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Steelers Vertex: The receivers combined for a record-setting season

It wasn’t one player who set the league on fire in 2020, but the Steelers receivers did things as a group which had yet to be done.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Steelers are headed into the 2020 postseason and are preparing to once again face the Cleveland Browns. In a game where several key players were held out, it looks to be time to break down a trend which occurred throughout the season.

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 receivers and the accomplishments they made as a unit. While no one player (with one small exception) put up stats to have individual awards, the players combined to do several things which weren’t seen in the NFL in 2020 as well as in Steelers franchise history.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.


The Stats Line:

First off, I must address the issue of there being one player who set individual records when it came to receiving with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chase Claypool did set some rookie records both with the Steelers and the league. While Claypool lead all rookies with 9 receiving touchdowns in 2020, he also tied the Steelers franchise record of receiving touchdowns (9- Louis Lipps, 1984) and total touchdowns (11- Lipps, 1984 & Franco Harris 1972).

Now that we have that bit of housekeeping complete, where the Steelers really set records in 2020 was the number of receivers they had to reach certain milestones.

When it came to receiving yards, although the Steelers did not have a 1000-yard receiver, they had 3 players who eclipsed the 800-yard mark for the first time in franchise history. With Diontae Johnson‘s 923 yards, Chase Claypool‘s 873 yards, and JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s 831 yards, the Steelers got more production out of their top three receivers than the majority of the NFL in 2020. The Steelers were one of three NFL teams that had 3 players over 800 yards to go along with the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Another category where the Steelers had spread the ball around more than they ever had before came in the form of receiving touchdowns. For the first time in franchise history, the Steelers had 5 players who had at least 5 receiving touchdowns. The Steelers had James Washington and Eric Ebron each with 5 touchdowns, Diontae Johnson with 7, and both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool with 9 receiving touchdowns each. The closest the Steelers it ever come before to having 5 players reach this mark was in 2007 when 4 players reached five touchdowns in Nate Washington, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, and Hines Ward. This number also blew away the remainder of the NFL as there were eight teams who had 3 players with at least five receiving touchdowns but no team even had 4 players reach this amount.

Another interesting note when it came to receiving touchdowns is it was only the second time in the Ben Roethlisberger era were a running back did not have a receiving touchdown on the season. The only other year this occurred was in 2015.

So by having so many weapons in which to utilize in the passing game, the Steelers spread the ball more evenly in both yards and touchdowns than they ever had before. In what ways did they make this happen? Although the case was predominantly made with stats in this instance, checking the film will definitely help to see how the Steelers used so many receiving threats to their advantage.


The Film Line:

Mike Tomlin has talked all season about the offense taking what the defense gives them, but a more accurate description of how that works might be attacking where the defense isn’t defending. The Steelers depth at wide receiver is especially valuable because the receivers are versatile but have different strengths. The Steelers quick passing offense tried to put defenses in situations where they have to pick a receiver to cover, either leaving a receiver open or giving them a 1-on-1 to win.

Week 1, 1st quarter, 0:14. James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, JuJu Smith-Schuster is second from the bottom.

Smith-Schuster runs one of the best pick routes I’ve ever seen on this play, driving his defender directly into the cornerback that should be covering James Washington. Washington does the rest, powering through 2 defenders to get the touchdown.

When the Giants tried to adjust to Smith-Schuster’s rub routes, the Steelers used that against them to score again.

Week 1, 4th quarter, 5:28. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, JuJu Smith-Schuster is second from the bottom.

Smith-Schuster’s defender steps up to jam him and keep out of his team mate’s path. It works, the cornerbacks avoid each other, but Smith-Schsuter blows past his defender for a touchdown.

This shows the general idea behind much of the Steelers short passing game, and it shows why in Week 7 the Titans would start playing their linebackers in short zone over the middle to prevent the Steelers from constantly abusing their defenders.

Week 7, second quarter, 0:57. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, Chase Claypool is second from the bottom.

You can see why they would start keeping their linebackers in zone underneath. The Steelers send Claypool in motion, and he takes the safety out of the play, and with a blitz clearing the middle of the field, Diontae Johnson has room to work, make his defender miss, and walk in for the score. Claypool’s deep threat has been utilized frequently in 2020 to back off defenders and keep safeties away from underneath routes. That works well with Diontae Johnson’s change of direction that makes him a monster to defend 1-on-1 and a constant yards after catch threat.

When the Baltimore Ravens copied and improved on Tennessee’s second half adjustments, they added the benefit of having cornerbacks that matched up well with the Steelers receivers. Marcus Peters tended to follow Chase Claypool, while Marlon Humphries matched up with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jimmy Smith did a fantastic job on Diontae Johnson. The tide in that game turned when the Steelers took out their running back to put 4 receivers and tight end Eric Ebron on the field together.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 13:27. Eric Ebron is the second receiver from the bottom.

You can see how the Steelers attacked the Ravens hybrid zone, and as the line backer to the top of the screen does his job helping defend Smith-Schusters post route, the linebacker to the bottom passes of Eric Ebron to no one, and Ebron scores.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 1:57. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen, Eric Ebron is second from the top.

The Bengals don’t want to make the same mistake as the Ravens, so they pattern match here. Ebron runs right at the linebacker in front of him, who is going to need to switch to Claypool. Ebron backs him up before cutting outside to the pylon. If the corner is slow to switch to Ebron, he’s open, if the CB hangs back like he does, Chase Claypool is open. Jessie Bates is a fantastic free safety, he reads the play and if Ben Roethlisberger is a bit slower getting the ball to Claypool, Bates has a good shot at the ball. Instead, he makes them pay.


The Point:

The Steelers talented depth at wide receiver allows them to put defenses in tough spots trying to defend these combo routes, and relies on Ben Roethlisberger reading the play, and getting the ball to the right receiver quickly. Dropped passes and poor pass protection caused this offense serious problems for a month, and yet the Steelers tied the franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a season, while recording only the second 3 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio in franchise history.

Without a true number one receiver that Ben Roethlisberger could rely on no matter what the situation, the Steelers have found strength in the overall group, and it works because the players have shown humility and a focus on winning no matter what their personal stats look like.