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Steelers Vertex: Drawing defensive pass interference penalties

The Steelers’ rookie wide receiver is taking the NFL by storm, and just think how many more yards he would have if it wasn’t for being interfered with.

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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 looking at the Steelers ability to draw defensive pass interference penalties in 2020. While coming up with big catches is one thing, sometimes the catch isn’t an option as defenders are breaking the rules to prevent completions. So how pivotal have the DPI calls been for the Steelers, and why have they drawn so many this season?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Once again, I’ve got to give big ups to Geoffrey for tipping me office to where I can find the best numbers on this subject. He even gave me some of the totals and compared them to the rest of the NFL. Compiling data on individual penalties, who drew them, and how the drive resulted is a time-consuming and tedious task.

Getting back to those numbers, the Steelers have drawn 13 defensive pass interference penalties through their first 10 games which have totaled 242 yards. The Steelers are second in the NFL in both categories only to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have drawn one more penalty for 10 additional yards. These numbers are based on the Buccaneers’ first nine games and do not include their Monday night matchup against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11.

Since the Steelers have not had a drive in which more than one defensive pass interference penalty was called, there have been 13 drives where one of these penalties occurred. On those drives, the Steelers have scored five field goals and five touchdowns while the other three drives have ended with one punt, one lost fumble, and one interception.

When it comes to the individual players who have drawn these penalties, the Steelers have four different players who have been the beneficiary of defensive pass interference. JuJu Smith-Schuster has drawn two penalties for a total of 25 yards and those drives have led to a field goal and a punt. Next on the list is Ray-Ray McCloud who has also drawn two penalties for 35 yards. Those penalties have led to a score on each drive with there being one field goal and one touchdown.

James Washington has drawn three defensive pass interference penalties for a total of 47 yards. On two of those penalties, they lead to a touchdown being scored while the other drive ended due to a fumble.

And here is the big one. Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool has drawn six defensive pass interference penalties for 135 yards. Of those penalties, half of them were on either third or fourth down and would have otherwise ended the drive. As for how those drives ended, three were concluded with field goals, two with touchdowns, and one was an interception. Claypool has drawn more DPI yards in 2020 then any other receiver in the NFL.

Interestingly enough, Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron are both missing from this list. When it comes to Johnson, he has been targeted more than any Steelers receiver even though he has missed the equivalent of at least two games (one complete game and two partial games). By being targeted so often, one would think Johnson would have at east one call on the season.

So why are the Steelers getting these calls? Are they simply selling them for the officials or are defenders forced to interfere rather than getting beat? I guess we’ll have to listen to what Geoffrey has to say about the film…

The Film Line:

Defensive pass interference is a judgement call made by an official in the moment of the game. There are calls that could be made that aren’t, calls that are made that would have been fine to not make, and the occasional egregious calls. When a team or player is drawing so many penalties, though, there is likely a reason for it.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 11:52. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Smith-Schuster isn’t the tallest or the fastest receiver, he has really good hands, good size and strength, and great route running for a receiver with his strength and size. On this route the defender tries to jam his target, but Smith-Schuster drives him back, playing into the physicality instead of avoiding or trying to get around it. Smith-Schuster creates space through the physicality, makes his cut inside and boxes out the defender, putting his entire body between the cornerback and the ball as the pass arrives.

The defender can concede the catch or try to play the ball through the receiver. He chooses the second option and earns a penalty. This kind of physicality and execution is tough to defend. His style of play creates more physical battles with corners, and increased physicality means more penalties. JuJu Smith-Schuster has a lot of plays where penalties could have, and should have been called but weren’t. By creating a lot more penalty potential, he creates penalties.

Week 5, 1st quarter, 2:11. James Washington vs. Darius Slay.

Darius Slay is one of the more physical corners in the NFL, and that would seem to make him a good match for James Washington and his physicality. The problem for Slay is Washington absolutely dominates the physical conflict in this route, winning the hand fighting from first contact, maintaining his route through multiple attempts to knock him off his line and using Slay’s physicality to get in front of Slay. Darius Slay is beaten, and he responds by grabbing Washington’s upper arm with both hands and pulling on him to prevent a potential touchdown.

With James Washington and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have two of the more physical receivers in the NFL, and that escalates the physicality these defenders already bring, and it creates opportunity for penalties.

It isn’t just physicality that creates penalties though, the Steelers also bring quickness to the table.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 6:17. Ray-Ray McCloud is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This is Darrius Slay again, he was having a rough day against the Steelers. After defending mostly James Washington and Chase Claypool early in the game, Slay draws a rep against Ray-Ray McCloud who catches Slay off guard with his quickness and Slay is again left grabbing the arm of a receiver who beat him. The Steelers challenged their receivers to be able to line up anywhere on the field this season, and it pays off as the Steelers can throw wildly different players at any defensive back forcing mismatches and change-of-pace snaps like this one on the defense at will.

But, as Dave pointed out, the real driver of the Steelers Defensive Pass Interference numbers is Chase Claypool. Claypool brings the traits that all of the other receivers bring to draw penalties all in one package. Chase Claypool is only slightly less physical than James Washington, he brings great speed and an explosive release as well as solid route running at 6’4” and with an 80” wingspan. He’s hard to defend if he just runs in a straight line, when he’s making good moves it isn’t really fair to any players trying to defend him 1v1.

Week 10, 2nd quarter, 8:13. Chase Claypool versus William Jackson III.

Claypool runs right at the defender as he eats up that big cushion, once the corner’s margin of error has disappeared he throws a step to the outside to open up a cut up-field timed with a nice left arm swim to beat Jackson III. The only option left for the defender is to grab on and not let him go. Easy call for the ref, really tough route to try and defend.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 0:15. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Starts to the outside, cuts inside, again slapping the corner’s arm down and Claypool has beaten and stacked the defender in the first 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. You have to get creative to defend in that situation.

Chris Claybrooks pulls on Claypool’s jersey, then knocks down and traps his arm well before the ball gets there.

It’s an obvious penalty, one of the easiest calls that referee will ever make. My favorite part was Claybrooks arguing the call with the ref afterwards. I can’t even imagine what his defense was.

Escalating the physicality of the matchup and forcing defenders into desperate situations is how the Steelers are creating so many pass interference calls. That leads to the last player, Diontae Johnson, who hasn’t drawn a single pass interference penalty despite leading the team in targets.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 15:00.

Unlike his fellow wide receivers, Diontae Johnson doesn’t escalate the physicality of the matchup, and when he beats his defender, one of his best traits shows up, his ability to evade and escape physical defense. Here his defender tries to get a hand on Johnson’s inside arm, but Johnson slaps it away with his right hand before sweeping it further with his left. Johnson doesn’t just neutralize the move, he uses the defender’s arm to help him cut sharper, and pushes that arm to create additional momentum for the defender going away from Johnson’s in-cut. You can’t hold what you can’t get a hand on.

The most impressive trait Diontae Johnson showed in college was his releases against physical defenders, and his ability to not just win, but dominate hand fighting in his route. That skill set has translated beautifully to the NFL, and Johnson continues to be a nightmare for cornerbacks who depend on getting physical with receivers.

The Point:

The Steelers have built a wide receiver group that can beat defenders in various ways. As shown in the film, physical players such as James Washington and Chase Claypool do not have to shy away from contact and therefore can draw more than what defenders are allowed to do. Additionally, someone with the speed of Ray-Ray McLeod can sometimes just beat a player off the line and force them into drastic measures. Then there is Juju Smith-Schuster who brings a combination of things to go with his physicality. This combination makes it very difficult for the teams to match up with the Steelers receivers.

Then comes Diontae Johnson, who is not the same type of receiver which may be why he is targeted even more. Naturally getting separation from the defenders, it’s easier to get the ball to Johnson for the completion if he is able to elude anyone who would knock down the pass.

The Steelers built a receiver room with three tough, physical receivers and opponents don’t have enough corners who can play like that to defend them. They are a matchup nightmare, and by giving up either too much space or being overly physical, Ben Roethlisberger is going to find a way to exploit these matchups.