After doing weekly WR film rooms for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season for Steelers Depot, one of my biggest gripes with the group was their lack of downfield blocking. That was a big reason I wasn’t disappointed when the Steelers moved on from WR coach, Ike Hilliard after only two seasons.
Frisman Jackson was chosen as Hilliard’s replacement. Little was known about Jackson and, as I mentioned in the above tweet, the grass isn’t always greener. However, it’s clear through training camp and one preseason game that at least one area will be green for this WR room, blocking. Wide receivers are often afterthoughts when it comes to blocking in the running game. However, their effort in this area is often the reason for explosive plays in an offense. The first and second level of defense is often up to the offensive line and tight ends to take care of. If they’re effectively blocked you can almost guarantee 6-8 yards on a run. Everything past that is up to the effort and blocking from the wide receivers in the secondary.
According to Sharp Football Analysis, the Steelers had a measly 7% explosive play rate last year, good for 30th in the NFL. While the Steelers had a multitude of issues across the offense last year, the complete lack of blocking by the WRs downfield carries its fair share of the blame.
I’m sure Jackson sat down and watched film in the offseason of this team and decided to make it a focus of his going into the 2022 training camp. You don’t see too many NFL WR groups getting work in on the blocking sled.
Jackson’s emphasis on blocking from practice to the meeting has already shown up on film in a big way.
George Pickens of course had his highlight pancake after faking a press release off the line, something he did numerous times during his college career.
Pickens blocking went further than a viral clip though. He provided a prime example of being able to spring a running back for extra yards downfield. Let’s take a look at Anthony McFarland’s 24-yard run early in the first quarter.
Watch off the line as Pickens gets a clean release and then sees McFarland begin to bounce. It wasn’t a great block on the first corner, but he did a great job making sure not to hold and then continued to look for work. The “continuing to look for work” is the area that the team really lacked last year. They’d block their inital guy and then stop the rep. Simply by continuing the rep Pickens adds ~15 extra yards to this run. Anytime a receiver gets his hands on three different defenders on single run play he gets a double-plus on that grade sheet. Great rep by Pickens.
The important thing to recognize about the above clip is the actual blocking doesn’t even need to be that great to yield results. None of Pickens blocks were knock-out blows, it was simply getting in guys’ ways and off-balance. Put in the effort and good things will happen.
What I liked most about these clips is how widespread this blocking effort is, can tell the whole room has bought in.
Here’s a clip from Miles Boykin. He’s on his horse getting across the field on an over route. As soon as he sees the ball is thrown underneath he turns into a blocker, accelerating into the defensive back.
The defender still ends up making the tackle, but Boykin’s effort likely turns this play into a first down. It’s such a minuscule thing and this type of effort seems obvious, but I can assure you plays like this were few and far between on film last year.
Gunner Olszewski has been one of the biggest surprises of the young 2022 season. He’s a scrappy player and has a screw or two loose upstairs as well. Not always bad to have as a wide receiver, if it’s used to make blocks like this.
Taking this clip a bit deeper, Olszewski is assigned the “force player” in this particular play. This means, that if he sees the safety start to get nosey, that’s who he needs to block. If the safety backpedals at the snap, he blocks the corner. You can see the safety begin to ease towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap and Olszewksi beelines for him as soon as the ball is snapped. Have to love a guy that accelerates THROUGH the block. Definitely a guy Tomlin would describe as “you’d rather say woah than sic’em.” The result is a block that would make even Hines Ward proud.
Steven Sims is also working his guy at the top of the screen. Jackson has these receivers WORKING!
The below clip is the full All-22 of the Pickens pancake at the bottom of the screen, but I wanted to focus on the work of Steven Sims at the top of the screen. He has a condensed split and is tasked with a form of toss-crack play although you can’t truly “crack” anymore. He does a solid job closing out and getting the correct angle on the safety. Once he effectively gets hands-on he drives his feet. Textbook block from the 176-pound Sims. Can’t ignore the great clean-up job by Kendrick Green either. Have to give credit where credit is due.
The last clip we’ll look at is Olszewski’s 25-yard catch. Taking some liberties here to point out Connor Heyward, as he’s a tight end, not a receiver, but look at him get on his horse after he sees Olszewski reverse field. Love seeing him try to get across the field and get a hat on someone. Oh yeah, and Pickens is blocking his guy 30+ yards downfield too. That type of effort is what is needed on this roster. It’s absolutely contagious (queue Jarvis Landry). It shouldn’t even be the fact one doesn’t want to be looked at by the coaches as the one guy that isn’t doing it. Play for your brothers.
Overall, I was really pleased with what I saw effort-wise from this wide receiver room. Granted it’s the first preseason game where guys are excited to just hit a guy wearing a different colored jersey combined with fringe roster guys that are fighting for spots, but it sure is a start. It may be a bit of a hyperbole, but I may have saw more blocking and effort from this group through one preseason game than I did all of last season. We know Pickens will block, now it’s time for the bonafide starters, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, to step up and follow the example that has been set by their teammates last week.
If the group can keep it up, big plays WILL come out of it.