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Making the playoffs would be nice, but player development is the mission of this Steelers’ season

Pittsburgh Steelers fans want a playoff berth, and while that would be nice it isn’t the most important aspect of this season.

NFL: NOV 24 Steelers at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been said the only certainties in life are death and taxes. However, following the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the second week of the season, a 1-4 start and subsequent injuries to several more of their best players, the Steelers failing to qualify for the post-season this year seemed as destined as rigor mortise.

And yet, after Sunday’s 16-10 win over the Bengals, they somehow find themselves with a 6-5 record and, if the playoffs started today, an invitation to the post-season as the No. 6 seed.

To say this qualifies as a surprise vastly undersells what it means to be surprised.

The unit that took the field on offense against Cincinnati reminded me of the strike season of 1987, when I watched a Steelers team stocked with replacement players and asked questions like, “Who’s that guy?” “When did we get a number 17?” And, “Is that my gym teacher playing receiver?” Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain were the newest additions to the rotation but many non-Steelers fans watching the game would have struggled to identify Devlin Hodges, Benny Snell Jr, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Tevin Jones, Trey Edmunds and Jaylen Samuels as well. Every name on that list is either a rookie, a second year player or a practice squad alum. Only four of the nine were on the Steelers roster when the season began. None were penciled in as starters.

All played prominent roles against the Bengals.

Given the fact the Steelers are playing with a de facto replacement squad, making the playoffs would be a tremendous achievement. With remaining games against Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo, the Jets and a finale against a Ravens team that could be resting some of its starters, qualifying is a real possibility. Losing three or four of those games is a possibility as well. Such is the reality when you’re rolling out the JV offense.

I doubt there’s a Steelers fan alive who doesn’t want the team to make the playoffs. Some may have quietly rooted for them to tank when Roethlisberger went down so they could pick high in the draft and select his replacement. But the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade quashed those desires. Now, with the playoffs a real possibility, the pendulum has swung firmly in the opposite direction. A portion of the fan base is likely to be angry should the Steelers struggle these final five weeks and miss the post-season. Given the remaining opponents, the Steelers’ place in the standings and the way the defense is playing, it would indeed be disappointing if they failed to qualify.

The playoffs should not be the barometer by which this season is measured, however. Qualifying is extra credit considering the injuries this team has endured and the long odds of advancing very far given the quarterback situation. The test the Steelers really must ace this last month of the season involves the development of the young players occupying key roles in the current lineup, particularly on offense.

It’s no secret the youth movement on defense has paid huge dividends, as new additions Devin Bush (age 21), Minkah Fitzpatrick (age 23) and Steven Nelson (age 26) have added speed and play-making ability to that unit. How well the young players on the other side of the ball progress will go a long way towards helping the Steelers compete for another title once Roethlisberger returns in 2020.

Let’s take a look, then. Minus the quarterback position, which has been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere, here’s how some of the pups on offense are progressing:

The Wide Receivers

This is an exceptionally difficult group to evaluate given Roethlisberger’s absence and the largely poor play of his replacements. But there are some things we have seen this year that warrant commentary.

To begin, the player who has made the most progress from the start of the season until now is Diontae Johnson. Johnson struggled early on to space himself properly against zone coverage and to communicate with his quarterbacks. He had just seven receptions on 15 targets through the first three games for a catch percentage of 46.6. Since then, Johnson has caught 28 balls on 41 targets for an impressive 68.2%. That’s the highest on the team for wide receivers and tight ends over that period. The light-bulb seems to have come on for the rookie from Toledo.

While catch percentage is not the most definitive statistic on a receiver’s performance (the quality of quarterback play figures a great deal into that equation), it does indicate a few important things. How well does the receiver catch the football, and how often does he get open? Take the here-and-gone Donte Moncrief, for example. Moncrief had tantalizing speed and was coveted for his ability to stretch the field. But his career catch percentage of just over 56% called into question his ability to separate and hold on to the ball. Moncrief was unable to do either of those things well in his brief time in Pittsburgh, as reflected by his 26.7% in four games played.

Johnson, on the other hand, is showing the ability to do both. Take this completion in the game against the Rams a few weeks back:

Johnson, split wide to the top of the screen (you’ll see him once the banner disappears), runs a deep curl at about 15 yards against press-man coverage. When Johnson comes out of his break, he recognizes the inside leverage the corner maintains and the fact the safety is sitting inside as well. Rather than run his route into the coverage, Johnson pivots and whips back to the sideline. This is a quality sight adjustment by the receiver. Quarterback Mason Rudolph recognizes it too and throws correctly into the boundary for a big gain.

Johnson could have covered himself by sitting down in his curl or even induced Rudolph into throwing an interception. The fact he exercised the proper adjustment and understood how to get open shows how quickly he’s picking up the nuances of the offense. He had a quiet game against Cincinnati coming off of a concussion but his ability to run good routes, create separation, catch the football and run with it after the catch has quickly established him as the team’s No. 2 receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. Not bad for a kid who is just eleven games into his pro career.

Fellow receiver James Washington is making progress as well, albeit less rapidly. Washington endured a rough rookie campaign in 2018, making just 16 catches on 38 targets for an abysmal 42.1 catch percentage and a yards per catch average of 13.6. Washington did not run great routes, struggled mightily to separate from press coverage and fell out of favor with Roethlisberger. His confidence was said to be down, too, which for a receiver is tantamount to Austin Powers losing his mojo.

This season, the second-year pro from Oklahoma State came back lighter and quicker. He started slowly, in large part due to the quarterback shuffle and a shoulder injury suffered against Baltimore in week four, but has picked it up as of late. Through his first six games, Washington had just ten catches on 27 targets for 161 yards and no touchdowns. In the four games since his return from injury, he has 16 catches on 22 targets for 306 yards and two TDs. His catch percentage has gone from 37% in those first six games to 73% in the last four while his yards per catch has improved from 13.6 as a rookie to 18.0 this season.

Plays like Sunday’s 79 yard catch-and-run for a touchdown will certainly help his YPC. Washington has always been a strong, physical receiver and he put that on display after catching a post route from Duck Hodges against the Bengals. Watch the stiff arm he delivers to cornerback B.W. Webb after catching the ball just across midfield. Washington simply shoves Webb out of the way en route to the end zone. Cincinnati helps out by Bengal-ing the coverage, as corner William Jackson (22), who starts the play aligned in a press position to the top of the screen, gets lost while falling into a disguised cover-2 look. Jackson gets too deep in his drop, fails to locate Washington crossing the field and and winds up impeding Webb’s ability to close on the ball, thus creating space for the receiver to run after the catch. The finish is all Washington, however. It demonstrates how dangerous he can be with the football in his hands.

If Washington can continue the upward trajectory he has shown this past month, it would give the Steelers three young, capable receivers in Washington, Johnson and Smith-Shuster and would lessen the need for the team to spend another high draft pick at the position. With pressing needs on the offensive line and potentially at edge rusher should Bud Dupree leave, and with limited draft capital due to a host of trades, Washington’s growth could be vital heading towards 2020.

The Running Backs

Benny Snell Football emerged from injury hibernation Sunday with his best game as a professional. The rookie from Kentucky ran the ball 21 times for 98 yards against the Bengals and was especially effective in the second half, when he garnered 79 yards on 13 carries. The Steelers took the lead and then controlled the clock behind Snell, possessing the ball for 10:05 in the fourth quarter as compared to just 4:55 for Cincinnati.

Snell is clearly a back who gets better the more he touches the football. The Steelers have long employed a “feature back” mentality under Mike Tomlin, preferring to give the bulk of their carries to one player rather than spreading them out by committee. Tomlin subscribes to the belief that running backs improve with touches as they get a feel for the speed of a defense, where the cuts will emerge and the overall rhythm of a game. Snell is, for now, the backup to starter James Conner, and when Conner recovers from his shoulder injury Snell will almost certainly resume his role as a situational (predominantly short yardage) back so that Conner can play the primary role. Yesterday, however, he showed he could be the feature back if necessary, which is a good sign for the Steelers given the frequency with which Conner has been injured.

Snell is not fast and once he gets into the open field he looks more like a tight end rumbling with the football than a running back. Despite finishing his collegiate career as one of just four backs in SEC history to finish with three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, that speed (or lack thereof) likely kept him on the draft board until the Steelers snatched him in the fourth round. His value as a back is clearly in his ability to find a hole, make one cut, square his shoulders and get vertical. That is precisely what he does on this very Snell-like run below:

On this play midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, with the Steelers up 13-10, they align with approximately nineteen blockers along the line of scrimmage. It’s an inside zone play and the interior offensive linemen get very little push up front. Snell finds a seam to his right, however, where Zach Banner (72), who has reported as a tight end, mauls defensive end Sam Hubbard, whom Banner outweighs by eighty pounds. Snell gets square once he hits the hole, protects the football with both arms and drives ahead for a nice gain. It’s not a sexy run but it picks up nine yards, leads to a first down and allows the Steelers to burn clock. That’s winning football.

Snell looks like a keeper as the backup to Conner. The other young back in the rotation, Jaylen Samuels, looks a bit lost at the moment. Samuels showed flashes of big potential last season as a rookie, including a breakout game on national television against New England when he accounted for 172 yards as a rusher and receiver. His route running ability, soft hands out of the backfield and knack for making people miss in space seemed to position him as an ideal third-down back and occasional slot receiver.

The Steelers have struggled to define a role for him this year, however. He started slowly, getting just seven combined touches through the first three games, before getting 18 touches in a running back/receiver/wildcat role in week four. That seemed to indicate a larger role was imminent. But Samuels was injured against Baltimore and missed two games. He returned and had 21 and 17 touches, respectively, in wins over the Colts and Rams, but was quiet in the loss to Cleveland and largely non-existent against the Bengals.

It’s hard to understand what the Steelers are trying to do with Samuels at the moment. His career catch percentage is 86.3 (63 receptions on 73 targets) and, given the team’s reliance on the short passing game in Roethlisberger’s absence, he would seem to be ideal for Randy Fichtner’s dink-and-dunk strategy under Rudolph and Hodges. Yet his snap counts and touches have fluctuated pretty wildly, suggesting Fichtner sees him as a player suited to certain packages (against Cincinnati he was employed almost exclusively on third downs) or that he likes Samuels in match-up situations — favoring him against some opponents and not so much against others. I don’t know if a better defined role or more consistency would help but it feels as though, with a dearth of weapons on offense at present, the Steelers should work to get Samuels more involved.

The Other Guys

In this instance, The Other Guys does not represent an under-rated Will Ferrell movie, but the host of former practice squad and unsigned free agent players the Steelers have trotted out the past few weeks. Deon Cain, Tevin Jones, Kerrith Whyte and Trey Edmunds all contributed against the Bengals, while Edmunds, Johnny Holton and Tony Brooks-James were in the lineup the previous week against the Browns. Of that group, Whyte showed the most potential, displaying speed to the edge the current crop of Steelers’ running backs do not possess.

Take this carry, for example. The Steelers run a pin-and-pull sweep with guard David DeCastro leading Whyte to the left edge. The Steelers get good down blocks from Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva while DeCastro shoves safety Brandon Wilson (40) to the ground like he’s a child. Whyte is quick enough to turn the corner before end Carl Lawson (58) can corral him and then waits patiently for DeCastro to block Wilson before bouncing to the sideline. He steps out of bounds at the nine yard line but shows some toughness by lowering his shoulder into contact at the end of the run.

All told, Whyte carried the ball six times for 43 yards against Cincinnati. He was effective in his limited role and may have had more carries with a greater understanding of the playbook (Whyte was plucked from the Bears’ practice squad on November 16). With Conner, Snell and Samuels locks to remain on the roster, there may not be much in the way of opportunity for Whyte going forward. His quickness is tantalizing, however. The Steelers have tried for years to integrate a change-of-pace back into the offense without much success. It will be interesting to see what they do with Whyte going forward.

Of the others, Deon Cain looks like the best bet to hang around beyond this season. Cain is big (6’2-200), fast (4.43 in the 40) and comes from a great college program (defending national champion Clemson). He was languishing on the Colts practice squad, and had his rookie year cut short because of an injury. It feels like he could replace Moncrief as a field-stretching outside receiver. But will he? Guys like Deon Cain come and go in the NFL all of the time. Whether the Steelers see a need for his skill set, and how they develop it, will likely determine his future here.

The playoffs would be a remarkable achievement given everything the Steelers have been through this season. But missing out on them should not be considered a failure. With a defense that looks ready for prime time, the biggest failure would be in not developing our young weapons on the other side of the ball. Progress among that group has been varied but the arrow is pointing mostly in the right direction. That’s a good sign for the future, no matter what the present brings.