Slot receivers aren’t the same as they were 10 years ago. They aren’t even the same as they were 4 years ago, when in 2016 the Steelers played Eli Rogers as their main slot receiver. In the current NFL, star receivers who used to line up almost exclusively outside frequently move inside to get different match-ups and drive linebackers like Vince Williams crazy. While Steeler fans should be used to this with JuJu Smith-Schuster playing outside as well as being the teams main slot receiver, it is happening all over the league.
Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and more all spend significant time in the slot, and they are incredibly productive when they line up there. According to Football Outsiders DVOA, targets to the slot were 7.1% more efficient than targets to the outside receivers. The largest gap they’ve recorded yet.
Take Mike Evans, a big, strong and fast outside receiver. In 2019 his DYAR (Defense adjusted yards above replacement) on his 93 targets when lined up outside was 171, 7th best in the NFL, and 11.1% more efficient than the average receiver. When Mike Evans lined up in the slot, he was even better. On only 31 targets, he produced 149 yards more than average, an impressive 47.9% better than average on one-third the targets, but only 22 yards short of his added yards from the far greater number of outside targets.
Why does this matter? Because producing average results is what average receivers do. Better players get better results, and it’s the offensive coordinators’ job to put players in the best position to succeed, so the offense can benefit more from their talent.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, this means utilizing the slot positions more effectively in 2020.
2019 was a bad year for slot production for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While most of the NFL was utilizing their slot receivers heavily in 2019, the Steelers were not. The Steelers only receiver to post a positive DVOA from the slot was James Washington, who ranked 35th with 81 yards above average, largely due to Washington and Devlin Hodges hooking up for a number of deep passes in the Cleveland and Buffalo games. Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster both were in negative DVOA in 2019.
A big part of the problem came from quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was more effective throwing to outside receivers than to the slot. Rudolph was the third worst (by DVOA) throwing to slot receivers, but just outside the top ten at #11 for the best throwing to outside receivers, ahead of guys like Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.
In fact, if you look at their rankings sorted by the difference between how efficient quarterbacks were throwing outside or to the slot, the quarterbacks who were much more effective throwing to the slot, and not very effective throwing to outside receivers were the best quarterbacks in the league. Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes were the three most extreme in that category, while on the other end of the spectrum, the quarterbacks that were better throwing to outside receivers than to the slot were Dwayne Haskins, Gardner Minshew and Mason Rudolph.
If you look more closely at the quarterbacks that use the slot the best, not only were two of the three playing in the Super Bowl, but they also have some of the better slot weapons on the planet, and not just at wide receiver. New Orleans and Kansas City both have star receivers sliding into the slot around half the time with Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill, while San Francisco used rookie Deebo Samuel in that role. But those three teams had the top three tight ends at slot production in Jordan Reed, George Kittle and Travis Kelce. San Francisco and New Orleans also have backs in Kyle Juszczyk, Raheem Mostert and Alvin Kamara that are leading producers among backs when lined up as receivers.
The Steelers had Vance McDonald at tight end, who is much better tight to the line than he is in the slot. The Steelers did have Jaylen Samuels lining up as a receiver a similar amount as in 2018, but in 2019 he suffered the same fate as the Steelers receivers, recording dismal slot production.
While the best NFL offenses had multiple weapons playing in the slot, and quarterbacks that used them well, the Steelers clearly did not and that was a big problem.
The Steelers have a lot of answers in 2020.
While it is easy to point to Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and think that Ben Roethlisberger will fix all the problems on the offense, the Steelers were more proactive than that.
The Steelers added one of the top slot tight ends in the NFL in Eric Ebron. Ebron’s production suffered in 2019 with quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who joined Mason Rudolph as one of the ten passers with negative DVOA throwing to the slot. In 2018 and earlier Eric Ebron was one of the more effective tight ends when lined up in the slot or as an outside receiver.
The Steelers also added Derek Watt, a fullback and special teams ace who can also line up on the line as a receiver, both tight to the line and in the slot. The Steelers hired coach Matt Canada, who has a history of using wingbacks and H-backs effectively. Wingbacks and H-backs are the precursors to the slot receiver, and are usually a back or tight end.
The Steelers didn’t just start this focus this off-season either. Le’Veon Bell was one of the best slot backs in the NFL for years, and the Steelers have been rotating outside receivers into the slot since Hines Ward starting slowing down later in his career. After the struggles in 2019 using slot receivers, the Steelers invested even more heavily in that area.
The key isn’t to find a good slot receiver—that’s the old way. The best NFL offenses use a variety of players in the slot, using big tall fast receivers like Chase Claypool, route running tight ends like Eric Ebron, versatile running backs like Jaylen Samuels, and their main outside receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers have positioned themselves well to compete as one of the top teams in the NFL with their defense, but they have also added key pieces to try and elevate the offense to compete with the leagues best.
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