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
Week nine Steelers offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s offense really came to the forefront with a ton of tight formations and jet sweeps. Because of that, no receiver truly had a “big” game. Watching the game live, thought this was going to be a quick an easy film room but there was quite a few things I learned about these receivers throughout the game.
Let’s get into it.
As I just mentioned, the receivers didn’t get too many big opportunities in the game through the air, however they made the most of it when they were given a chance.
I’ve been harping all year long about the Steelers throwing 50/50 balls on third down. So what does Ben Roethlisberger and the offense do on the very first drive of the game? Throw a 50/50 ball on third down, of course!
Claypool gets a decent release off the line of scrimmage with a simple foot fire and burst. He creates space at the catch point with a subtle push off and then goes up and attacks the ball. Claypool being able to cradle the ball to his body I think is why this was successful, as he’s been having trouble all year with the contested catches while being extended away from his body.
A big play on an eventual touchdown drive.
We were completely spoiled in a second completed 50/50 ball in the same game. However, this time not on third down.
Diontae Johnson is looking for a back-shoulder the whole way and Roethlisberger hits him in almost the same exact spot as Claypool. Johnson fights through the contact from the defender and is able to bring it in for a first down. Now that Jonson has seemingly fixed his dropped issues, making catches like this consistently is what he will have to do to take his game to the next level.
Johnson’s also been clutch this year on third-downs. This week was no different.
The Steelers were running outs out of these tight splits all game and the Bears had to be expecting this route. Even with that Johnson is able to get the corner off-balance enough to create space and make the hands catch. One subtle thing you can see towards the end is Johnson actually never tucks the ball after the catch, keeping the ball away from his body and the cornerback, ensuring a safe catch on the sidelines.
I’ve been banging the drum to get James Washington involved in this team’s deep passing game. We finally saw him and Roethlisberger connect downfield, although pretty it was not.
While it was a blown coverage, it could have been a touchdown if Washington was earlier in the progression. Fortunately, Roethlisberger was still able to locate Washington, 20 yards underthrown or not. Washington does a good job putting his foot in the ground and making the sure catch on the punt of a throw.
There was only one opportunity that was truly missed out of this receiving corps. On a scramble drill in the red zone, Roethlisberger is able to roll to his right and throw Claypool open in the middle of the field. Claypool boxes his man out but isn’t able to bring the ball in.
From the All-22 it may not look as catchable but from the TV angle, it goes right through his hands.
It would have been an incredible catch, but a makeable one. These are the types of plays we just haven’t been seeing Claypool make. As I mentioned in the first clip of Claypool, when the ball is away from his body the percentage of him completing the catch drops significantly.
Surprise surprise, Diontae Johnson will be starting us off in the route running department.
There may not be a more difficult route to create separation against man coverage in the NFL than a hitch and Johnson seemingly has a clip like this once a week.
He does a great job concealing this hitch as a vertical route. He sets it up just like he would a seam with his foot fire and burst upfield. The corner respects his burst and then he shows off his elite ability to stop on a dime. Great rep.
Our next clip is Ray-Ray McCloud on a pivot route. He’s lined up in the slot at the top of the screen.
Seeing McCloud and others run the slants from the slot off of the Steelers base RPO all night lulled this nickel corner to sleep. This time, however, McCloud sinks his hips and bursts outside getting an easy catch with 5 yards of separation. Then he turns on the jets, gets the first down before getting out of bounds. Great rep to make up for his earlier fumble.
We’ll move on to some poor route running from these receivers.
The first example is from Claypool near the goal line.
This is going to fall under the same category as what Roethlisberger called Antonio Brown out for on his radio after the Denver Broncos game in 2018. Watch as Claypool starts to run his slant at the bottom of the screen. He begins in a straight line towards the middle of the field then starts to fade up the field. This not only makes it a longer throw for the quarterback, it also leaves space for the cornerback to sink underneath between the receiver and the ball. If Claypool stays on his straight path, the cornerback only runs into his back, giving him at least a shot at making the catch.
We’ll stay towards the goal line for our next clip.
The Steelers are trying to run a mesh concept. The mesh concept is simply two drags from receivers on opposite sides of the formation, ran at similar, but different depths to create natural rubs. It’s normally looked to be used against man, but can also be effective against zone if the defender gets tunnel vision on the one receiver.
Numerous times this year the Steelers receivers have looked poorly prepared to run the mesh. Here, you can see they’re not at different depths and have to hesitate before carrying out their routes. This is just enough for the defenders to recover and easily cover them. If Washington runs this full speed I think Roethlisberger is able to hit him for a touchdown.
On top of this, either Freiermuth or Claypool had to have run the wrong route as they end up in the same reception area, leaving the middle of the field a mess. Easy to see why Roethlisberger threw this one away.
James Washington had a few disappointing reps this game other than the mesh mishap.
One came on this incomplete pass on a Roethlisberger scramble drill.
There’s nothing wrong with Washington’s initial route on this hitch. However, when your quarterback is scrambling (especially on third down) there has to be a better effort to get open. Sink away or run to the sidelines to give the QB an angle to throw to you. Not sure at all what Washington is thinking here, honestly covers himself more than the opposite.
Yards After Catch
With the emphasis on the Steelers’ short passing game, the receivers’ YAC becomes more and more important. Luckily, the receivers stepped up in big spots, on top of the McCloud pivot route outlined earlier in the article.
One of the big plays came on the drive extended by the Cassius Marsh taunting penalty. After the second sack of Roethlisberger, which brought up a 3rd & 17, Johnson was able to salvage the drive for the Steelers.
He also runs a simple pivot route. When he catches the ball he’s essentially still at the line of scrimmage. Then, as we’ve seen numerous times before he’s able to stick his foot in the ground and cut inside the cornerback, who slips. Getting those extra 10 yards was the sole reason the Steelers were able to go up six thanks to another 50+ yard field from Boswell.
Speaking of getting the Steelers and Boswell in field goal range, Johnson had some more YAC up his sleeve on the next and final drive of the game.
This catch and run almost seemed like deja vu with the game-sealing slant Johnson had against Cleveland. This one may have been a tad easier on the difficulty scale as he takes advantage of the blown coverage by Chicago and is able to get the Steelers down the 30-yard line with right around a minute left. It was after this play that you could take a slight deep breath that this game was back in control after losing the lead to Chicago on the previous drive.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Canada really had his stamp on this week’s game plan, which involved a lot of sweeps. This put the receivers in a lot of lead blocking situations and some faired better than others.
Diontae Johnson’s jet sweep was some of the best blocking I’ve seen from receivers all year.
Watch Claypool and Washington completely seal off the edge for Johnson to get to the outside. Great job staying square to their opponent and keeping their feet moving. It’s that simple. Great rep.
Claypool also had a solid block on this jet sweep.
He is aggressive and gets his hands on the corner first. He could have done a better job by keeping his nose over his toes, you can see he over-extends and gets off balance, but by that time he’s done his job and Washington is able to get up inside his block and past the first down marker.
Regardless of his stature, Ray-Ray McCloud continues to prove his value on this roster with his blocking ability.
Watch him on this jet sweep by Claypool on a 3rd and short.
He’s able to slide his feet to get square with the defensive back and work him outside. Look at the lane he creates for Claypool to get upfield and get the first down. If it wasn’t for Roquan Smith’s insane athleticism this likely is a much bigger play that would have been sprung by McCloud.
We’ll stick with McCloud for the next clip.
For reasons like the last rep, you can see why the coaching staff puts him in these situations.
In this play, he’s lined up almost like an h-back and works across the formation as a lead blocker. He does a great job sizing up the defensive back and taking him out of the play. This is a tough play for a tight end much less an undersized slot receiver. Great job by McCloud.
We have two “bad” clips of blocking to finish up this week’s film room.
The first being Diontae Johnson on a jet sweep.
Johnson had good intentions here as he knows the play is coming his way, he simply gets outmuscled as the corner rips through him. He’ll learn that simple stalk blocks won’t work against some corners in the running game. Have to give him a pat on the back though for sticking the play and sticking with his block even after the CB disengages, and keeps him off of Washington.
Washington may have taken the case for the worst block of the night out of the receivers.
He stops while working on the “close out” of his block and then trips upfield. This leaves the space the corner needs to get past him and completely blow the screen. Claypool may have been taken down from behind regardless, but either way, this is a terrible rep from Washington.
Since JuJu Smith-Schuster has gone down the Steelers seem to be rotating to using their tight ends more and more in this offense. With a banged-up Claypool and Eric Ebron seemingly returning this week against his old team I’m not sure we see a reversal in this trend.
With the opportunities dwindling outside, the receivers need to make sure they’re taking advantage when the ball is in the air.