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Steelers Passing Locations: Top 4 Receivers Through Week 8

With a bit more time with the Steelers on a bye this week, I wanted to provide the other side of the coin to my Steelers Quarterback Passing Locations, looking at and providing takeaways on Pittsburgh’s receiving data for the regular season thus far. This is also interesting timing with Pittsburgh trading wide receiver Chase Claypool to the Bears, so today’s goal is to also see what his targets looked like, and perhaps what we could expect from others moving forward. Thanks to Thomas Mock for his great article that helped me learn much of what I’m using today. Couple notes before we jump in. All yardage referenced are air yards from the line of scrimmage. Bats at the line of scrimmage, spikes, and clear throwaways are removed.

Let’s start with the dots of the four most targeted players:

Wide receiver Diontae Johnson has 71 charted targets (with three removed) and 43 receptions for a 60.6% catch rate, which ranks third of this group. We really get a great picture of his routes and target areas from the visual, with a large quantity of short area targets from the hash to the numbers on both sides of the field, with all of the incompletions coming on the left on mostly outs and stop/comeback routes (applies to this group largely). He also has the most  screens, also coming at the numbers. From five yards and beyond, the targeted areas have largely been outside the numbers, with ten incompletions on each side. 20 of his 28 total incompletions have come at ten yards or more (71.4%), with 16 of those outside the numbers, and 0/4 in between the right hash and numbers, which are his only targets even close to the middle of the field on the bleak area of the chart. Very predictable for defenses thus far. In the intermediate range, Johnson is 10/21 (47.6%) including two Pickett interceptions. Painfully, is 0/9 on 25+ targets, only 2/13 on explosives in total (15.4%) including another Pickett interception, and can we get this man a touchdown please?

Former Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool was the second most targeted player through week eight, taking this achievement from tight end Pat Freiermuth since my last receivers article through week three. Claypool had 48 charted targets (with none removed) and 32 catches for a 66.7% catch rate, which ranked second of this group. We can see he fits the bill mentioned earlier of out routes and stop/comebacks, but the biggest difference is leading the wide receivers in targets of ten yards or more on or between the numbers, where he was 5/11 (45.5%). While the Steelers haven’t thrown to the wide receivers much in this area, Johnson and Pickens only have six targets there, with the latter catching both of his opportunities and hoping both are utilized here more with optimistic success moving forward. Claypool was 7/15 in the intermediate range overall (46.7%) including his touchdown, and 2/8 on explosives (25%) which included three of Pickett’s interceptions! While I wish him well, it just wasn’t working out overall, and the data highlights even further why the second-round pick was so enticing.

Freiermuth is third on the team, with 47 charted targets (also none removed), which is one less than Claypool, but is the only player of the group to miss a game due to injury (concussion). He also has 32 catches to date which matches Claypool’s number and puts him at a 68.1% catch rate, which leads this group. The high number of on-between the numbers targets jump out right away (36), which accounts for 76.6% of his total targets, including his touchdown from Trubisky. Hoping he and Pickett can connect on one soon to hopefully improve the lowest scoring offense in the league. Only 13 targets outside the numbers, which I knew would be lower for a tight end but less than I expected. His short area targets have mostly come on the right side, with most of his incompletions outside the numbers including an interception from Pickett. The left side is particularly sparce, a trend I pointed out from the previous article, with only two targets that were both caught. He is 9/17 in the intermediate range in totality (52.9%) including another Pickett interception, and 2/2 on explosives that were both only 20 air yards. This is the biggest change I’d like to see moving forward, trying something different by getting him more air yard opportunities, considering the team’s poor results in explosives to date (12/38, 31.6%), and personally hope he soaks up a good chunk of the vacated slot opportunities, thus making his usage less predictable.

Another likely candidate that many believe will get slot opportunities is wide receiver Steven Sims, who has only appeared in three games (17 total snaps!). He has three targets and two catches on the season, which all came last week. His completions were both behind the line on screens early in the game, and the incompletion was over the middle on a stab route in traffic (like the process, area of the field), but the pass low and behind highlighting the likely growing pains if he indeed gets the most opportunity. Coach Mike Tomlin also mentioned wide receivers Gunner Olszewski and Miles Boykin by name, with the former having no targets and two rushing attempts, and the latter having only two targets and a catch. Too bad rookie wide receiver Calvin Austin is on IR for the remainder of the season, been itching to see him since he was drafted.

Wide receiver George Pickens will likely see an increased workload including more slot work, already trailing closely with the fourth most targets on the team. I have 45 charted throws for him currently (none removed) and 26 catches for a 57.8% catch rate, which is the lowest of this group. The high number of deep targets and lack of team success there has much to do with this. With an expanded role expected that likely includes some of what Claypool provided, particularly in between the numbers in the short range (if priors hold true), should improve his catch rate that currently bottoms the group. He is 10/11 at five yards or less currently, all from the numbers to the sideline, and 8/14 (57.1%) in the intermediate range overall including his touchdown. Optimistically, he could also provide more in the middle of the field at ten yards or more as well, where Pickens currently has only two targets that were caught. So far this season, it’s been largely outside the numbers overall, with most of his targets on the right 11/22 (50%), including his six longest targets as well. Pickens is 1/6 on these opportunities (16.7%), and going 2/9 (22.2%) on explosives to that side. On the left side, he is 8/14 (57.1%) overall and 3/5 on explosives, but a long of only 25 on his very lopsided graph.

Here are the heat maps through week eight for more visual context:

Johnson’s most targeted area is to the left, from the numbers to the sideline at 3-13 yards. The black hole in the middle highlights the earlier point, currently a non-factor in the middle of the field, particularly at the deep intermediate-short explosive range. His longest target was 36 yards, which came last game on the arguable pass interference no-call. Claypool’s most targeted area was on the left at 2-7 yards from outside the hash to outside the numbers. He had the deepest air yard attempt (56) to date, on a hail mary interception and his other small dot on the left side was also an interception, losing on a combative catch opportunity (both of which came in week four). Freiermuth’s most targeted area is similar to Claypool, but on the right side of the field. His pass depths are the lowest of the group, with the two 20-yard catches mentioned earlier both coming from Trubisky. Pickens’ most targeted area has been outside the numbers to the right, from 5-13 yards. The visual highlights the deep discrepancy I mentioned to the right thus far, with his longest target of 49 yards falling incomplete, and 1/6 on his deepest targets that all came from Trubisky in that gunslinger period (more on this in a bit).

First, let’s look at the completions only dots and heat maps for the regular season:

This completions only chart really highlights the stark passing game to date, particularly for the wide receivers in the explosive range. Claypool’s graph condenses the most, with the vast number of his completions coming at five yards or less. He struggled mightily in the explosive range as highlighted earlier, and his longest completion was 21 yards in week six against the Bucs, which was ironically the only explosive attempt of the game from Trubisky, who relieved Pickett (concussion). The good news for Johnson is his highest targeted areas remained very similar in this completions view, but the deep targets dropped off a cliff, with his longest completion coming at 24 yards on the insane catch from Trubisky in week one. Pickens has the healthiest heat map overall, but highlights the lack of success on deep targets on the right, coming back to earth and matching his depth to the left. His longest completion to date was 31 yards in week three against the Browns for another highlight reel catch, also from Trubisky. Freiermuth is Mr. Consistency, with the outer range of his heat map staying largely the same, but the highest completed areas condensing a bit as expected. Reminder, his two explosive completions came from Trubisky.

So, all the longest completed distances for this group came from Trubisky. With this, and all the things we’ve learned from all the data so far, I bet you’re as curious as me what all this looks like with Pickett’s passes alone. Here are his dots for the regular season:

This definitely adds great context to the weekly quarterback articles, seeing the distribution of Pickett’s lack of success past 10 yards overall. Johnson is 2/14 (14.3%, eek) in this range including three interceptions, and 0/8 on the sidelines. One completion was at 12 yards to the left outside the numbers in week seven, and the other explosive completion of 22 yards in week five against the Bills where he got great separation. Similar results with Claypool, 2/11 at ten yards or more (18.2%) also with three interceptions as I pointed out earlier, with the longest completed distance at 15 yards last game on a stop route with grown man YAC for a 25-yard gain. His other was an 11 yarder on the left numbers in week five, a great read finding him between three defenders with another churning YAC effort on the 20-yard gain. This is an element he began providing more as the season progressed, and what the Bears hope they are acquiring along with improved downfield numbers with more opportunities likely.

Pickens is encouragingly a bright spot in this regard, going 8/14 (57.1%) with Pickett at ten yards or more including his touchdown, with the sidelines also being the bugaboo, and his longest completion at 25 yards in week five on a great throw and leaping hands catch that was also a third down conversion. This was also his longest target to date from Pickett, which has to change in my opinion moving forward. Freiermuth is 4/7 (also 57.1%) with Pickett in this range, but included the tipped interception from last game. His longest completion came at 18 yards in week seven against the Dolphins on the late fourth quarter over the middle throw, an area I know most of us hope is targeted more across the board moving forward.

To close, let’s look at the heat maps for the receivers on all of Pickett’s throws, then his completions only:

Wowza. I knew it would look bad from my quarterback studies, but Claypool in particular really disappearing on the completions chart, to the point I triple checked my numbers. 2-7 yards on the left outside the hash to outside the numbers was the highest targeted area, condensing to 3-5 yards on his completions closer to the numbers. Johnson’s charts are particularly painful as well, with an acceptable target chart with the most volume coming at 2-8 yards on the left from inside the numbers toward the sideline, but his completions falling off a cliff to 4-6 yards and also disappearing down the field. Very discouraging for your WR1 and obviously has to improve moving forward.

This is where we see the biggest drop off for Freiermuth throughout the article, with a most targeted area at 1-6 yards outside the right hash to the numbers, and the left side off the field largely disappearing in terms of completions. Encouragingly, Pickens has the best results of the wide receivers by far with Pickett, with his highest targeted area on the right outside the numbers from 5-11 yards, condensing to nine yards on his completions. The right side dropped off, going 0/4 on his deepest targets to the right sideline with Pickett, but they have connected better to the left thus far. Great to see amidst very poor results from the other wide receivers, and hoping to see him continue this success with Pickett, mainly gaining more consistency on a game by game basis.

Once again, the data really matches up to the decision making for Pittsburgh. The trade offer was already appealing, then you factor in the data (while it was a small sample) and what we saw on tape, it was a no brainer that wasn’t working with your hopeful quarterback of the future.

What are your thoughts on the receiver data? How do you see the roles and success (or lack thereof) playing out? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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