Heitritter: Pittsburgh’s Slot Receiver Options Will Give Opposing Defenses Headaches

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t have a lot of options at slot receiver after the trade of Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears. Steven Sims ended up getting significant run in Pittsburgh’s three-WR sets down the stretch of the season while Gunner Olszewski also factored in on jet sweeps and other packages.

While the team has Calvin Austin III coming back from injury this season as well as veteran WR Anthony Miller as another viable slot option with NFL experience, the Steelers went out and acquired WR Allen Robinson II from the Los Angeles Rams, getting a big-bodied target for QB Kenny Pickett who also is a subtle route runner for his size and logged 33.6% of his snaps from the slot in 2022. Having 1,215 career snaps from the inside, Robinson is more than capable of operating from the slot and giving Pittsburgh a wide receiver built in a different mold than Austin or Miller, having the skill set to be a possession receiver over the middle and make those tough contested catches.

Another factor to consider when talking about slot options for the Steelers in 2023 is the TEs. Alex Kozora made a reference to the “big empty” package in a recent article, talking about how Pittsburgh can split out their TEs and FBs from the LOS. Last season, TE Pat Freiermuth logged 191 snaps from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and made several plays on his feet and he didn’t line up as an in-line TE, being more of a pumped-up WR.

Pittsburgh recently drafted a walking skyscraper in TE Darnell Washington, who is known for being a tremendous blocker but has flashed the skill set to be a good pass catcher as well. Washington played all over the formation at Georgia, lining up in-line, out wide, and in the slot, using his size and strength against smaller DBs or less athletic LBs tasked with covering him one-on-one. The combination of Robinson, Freiermuth, and Washington presents matchup problems for opposing defenses given their sheer size and catch radius when facing smaller slot defenders.

Throw in TE/FB Connor Heyward, who saw some run split out as a pass catcher last season, and the Steelers are sitting pretty when it comes to their options at slot receiver as well as the various skill sets they have at their disposal to beat opposing defenses. They can opt to win with speed by using Austin, or they can opt to win with size and strength, deploying Freiermuth or Washington in the slot near the red zone. If you include Robinson, who is a good blend between the two, you have a passing game primed to take a notable leap forward, especially from the slot.

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