clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steelers Vertex: A change in receiver usage helped spark a comeback

The Steelers made several adjustments against the Colts, one of which was their personnel in the receiving game.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

It seems like forever since we got to break down a Steelers win, but our beloved Black & Gold are AFC North Champions with their come-from-behind win over a tough Indianapolis Colts teams. While there were several things which helped the Steelers come alive in the second half, we’ll focus on one in particular.

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 usage of their wide receivers against the Colts. While the players were the same throughout the game, their usage changed for the first half to the second.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Anyone who even remotely followed the Steelers Week 16 game against the Indianapolis Colts saw a completely different team in the second half, especially on offense, then how the Steelers played to start the game. With only 100 yards passing by Ben Roethlisberger in the first half, he exploded for 242 additional yards in the second half along with 3 touchdowns. But it was not merely Roethlisberger and his statistics which were different. The distribution of passes among the Steelers receivers was completely different in the second half on Sunday.

During the first half, Diontae Johnson saw the majority of the looks from Roethlisberger as he was targeted 10 times and had 5 receptions for 27 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster was next with 7 targets where he made 4 receptions for 52 yards. The only other players target in the first half were Eric Ebron who had 2 targets with 1 reception for 11 yards and James Conner who caught his only target for 10 yards.

One of the most frustrating statistic I noted at halftime on Sunday was not only did Chase Claypool and James Washington not have a reception, they weren’t even targeted in the first half.

In the second half, the Steelers distributed the ball much differently. Dionte Johnson was only targeted 4 times where he had 3 receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown. Smith-Schuster was targeted another 7 times with 5 receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown. Ebron received 5 more targets with 4 more receptions for 36 yards and a touchdown while James Conner caught 4 more passes on as many targets for 35 yards.

Where the biggest difference came in the second half was Chase Claypool was finally involved with the offense where he was targeted 6 times where he caught 4 passes for 54 yards. Unfortunately, Claypool didn’t come through on a 2-yard touchdown reception in the Steelers first drive of the second half.

James Washington was also more involved in a second half where he was targeted 3 times we had 2 receptions for 20 yards. The only ball thrown to Washington which wasn’t caught was one play after Claypool‘s missed touchdown opportunity when Roethlisberger targeted him on fourth down but the defender made a great play to not allow the ball to ever get to Washington in the end zone.

Just to be thorough, the final reception by the Steelers was Vance McDonald who was only targeted once where he had a 5 yard reception.

So those are the numbers broken down by halves for the Steelers receivers. But what did the Steelers do differently with how they utilized them? Once again, will have to take a look at the film to get that answer…

The Film Line:

The Pittsburgh Steelers first half offense looked a lot like the offense we’ve seen from this team, with similar results. Last week we talked about the Steelers really trying to get play-action in the offense, and after Ben Roethlisberger had a historically bad game, the team came out in Week 16 looking like they had before Week 15. The Steelers were again faced with choosing between the offense that was working for the run game and getting receivers open, and the offense that was predictable and failing, but that their quarterback could run.

1st quarter, 14:55. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The first play of the game, what else would they run but a quick slant to Diontae Johnson that would fall incomplete? The Steelers motion Jaylen Samuels out to spread out the underneath linebackers and have Vance McDonald run to the flat to clear space for the throw. But Ben Roethlisberger throws the ball at Diontae Johnson’s feet and Johnson fails to catch it.

The Colts would dress it up, but the defense would largely stay the same for most of the game. They ran cover-1, with the corners playing mostly man with zone in the middle from the safeties and linebackers. It worked well. It also let the Colts copy a Ravens strategy and pick their matchups with Steelers receivers and avoid mismatches.

2nd quarter, 5:48. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Colts aren’t worried about the underneath routes, they have help to the inside from the linebackers. Notice the formation, the Steelers played Diontae Johnson as the X receiver almost every play of the first half. That made the offense more predictable. Also look at Ben Roethlisberger’s drop, as again we see him dropping to a full ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. You can see the pocket is holding 5 yards in front of Roethlisberger, and the edge rushers are having very little trouble getting to him because of how far he is dropping.

This all ties together. Roethlisberger dropping to get clear of what has been a very shaky pocket, throwing quickly to avoid the rush from the outside, and that requiring the Steelers offense to be more predictable and focus on trying to make those slants and drags work, rather than mixing up what they do.

At half time the Steelers would change things up significantly.

3rd quarter, 9:17. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers moved Claypool to X receiver to start the second half, and he stayed there for their entire first drive.

3rd quarter, 8:22. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen, Eric Ebron is the tight end to the bottom.

With Claypool at the X bringing greater deep threat, the Steelers put all the other receivers to the other side, and then run Eric Ebron across the field to create a double attack deep, behind the linebackers that are being held short by JuJu Smith-Schuster’s underneath route. Seeing the Colts relying on a hybrid man/zone defense, the Steelers attack one side of the field with what will end up being 4 routes as Benny Snell slips out of the pocket late.

3rd quarter, 1:39. Diontae Johnson is the receiver at the front of the stack to the top of the screen.

Chase Claypool at the X puts Johnson where Claypool was in the stack, and while dropping corners deeper to meet Claypool in the middle of his route is a good strategy, doing the same to Diontae Johnson isn’t, and the Steelers get 25 yards on a pass interference penalty.

Chase Claypool didn’t play the X the entire second half, the Steelers switched them back and forth a good bit, with Johnson’s touchdown coming when he was lined up at the X, and he was there for the touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 4th quarter.

4th quarter, 7:43. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Johnson cuts inside, Eric Ebron stays in to block, and a Roethlisberger pump fake freezes the safety to the top of the screen just enough to get a pass to Smith-Schuster for the lead.

In the second half the Steelers receivers moved around, making the Colts cornerbacks play different positions and deal with different attacks. At the same time Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be more comfortable in the improved pockets he enjoyed, taking a bit more time and throwing downfield more. While Ben Roethlisberger finding his groove was the major factor in the second half turn around, the receivers moving around, and the offense getting away from constantly targeting Diontae Johnson stressed the defense and created better opportunities for Roethlisberger to attack the defense.

The Point:

It took more than one simple fix for the Steelers to turn around their game against the Indianapolis Colts. As shown, it took no less than a stable pocket to give Ben Roethlisberger time, a change in the usage of receivers to open things up against the defense, and the ability and confidence by Roethlisberger to execute each play. Had any one of these three not occurred, the Steelers probably would have been facing a four-game losing streak. Instead, the Steelers find themselves AFC North Champions and playing a mostly meaningless game in Week 17.

While the ability to protect Roethlisberger and him stepping up to make the throws is more of a “Jimmy’s & Joe’s” issue (meaning players making plays), moving around the receivers to create more space in the secondary was all about the “X’s & O’s.” So even though Coach Tomlin says the Steelers just need to execute what they do better, making a change in scheme, even so slightly, helped put players in a better chance to make plays.