The Pittsburgh Steelers almost pulled off the comeback Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings after digging themselves a 29-0 hole late in the third quarter. Should TE Pat Freiermuth have been able to hold onto the ball as Pro Bowl S Harrison Smith knocked the ball out of his grasp, the Steelers were a two-point conversion away from completing the improbable comeback. Frankly, Pittsburgh had no business being in that game in the second half with how poorly the defense played, allowing Dalvin Cook to run wild to the tune of 205 yards coming off a dislocated shoulder.
The offense also sputtered to get anything going, struggling to establish the run game and consistently move the chains through the air in the first half. However, some of Pittsburgh’s struggles on the offensive side of the football were self-inflicted, namely WR Chase Claypool and his actions throughout the contest. You see that here on his first reception in the flat where he attempts to stiff arm #21 Bashaud Breeland as he gets tackled out of bounds. Breeland starts to talk at Claypool after the play, and Claypool picks up a personal foul penalty by sticking his finger into Breeland’s face to move Pittsburgh backwards.
Claypool would be benched for a good portion of the first quarter after picking up the penalty, coming back in and takes a handoff here on the motion to the right, running toward the sideline and breaks out of Breeland’s grasp as he tries to extend the ball to the first down marker. However, savvy veteran #22 Harrison Smith knocks the ball out of Claypool’s hands as he reaches, causing the ball to hit the turf that Minnesota recovers. Upon further review, they rule that Claypool’s shin was down and Pittsburgh maintains possession. While I understand Claypool’s intentions of trying to get the first down, he needs to consider ball security here, knowing they have another down instead of risking the turnover.
Later in the second quarter, we watch Claypool run two identical quick out route patterns to the right sideline, one coming from the slot and the other from out wide. On the first clip you see some poor body language from Claypool as he proceeds to flip the ball to the official, projecting disgust and frustration. It’s not a big thing, but as a certified sports performance coach, athlete body language is huge to me as to how they conduct themselves in training as well as in games. We will see this issue pop up later in a more profound way.
As Pittsburgh starts to make its comeback attempt in the second half. Claypool comes down with some impressive combative catches against tight coverage. The first comes against #7 Patrick Peterson on the right sideline on third down where Ben puts the ball up into the air, allowing Claypool to turn to attempt the back shoulder grab. Claypool elevates for the football, trapping it to his frame with Peterson attempting to knock the ball out with his hand with Smith coming in to lay a hit on Claypool as he comes to the ground. Claypool manages to secure the catch, successfully moving the chain on the big-play reception.
Here is a zoomed-in shot of the same play, showing Claypool’s ability to elevate and concentrate as he brings the ball in while smothered by Peterson in coverage, working through the defender and trapping the ball on his helmet for the highlight grab.
Claypool’s second big, contested catch comes on the second play of the final offensive drive of the game for Pittsburgh. He takes Breeland up the right sideline in man coverage as Roethlisberger throws it up for grabs, leading Claypool well on the deep pass as Claypool manages to snag the ball through Breeland’s frame and come down with the ball in-bounds and secure the catch while getting the pass interference penalty.
Here is the slowed down version of the play, showing Claypool’s focus to battle through contact to reel in a fantastic grab, maintaining possession of the ball through the processes of the catch as he hits the turf to keep the drive alive for Pittsburgh.
Shortly after that big-time catch Claypool makes another vital catch on second-and-long, running the deep curl route on Breeland, breaking back inside and high points the football in the air. He holds onto the ball to secure the catch with Breeland and Smith flying in, setting up the offense with third-and-short.
Two plays later, the offense calls Claypool’s number on the must-have-it fourth down conversion. Claypool runs the quick slant inside, getting a step on Breeland in coverage and picks up the first down to move the chains. However, as Claypool gets tackled, he decides to do his first down celebration, kneeling on the ground as the rest of the offense hustles over to clock the ball with time running off the clock. #51 Trai Turner tries to get the ball from Claypool who still is holding onto the ball, and LB #54 Eric Kendricks knocks the ball out in the exchange between Turner and Claypool, allowing more time to run off the clock, wasting over ten seconds from the catch to the spike.
Here is the exchange after the ball is successfully spiked between Claypool and Turner showing Claypool visibly upset with his teammate for interfering with his celebration and attempting to take the ball away from him to stop the clock. After the game, Claypool was asked about the issue and responded, “I got tackled near the hash,” Claypool said. “Did my little first-down point. Went to hand the ball to the ref. He just got there, and the ball got knocked out of my hands. That’s what cost us time. But I definitely do have to be better.” Instead of being mindful of valuable seconds running off the clock, Claypool decides to showboat and defer blame rather than take ownership for his lapse in judgement.
The national media expectedly came after Claypool the next morning, including former Steelers safety Ryan Clark making a statement about Claypool and his antics in this game:
.@Realrclark25 went OFF on Chase Claypool 😳
"Chase Claypool is as mentally and emotionally underdeveloped as he is physically overdeveloped. … He only cares about himself! And that self-centeredness is part of what's bringing the Steelers team and organization down." pic.twitter.com/1ElNGKx5EU
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) December 10, 2021
Clark’s opened his statement saying, “Chase Claypool is as mentally and emotionally underdeveloped as he is physically overdeveloped.” Frankly, I am right there with Clark, as we see Claypool’s freakish ability as a height/weight/speed specimen that shined as a rookie with nearly 900 yards and 11 total TDs. He looked poised for a breakout season in Year Two especially after teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster went down with a season-ending injury, but his play failed to take the leap forward with increased usage and looks in the offense. He has played smaller than his freak size would suggest, catching 58% of his targets and has failed to win those contested catches more regularly for a guy that you would expect to excel in that area.
Claypool came up big in this game from a combative catch perspective, but his mental and emotional maturity was exposed with a couple bone-headed decisions that cost Pittsburgh valuable field position and time that could have made a difference in the outcome. I was in the camp with Dave Bryan when Claypool came out, thinking he was more of a third-round selection. However, his performance his rookie season made me reconsider, as his performance as well as his mild-mannered personality initially in interviewed made me believe he was a great young man and a future star in the making.
Sadly, it looks like Claypool flew too close to the sun after his first season, allowing the fame and fortune to corrupt his judgement to become more of a “Me” player than a team player. Whether it be the comments prior to the Browns game last season, the offseason incident where he was involved in an altercation, the TikTok drama, or the events that arose from Thursday night, Claypool has shown that he has a lot of growing up to do emotionally and learn to put the team’s best interests in front of his own. This isn’t to say that Claypool’s on the way out, but his actions and antics are beginning to resemble another Steelers receiver that forced his way out due to personality.
Claypool has two more years left on his rookie contract, and barring any unforeseen legal issues arising, he will likely remain with the team until his contract expires. However, unless Claypool looks himself in the mirror and intentionally tries to learn from this experience, he could be on that long-list of drafted receivers that only see one contract in the Steel City. With JuJu and James Washington scheduled to be free agents this offseason and with Claypool’s play dropping off, Pittsburgh may be motivated to spend yet another early draft selection on a receiver in 2022 if Claypool doesn’t give them the confidence he can improve both on and off the field going forward.
What are your thoughts on Chase Claypool’s performance against the Vikings? Do you think his antics override the fact that he put together a rather impressive performance? Is everyone being too hard on Claypool for his actions, or is the criticism warranted given the way he treated his team in the moment and how he responded postgame? What does Claypool’s future look like in Pittsburgh this season, as well as going forward? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!