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The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiving corps is coming into focus

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A survey of what the team is likely to do, and who it will choose to do it

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago CHISAP pointed out that 11-personnel (three WR’s, one TE, and one RB) has become the Steelers’ dominant formation by a large margin. We’ve also seen how Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner wants, above all else, to have multiple ways to attack different defenses in different weeks. I believe things are shaking out enough to identify how the current roster of offensive weapons will be used to fit those preferences.

Tight Ends Are Pretty Much Locked

  • TE Vance McDonald (6’4”, 267 lbs.) McDonald may play as many snaps this year as Big Ben. Why would you ever take him off the field? He is the #1 guy by such a wide margin that certain Steeler fans - the ones who insist on seeing the glass half - full live in dread of another injury. He’s also entering the prime of a Tight End’s career (TE’s typically mature a little slower than other positions). That suggests he will be even better in 2019 than he was last year. I expect a Pro Bowl showing if he doesn’t get hurt.
  • McDonald will be backed up by the ever-improving Xavier Grimble (6’4”, 251 lbs.). The X-Man is also hitting his NFL stride, which makes this a gimme. Yes, there is a portion of the fan base that prides itself on an elephantine memory, and will never forgive Grimble for a certain inopportune fumble. I prefer to focus on all the good things he did before that moment in the play-that-should-be-ignored. The coaching staff will “focus” on neither. They will evaluate the whole player and what he brings to the table. Grimble is the clear TE2. Period.
  • The 12’3” rookie Zach Gentry has an inside track on the TE3 position subject to competition from the 12’4” English newbie Christian Scotland-Williamson. Okay, yes. I may have exaggerated that by a hair. But I really doubt that either man will get any material snaps in his rookie year that aren’t oriented toward his jump ball advantage, and maybe not even then if they don’t learn to block at the level required by Pittsburgh’s team philosophy. Neither is likely to earn a hat any time soon. (For you sticklers out there: Gentry is officially listed at 6’8”, 265 lbs., and CSW at 6’9”, 274 lbs. Happy now?)

Running Backs Too

  • RB James Conner. We fans would love to see a measured load, but I just don’t see it. Can you name a distance-and-downs situation where anyone else would help the team as much? Let alone better? Tomlin won’t give those snaps away. They’ll have to be earned by someone else stepping up.
  • The backups are going to be Jaylen Samuels (an okay runner who excels as a multitalented threat) and Benny Snell (a hard running, charismatic rookie). Samuels will absorb some snaps simply because his multiplicity causes defensive hear palpitations. He is a walking mismatch. Snell has a chance to absorb some pure run-down snaps but he will have to improve a lot before he does. He didn’t get a lot of running room in the game against Tampa Bay, but neither did he make a lot of use with the cracks that were there. Go and get ‘em young man!
  • Trey Edmunds (Terrell’s older brother) mounted an early push for time but seems to have fallen back a bit.

The Corps of Wide Receivers

THREE ALL-AROUND RECEIVERS WHO ARE LOCKS:
  • Juju Smith-Schuster (6’1”, 215 lbs.) Going into Year 3, JJSS has emerged as an all around, established star. He is one of the league’s best “big slot” players, and has also the chops to play outside. Like McDonald, it isn’t hard to see Smith-Schuster playing every offensive snap. Yes, he will earn constant double- and triple-teams until his running mates prove that they can beat single coverage. That is a given. But his performance in the preseason suggests that he’ll get his targets and catches nevertheless.
  • Donte Moncrief (6’2”, 216 lbs.) One of my personal draft crushes back in the day, Moncrief comes to Pittsburgh as a veteran free agent who has established instant rapport with his new QB. He offers true, deep threat speed and excellent size but that isn’t the only part of his game. No one doubts that he can also play “big slot” even though he profiles better on the outside. Double Juju too often and Moncrief will kill you. Unless...
  • James Washington (5’11”, 213 lbs.) gets you first. Washington is a 2nd-year, all-around WR known for gumby arms, great leaping ability, and a superb combat catch ability that stands out even against NFL competition. He plays at 6’2” no matter what he measures in socks at the doctor’s office. Washington’s rookie year was handicapped by the need to raise his route running to NFL standards, the slow process of really learning to understand an NFL offense, and the simple fact that AB and JJSS absorbed such a high percentage of targets. Reports and signs from the preseason suggest that he’s over those humps and is ready to embark on an even more Hines Ward-ish career than Juju’s. I fully expect him to push Moncrief for both snaps and targets. And I say that as a Moncrief fan from back in the day.

Let’s pause for a minute at this point to emphasize something basic: JJSS, Moncrief and Washington are “do it all” talents with better than NFL-average size, speed and hands. None of them are 4.3 burners, and none are 6’5”, but all three manage to play as if they were. All three can handle the deep threat, big man, and possession receiver roles quite well, thank you very much. How many opponents have three cover-Corners who won’t be overwhelmed by the spectrum of challenges that all three of those assets present? Very. Bloody. Few. Maybe even none.

There is zero reason to believe those three won’t be used on the field together. It isn’t a typical 3-WR look because their extended skill sets don’t fit our cute expectations about ‘typical roles.’ There is no way to reliably point to who will have what job on any specific down. So. Bloody. What? Isn’t that an advantage? Here is my bottom line: Put those three together and you have a nasty package that will be extremely hard to defend, especially when you factor in their combined (and proven) ability to block in the running game. I fully expect this trio to be the Steelers’ “base” offensive package. Unless pure quickness is called for in a particular situation, in which case...

THREE SCAT-RATS, TWO OF WHICH ARE LOCKS:

Tom Brady has proved how potent the superball types can be when paired with a top QB who can get them the ball on time and on target. Absurd COD (change of direction) skills can be all but unstoppable in the slot, where they can’t be jammed (slot receivers don’t crowd the line) and have two-way routes turn whatever the cover-corner does into a mistake. “Cover me inside and I will zag out; cover me outside and I will zig across.”

The Steelers won’t “need” that skill set. See the discussion above. JJSS, Washington and Moncrief can beat CB’s in so many ways that adding a specialist won’t always make sense. But don’t forget how OC Fichtner likes to switch things up. For this reason, plus the benefits inherent in veteran leadership, I expect the team to keep at least two of the following three players. Doing so would give the flexibility to run 11 Personnel with every flavor from “JJSS + Two Bigs” to “JJSS + Two Quicks.” Factoring in the variations from shifting around the TE and RB group would provide almost every type of threat an offensive mind could dream up.

The ability to shift from big, beat-em-up mode into flashy, where’d-they-go mode will leave Fichtner chuckling with delight, and opposing defenses battling weekly migraines.

  • Diontae Johnson (5’10”, 183 lbs.) DJ emerged from the 2019 draft with a reputation for absurd COD skills, well developed route running skills, some wiry strength, and a special ability to beat press coverage when shifted outside... For A College Receiver Against College Opponents. The early signs are encouraging. Make no doubt. I believe Johnson has already shown enough to claim one of the two “superball/return” slots. But I also believe that we need to apply some cold water to overblown, post-draft expectations that he was brought in to replace the disgraced HOF-level departure. The bottom line truth is that Diontae Johnson is a rookie and that matters. Hope all you want, but no one should “expect” him to perform as well as either of the vets who are described below. That is doubly true because the Super Bug slot receiver role requires all-but-telepathic levels of communication with the QB, and that in turn relies on a superior class room understanding of how NFL offenses and defenses work.

Thus I have real doubts about whether Johnson can earn any material snaps in the first half of the season, and I hope for little more than progressive improvement in the back half. But don’t mistake me for a hater! I believe with even more strength that Diontae Johnson will flat out erupt onto the scene in 2020. And it isn’t because of any specious AB comparisons.

The things that I see holding Rookie DJ back can all be fixed with a year of hard, expertly assisted work. He really needs to rebuild his body to NFL (let alone Tomlinesque) standards; to learn how to read and react to NFL defenses in sync with his QB; and to learn how to study film at a level that will let him attack NFL Corners with NFL precision. He will also benefit a lot from working with coaches who can help him refine his natural route running genius in a way that will eliminate the tell-tales that NFL opponents will use against him. Improve any of those areas and Sophomore DJ will be a scary young man. Improve all four and... [public giggling is to be discouraged].

  • Ryan Switzer (5’8”, 185 lbs.) Switzer, who has become a personal friend of his QB, is a classic “slot WR” superball who also returns kicks. His entire game revolves around extraordinary COD skills. Yes, he’s a one trick pony in that regard; but it’s a darned good trick. Word on the street says he has worked hard to learn the offense at an even deeper level, which should help him to excel even more in his scat-rat, slot receiver role.
  • Eli Rogers (5’10”, 187 lbs.) Cut, rinse, and repeat. I could cut and paste the Eli Rogers description from Switzer’s, except he is two inches taller, two pounds heavier, has built his rapport with Roethlisberger for an extra year or two, and may be a quarter-inch less shifty.

Time to pause again. Will the Steelers keep all three? I suspect they might. There are too many advantages to be reaped from doubling up on the COD specialists against particular teams that might have a slightly bigger and less-quick style of defense. Yes, that would be a perfect way to ease the rookie into his future role. But why assume it? Pittsburgh has a number of other young receivers with some promise but I contend there is no “missing role” that is waiting to be claimed by some specific physical stereotype. The team’s top-5 will have plenty of height, especially if you factor in the TE’s; an abnormal level of tough guys; plenty of possession receivers; several viable deep threats; and more scat rats than you can shake a stick at. The only way for the rest of the unit to make the 53 will be to beat out the veterans (Switzer and Rogers) mano-a-mano, and that won’t be easy to do.

THE GROUP TRYING TO OUST EITHER SWITZER OR ROGERS FROM THE WR6 POSITION:
  • Johnny Holton (6’3”, 190 lbs.) Holton has a slight edge here because he has better deep speed (4.42) than anyone else on this list. But while that speed is excellent even for NFL receivers, it isn’t Mike Wallace or Martavis Bryant weird. There are some Corners he won’t be leavin’ just because he managed to be even. That said, Holton did look particularly good at the end of the first preseason game. I was encouraged. But we can’t forget that he couldn’t be more than an “almost...” guy for several other teams. Let’s wait and see.
  • Tevin Jones (6’2”, 225 lbs.) Another tall receiver who’s shown serious deep-threat (4.38) speed, but hasn’t done enough to make it off the practice squad in any place he’s been. Has he improved? Perhaps. Jones has also looked very promising in his limited snaps against B- and C-grade talent. But to make this team he will need to do more than just improve. He will need to be so much better that his upside will offer more than the loser of the Rogers/Switzer competition. That is a deep row to hoe.
  • Trey Griffey (6’3”, 192 lbs.) Griffey looks almost identical to Holton on paper but isn’t quite as straight-line fast. He’s been good enough to make a lot of practice squads, but can he step up? Yes, he’s tall; but he’s only an inch taller than Moncrief and he’s 20 pounds lighter than any of the three projected starters.
  • Diontae Spencer (5’8”, 170 lbs.) The super-fast Canadian Football superstar. He’d have a major chance to make the team if he wasn’t 15-20 pounds lighter than the other scat rats. Football up north is a much wider-open game that gives extra room for Speed to elude Size and avoid Strength. We’ve seen way too many men with that profile fail on an NFL field. I wish the young man nothing but the best. It would be awesome if he proved to be the exception that proves the rule. But I’ll bet on one of the veterans to win that competition.
  • Brandon Reilly (6’2”, 200 lbs.) Who? No disrespect. He’s got enough of everything to attract the notice of Buffalo, Detroit (twice), and Dallas as well as the Steelers. So he’s clearly a far better athlete than I ever was, and lord knows will ever be. But it’s hard to see what he’d bring that this overloaded roster does not already have.

So, do you see anyone there who’s likely to beat out a competent veteran for the WR6 position? I do not. Holton and Jones have the best chances because of their physical assets, but I don’t see either’s odds as particularly good. Rogers and Switzer may have overlapping skill sets. They do. There’s no arguing that fact. But it is a skill set the team can use, and both men have the inestimable bonus of knowing their QB well. One of the two will probably get insulted on a weekly basis by receiving no helmet on game day. But oh well. Such is life. And if someone does, God forbid, get injured, there will be little doubt that both of these quicksters have the ability to be a more-than-viable next man up.

Think I’m crazy? Or just missing something? Bring it on. There’s a Comments section waiting to hear from you.