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Steelers Vertex: Getting the most out of Chase Claypool

The Steelers’ rookie wide receiver has thrived in certain games while being held in check in others.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

We’re back at it again this week, so let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is the production of Chase Claypool when being played at different positions in the Steelers’ offense. After a couple of big games, Claypool only had one catch for -2 yards against the Titans. Were they taking Claypool out of the game, or did the return of Diontae Johnson have anything to do with it?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The numbers for Chase Claypool show a very different story depending on if Diontae Johnson is available or not for the Steelers. With Johnson not dressing for one game for the Steelers while exiting early in two others, Claypool’s stats during those times are like that of a completely different receiver.

When Diontae Johnson left the Steelers game against the Houston Texans in Week 3 with 7:15 remaining in the second quarter, Chase Claypool had not had a target yet in the game. He finished the game with one catch for 24 yards on four targets.

In Week 5 when the Steelers faced the Philadelphia Eagles, Johnson exited the game even earlier as there was 8:22 remaining in the first quarter. Once again, Chase Claypool did not have a single target before Johnson left the game but afterwards he had 7 catches on 11 targets for 110 yards and three receiving touchdowns. Claypool also added 3 rushes for 6 yards and another touchdown.

The following week, Johnson missed the game against the Cleveland Browns where Chase Claypool had 4 catches on 4 targets for 74 yards while having 2 rushes for 7 yards and a touchdown.

In all, Chase Claypool has really thrived when Diontae Johnson was not available to the Steelers. With Johnson playing, Claypool has only been targeted 6 times where he’s caught all 6 passes for 125 yards and one touchdown. Claypool also has one rush for 8 yards. Where things are vastly different is when Johnsonis not available for the Steelers where Claypool has been targeted 19 times with 12 receptions for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns along with 5 rushes for 13 yards and 2 touchdowns.

In 2020, Diontae Johnson has been available a little more than three total games on game time. On the season, Johnson has 24 receptions on 41 targets for 227 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also has one rush for 9 yards.

Of course, Claypool does see an increased number of snaps when Johnson is not available. But what is keeping these two players from thriving together? For that, we will need some film…

The Film Line:

Diontae Johnson took over Antonio Brown’s spot on the Steelers offense. And I’m not talking about the Steelers getting a third round pick for Antonio Brown, or the numerous comparisons in their style of play, I’m talking about Diontae Johnson literally taking over the spot on the field Antonio Brown used to play.

Week 1, 3rd quarter, 1:36. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Diontae Johnson is all alone to the top of the screen, there are three receivers to the bottom. The receiver farthest to the bottom is Chase Claypool. If you look at the alignment of the secondary you can see the reason the Steelers put Antonio Brown in that role, there is very little help for that cornerback, and any help he does get is being pulled far away from the rest of the offense.

The benefit of a quick, change of direction receiver in that spot is the amount of space they have to work with, before and after the catch.

Compare to the situation on the other side of the field for Chase Claypool.

Week 1, 1st quarter, 4:46. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

With two other receivers to his side, the outside receiver on the strong side is often running vertical routes to pull the safeties back and open space for other receivers. It works well, but it means most of your targets are going to be this kind of play, a tough catch where the receiver has to catch the ball over his defender and get his feet down before the safety can knock him out of bounds.

When that role was filled by Mike Wallace, Martevis Bryant or Sammie Coates, it made a lot of sense, they were dynamic deep threats and little else. Chase Claypool isn’t that limited.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 11:57. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This slant is a devastating route for big, strong receivers who are also ridiculously fast. Calvin Johnson made this route one of the most feared things you could see on a football field, and Chase Claypool showed he can wield that route as well.

The spacing of the defense when there is a slot receiver on the same side changes the dynamic of that slant, and teams often bring a safety up closer against a bunch to take away any routes that want to run into the middle like this. Minkah Fitzpatrick recorded a pick-6 when Baker Mayfield tried to hit an in cutting route to the strong side when he was cheating up. Putting a defender in the path of that slant is much harder when there is so much space between the receiver and his teammates. The defense has to compromise the rest of their defense to do so.

When Chase Claypool is the Steelers X receiver, he is able to leverage his whole route tree, and that makes it much, much harder for a team to sit back and take away his deep routes.

When Diontae Johnson is playing the X receiver, Chase Claypool is relegated to the Martavis Bryant role, where defenses can take away the slant and sit on the deep routes more easily, and where Claypool ends up largely relegated to stretching the field for other receivers to thrive.

The Steelers are left having to find the answer to one important question, is it worth stifling Chase Claypool’s production and splash plays to keep Diontae Johnson at the X and open up more space for JuJu Smith-Schuster?

The Point:

Statistics tell us that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool haven’t been able to both thrive on the field together. On film it looks like a case of both receivers being best suited for the same role in the offense. In Week 7 the Steelers chose to play Diontae Johnson as the primary X receiver, and the results do a good job of showing both the good and bad side of that choice.

The Steelers longest gain in Week 7 was 28 yards, not surprising on a day where Chase Claypool’s only target was a jet sweep tap pass. Chase Claypool is the only Steelers’ receiver in 2020 to record a 30+ yard play, and he has 4 of them. The lack of splash plays was evident throughout the game as the Steelers relied on short passes to move the ball all game.

It also stands out that JuJu Smith-Schuster had his best statistical game of the season. In the stats section we covered the difference in yards for Chase Claypool based on whether Diontae Johnson was playing, but there is a similar correlation with JuJu Smith-Schuster, only Smith-Schuster’s production increases when Johnson is healthy. In the three games Johnson has been healthy, Smith-Schuster has 202 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. In the three games Diontae Johnson has been injured, Smith-Schuster has 77 yards and 1 touchdown.

Having Chase Claypool line up on the strong side of the formation pushes back the safety on that side of the field and creates openings for Smith-Schuster in his slot role. As valuable as Chase Claypool’s big play ability is when he’s playing the X receiver, it is hard to outweigh the impact of both Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster having better games. The challenge facing the Pittsburgh Steelers is to find ways to keep Chase Claypool more involved in the offense and making splash plays while also utilizing the threat he creates to benefit the other receivers.