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.
We’ll be separating the article into the following categories (if applicable week to week):
- Yards After Catch
- Hustle / Effort
With the news Saturday night that Ben Roethlisberger tested positive for COVID-19, Mason Rudolph would get the start for the Steelers against the winless Lions. If you told me that night, with the weather report showing a cold and wet day in Pittsburgh for Sunday, that the backup QB would throw the ball 50 times I would have asked you to never speak to me again. However, that is EXACTLY what happened.
That leaves us with a lot of clips to go through, so let’s get into this week 10 film.
The only more surprising thing than Rudolph throwing the ball 50 times was Ray-Ray McCloud being the focal point of the offense. He finished the game with 9 catches for 63 yards on 12 targets. And while mid-game there were a lot of complaints about his usage in the passing game, he played well all game.
He was finding holes in the Lions cover-2 defense all day, but no catches were as impressive as the one below.
While he’s only 5’9″ 190 pounds, McCloud can still withstand a hit. With all of the rules surrounding player safety, it’s rare receivers even have to take hits like this. Great job by McCloud to hold on and pick up the first down.
This one seems to be a coverage bust by the Lions, but another 2-high coverage of some sort.
McCloud makes a great adjustment to the ball in the air here as Rudolph underthrows him and flattens out the corner. It’s not easy to come back to a ball in that situation when you’re running flat out, upfield and have to come back to it. As we’ll learn, this won’t be the last time Rudolph will underthrow McCloud.
Rudolph really made McCloud earn some of these catches.
Here, McCloud is lined up in the “sniffer” position (I’ll let the readers decipher why it’s called that) and the Steelers run a Yankee concept. This is one of the plays I’m sure head coach, Mike Tomlin, was alluding to when he mentioned that Rudolph’s accuracy was lacking in terms of throwing balls that allowed for the receivers to get some yards after the catch. With Rudolph on the run, he throws a wobbler that makes McCloud go down and get it, another great job securing the difficult catch on the deep over route.
While it’s nothing crazy, it’s hard not to include the Steelers only touchdown of the game in this article.
The Lions are playing a picket-fence zone defense near the goal line which is extremely common. However, three guys sit with Diontae Johnson’s inside move leaving James Washington uncovered. Quick diagnosis by Rudolph and Washington is able to go up, make the catch, and get two feet in bounds. Routes on air at the goal line are always welcomed.
The most disappointing part about Sunday from a receiver standpoint may have been the re-appearance of some old demons for Diontae Johnson.
This is far from an egregious drop for Johnson. Per PFF, Johnson has only one drop on 82 targets this year, and I go as far as saying this was not charted as one. However, this is one that is clearly in his hands, and on the TV view, the corner didn’t get a swipe anywhere near the ball although he did hit his arm. Have to have some strength to power the contact and make this catch.
The real demons came out for Johnson in overtime, and I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.
Johnson does everything right here, that’s why we’re looking at it under the “catch” section. He gets a good release and is able to create separation at the catch point as he does with a subtle push-off. You can see Lions head coach, Dan Campbell, clamoring for an OPI call at the bottom of the screen. Johnson looked like he was about to be the hero for the third consecutive week getting the Steelers in scoring range at the end of the game. Except he didn’t see former Steeler, Mark Gilbert, coming in with the haymaker directly on the football.
My first ever article for this website was about Johnson’s ball security, and while this was his first fumble of the year, it reared its ugly head at an awful time for Pittsburgh. Now with teams seeing it again, he’s got to be extra careful in the coming weeks as you know defenders are going to be looking to punch that ball out. (Looking at you Marlon Humphrey.)
Sticking with more McCloud attacking this Lions Cover 2 defense with our first route-running clip.
While it’s not a great route from your typical point of view, the reason I like this is the awareness McCloud shows. This is a fake WR screen all the way with both McCloud and Eric Ebron turning upfield without blocking. Where his awareness shines is once he notices it’s cover-2, he sits right in that zone. This is one of those times where if it’s man you keep running no matter what, but because it’s zone, don’t run to get covered, sit down and let your QB find you. That’s just what he does, great rep.
It has become a weekly thing in these articles that Johnson is able to create great separation on curl routes. However, I refuse to become jaded towards it as it’s extremely impressive.
Johnson gets a great burst off the line and is able to press downfield without letting the DB get hands-on. Then, with his patented stop-on-a-dime breakdown, is able to create 3-4 yards of separation. Unfortunately, Rudolph doesn’t put it on him and it sails over Johnson’s outstretched hands.
Sticking with Johnson, many have asked for him to get more snaps from the slot, and while I don’t think the Steelers should take their best separator away from the outside, clips like this show just how effective he can be inside.
Working a pivot route from the slot on the left side of the formation, the nickel corner, playing 8 yards off, has no shot at covering him and almost falls down. At this point, while Johnson’s route running is extremely clean, I think there’s some reputation that he carries with him that may get some DB’s nervous going up 1on1 with him, trying their best not to look silly.
I’ve said multiple times in these articles to get Washington more involved down the field. However, the quarterbacks still struggle to locate him.
Ever since Rudolph and Washington came into the league together from Oklahoma State, I haven’t seen the chemistry you’d expect for two guys that played together for 3-4 years. Here, Washington has a great release, breaking in, making the cornerback commit inside, before going back out causing him to do a full 180-degree turn. This gives Rudolph more than enough space to throw it over the DB’s head, instead, it gets underthrown by 5-7 yards and causes Washington to have to come back for it, luckily creating a pass interference in the process.
Compare that release to the one below from Washington.
He doesn’t get any movement from the DB and is slow to get vertical. The result is nowhere to go with the football for Rudolph. This throw should have been to the bottom of the screen where Johnson gets a great burst and get off and with the safety screaming down into the robber look, this should have been an explosive play for Johnson.
We’re now back to the aforementioned miss between Rudolph and McCloud.
Looking back, this may have been the difference of the game if Rudolph is able to put this on McCloud. McCloud is running some sort of return route here. While it looks like he may have worked upfield instead of down the goal line, Rudolph skips it to him. Was this is a miscommunication on routes or poor throw on the throw? We’ll let McCloud answer that for you.
“No miscommunication. Just missed execution,” McCloud told reporters Monday.
Moving onto another big mis-execution between quarterback and receiver. This one was well documented on the Twittersphere.
Diontae Johnson runs a simple slant route and seemingly powers down once the linebacker crosses his face. While it is zone coverage and we talked earlier about not “run to be covered,” I still put this more on Johnson than Rudolph. Because not only does Johnson power down, he also changes his trajectory upfield. Those two steps inside are what make this ball away from his frame. If he continued on the same angle this ball hits right off his facemask. I Saw Rudolph take a lot of heat for this throw and while I do think he didn’t necessarily have to rocket this in there, I’m not so sure this is his fault in terms of ball placement.
Plays like this are how you tie a winless football team at home.
Yards After Catch
We didn’t get to see a whole lot of YAC from the Steelers this week as I previously mentioned the comment from Tomlin in regards to Rudolph’s accuracy preventing it in most cases. No matter the quarterback, you can always count on Johnson being his slippery self after the catch.
Even after his fumble in overtime, Johnson still came back and nearly put the Steelers in striking distance again to win the game.
He takes a simple mini-dig across the middle and juts back away from the linebacker before smartly sprinting towards the sidelines and out of bounds past the first down marker. If you were watching this at any other point of the game you probably would have liked to see him wait for his blockers ahead of him but he knew the situation time-wise and handled it perfectly.
If it wasn’t for Pat Freiermuth’s fumble the very next play, this likely would have been the difference in the game.
Let’s the tone off right for this section. We have our first “de-cleater” of the year!
Watch James Washington come into the frame from the left of your screen on the crack-toss play. He does his job well, leading with the shoulder and the unsuspecting Lions defender ends up on his backside. Then, Washington looks for more work. Great rep.
Now a clip from one of the newest Steelers receivers, Steven Sims. While he was only the field for five offensive snaps, he looked like a willing blocker, despite his small frame.
Above, he’s lined outside to the left of the formation. He senses man coverage and runs off the cornerback with a fade pattern then is able to tie him up enough for Harris to reach the end zone. While it was called back, Sims effort was a large part of making this a successful run.
I say it every week, as a receiver, especially against the less physical cornerbacks, the smallest of efforts can go a long way. You can see that here.
Our last clip of the day is James Washington attempting to use the same technique Sims did against man coverage and “run-off” the defender.
Unfortunately, whatever look the Lions cornerback was clued into what Pittsburgh was doing and quickly clicks and closes on the bubble screen. This is something Washington has to sense and see. With the ball on the right hash and the corners eyes inside the entirety of the presnap process, you have to be thinking “crash” or a blitz from that cornerback and not try the run-off technique. You can see why, while Washington tries to wrongfully plead his case to the sidelines after the play after getting his teammate smacked behind the line of scrimmage.
Outside of the clear-cut MVP of the group this week in McCloud, it was an overall underwhelming day for the receivers. While they were definitely hindered by some less than great quarterback play, I still expected to see more out of them against this Lions defense, who has been almost everyone’s “get right” game across the league.
With the Chargers up next and Claypool hopefully back into the fold, hoping for an improvement week over week regardless of who’s under center for the black and gold in Los Angeles.