’s hip after flipping inside on a turn to follow Claypool’s route.
On top of that, Derwin James, who is one of the premier safeties in all of football, backpedaled to the middle of the field before opening up to help cover the deep shot over the top. Maybe if Diontae had continued his route upfield and Ben saw him, this could have resulted in a big gain with the possibility for a touchdown. But like I said, Roethlisberger was looking for Claypool the entire play on the designed deep shot.
Moving on, here’s Claypool’s biggest play of the night. He’s lined up at the top of the screen field side. Post-snap, Ben spots the MOFC coverage and holds the safety in place with his eyes. Then, he turns his head to Claypool and lofts a deep ball to his right. Claypool showcased a great route to get so wide open. The DB played him with outside leverage, so Claypool stemmed his route directly at the DB to close the space between them without signaling in which direction he intended to proceed.
Upon reaching him, Claypool gave a hard plant accompanied by some body shift in unison with a head fake. After blowing past the DB, he got his head around to track a pass. If Ben didn’t underthrow Claypool, which forced him to slow up, this play almost certainly would’ve resulted in a score. Instead, the Steelers ended up turning the ball over on downs. Massive implications.
This clip is one in which Claypool did not receive a target, but I want to highlight his release. He’s at the bottom of the screen. The DB gives him a one-handed jam with his left hand, to which Claypool slaps it and swims past the DB, turning him away. Claypool set himself up perfectly for an inside release by side-shuffling outside, then rapidly upping his momentum upon engaging with his hands. Great, nuanced hand technique paired with footwork.
Here, Claypool is out wide at the top of the screen field side. He has space to operate with, but his route break is not clean. Claypool’s momentum carries him further downfield after he tries to put on the breaks roughly five yards past the sticks, and this allows the DB to get in a position where he can contest the catch point, making it both a more challenging throw and catch.
As a result, to give Claypool the best chance at making a catch, Ben has to place the throw outside, toward the sideline. Even though Claypool has the size advantage on rookie corner Asante Samuel Jr., he’s unable to reel the pass in as it hits his hands, then falls to the turf. Ultimately, a great defensive play by the rookie to get his hand in directly at the catch point to make contact with the football (looks like it at least), therefore doing enough to make this play result in an incompletion on third down.
Claypool is an explosive athlete, but he’s not the most precise in small areas due to his size.
There were occasions in this game where Claypool was unable to shake or fight through contact. Some were down in the red zone. I think the Steelers should put the goal line fade in their back pocket, only for very specific situations based on how Claypool is being defended and by whom.
Here’s Claypool’s second big gain of the game. He’s lined up in the bunch set at the top of the screen field side. The Chargers defense has a coverage bust/miscommunication, so Ben finds Claypool in a sea of open space after he comes across the field on a shallow route.
After securing the pass in stride, Claypool immediately turns upfield to pick up as much YAC as possible. Diontae and Claypool are both explosive RAC receivers, so as one can expect, getting them the football with room to run on these short in-breakers has offered them the opportunity to pick up chunks of yards for the offense. Last week serving as a testament to the fact, the big plays are needed to spark the offense and put them in scoring position as many times as possible. DJ and Claypool are the guys to do just that.
These two clips come from the second and fourth quarter, respectively.
The first is from the second quarter. The Steelers are in a double wing formation and Claypool receives a fly sweep. He picks up a modest number of yards to move the Steelers closer to the end zone.
The second is from the fourth quarter. The Steelers again show the double wing formation. Claypool receives another fly sweep. This time the Chargers defense is prepared for it, so they tackle Claypool behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. Much too predictable, especially when considering how much the Steelers have utilized Claypool on jet/fly sweeps the last two years, specifically in short yardage and/or red zone situations. There’s always a time and a place, but that was neither the time nor the place.
This sequence of play calling was flat out bad. The offense was lucky that they were bailed out by a pass interference call on fourth down and didn’t squander the opportunity presented to them by the defense’s blocked punt. I realize that running room for the RBs was scarce due to the play of the offensive line, but the Steelers tried to get far too cute on a crucial possession. Situational play calling needs to be on point if you want to win close games.
Moving on, this clip is a reception by Claypool. Lined up in the bunch set at the bottom of the screen, Claypool evades the defenders in his path so that he can leak out to open space by the sideline. The two routes from the same bunch that travel upfield between the hashes and the numbers draws the attention of the underneath defenders, leaving Claypool unaccounted for. Ben sees him and gets a throw to him before the deep safety on that side of the field can travel over to his position. Good body control shown by Claypool to adjust to the throw. The reception creates third and manageable.
This clip contains an issue that would eat at me if I didn’t write about it. While it may appear trivial to some, I think it’s important, and it should not be difficult for Claypool to do. One word: effort. Claypool is out wide field side. As Diontae Johnson comes gliding to his side of the field after catching a wide-open dig and finding room to roam, Claypool stops and watches Johnson run. In my opinion, I’d want to see Claypool sprint after Johnson. Primarily to make the attempt to assist him on his way upfield, and at minimum, to get in his general vicinity.
Who knows, if by chance Johnson loses the football, then Claypool might be in a position to pounce on it in order to keep the drive alive. You never know, that’s why these indolent plays can come back to bite you. Have to be prepared for the unexpected.
Also, Claypool has all the required physical tools with some great reps blocking on tape, but in this game, there were some instances where I thought he did not give 100%. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in his return from injury. He’s also shown great effort over his young career.
Finally, here’s a late-game catch from Claypool (bottom of the screen boundary side). Quick out with the defender in front of him playing off. Ben does a good job of not tipping his hand early regarding where he wants to go with the football. Easy completion. I would’ve liked to see Claypool use that big frame of his to fight for extra yards in the one-on-one situation though. Every inch matters.
When watching Claypool in action so far this year, I’ve felt that overall, there is still something to be desired. The sporadic variability in play of QB Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive unit as a whole needs to be taken into consideration, but I expected Claypool to make more of a jump in year two that I have not yet seen. He’s been iffy in contested catch situations with spotty technique, he still struggles to beat physicality/contact at times, and he’s not a consistent deep threat that allows this offense to truly open up.
His raw talent is not in question. Claypool possesses a considerable amount of promise, but he must continue to develop in those areas, as well as with his technical ability overall if he is to take a step forward as a wide receiver in the National Football League. With playing time amply available, the opportunity is there for the taking, and time will tell if Claypool capitalizes on it. He is, and will continue to be, a crucial component of this offense as they head down the stretch, where some significantly tough matchups await them.