The Pittsburgh Steelers had a number of players missing on both sides of the ball in Week 11. Between T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, and Kevin Dotson, the Steelers had a lot of players filling in. But there were also players who returned to the lineup who had missed the previous week such as Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool. While Roethlisberger’s return saw some obvious differences, the return of Chase Claypool also had an impart on the offense. That is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
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.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
I will say right off the bat that it is ultimately going to be the film that paints this picture. But as I’ve done in the past, I’ll play the role of setter in order for Geoffrey to spike this one home.
While Ben Roethlisberger being the quarterback is a big factor in some of these numbers, it’s still operating within the same Steelers offensive system and the players who are targeted with what the Steelers are attempting to do. When looking at the Steelers Week 10 matchup where Claypool was out due to injury, there were two players who had double digit targets in the game. To no one’s surprise, Diontae Johnson had 13 targets which led to seven receptions for 83 yards. The other player with double digit targets was Ray-Ray McCloud with 12 targets leading to nine receptions for 63 yards. It should also be noted that James Washington had six targets while Pat Freiermuth had nine targets.
Moving to Week 11, the overall number of targets were slightly lower as there were 49 against the Lions and 44 against the Chargers. In typical fashion, Diontae Johnson had double digit targets with 13 which led to seven receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown. Pat Freiermuth had a similar amount of targets were he was targeted seven times with four receptions for 11 yards and a touchdown. James Washington saw his targets cut in half where he was targeted three times for two receptions and 12 yards. The biggest difference came in the form of Ray-Ray McCloud only having two targets where he caught both passes for 12 yards. So that’s where the targets went when Chase Claypool, who was targeted nine times, caught five balls for 93 yards.
Along with the targets, the other thing that was cut for both James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud were the snaps played. Washington saw his snaps nearly cut in half as he played 75 snaps against the Lions and 46 against the Chargers. More significantly, Ray-Ray McCloud saw his snaps cut by 75% as he went from 60 snaps in Week 10 to 15 snaps in Week 11.
While Chase Claypool had 873 yards on 62 receptions and 7 receiving touchdowns in 2020 appearing in all 16 games, his one receiving touchdown through eight games played in 2021 seems like a huge drop-off. But Claypool already has 526 yards on 34 receptions, giving him 1.4 yards more per reception this year.
With the biggest difference from Week 11 to Week 12 being Chase Claypool targeted more than James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud, it may have been a lot to do with how the Steelers utilized the players in their routes. That will take looking at the film to answer this question.
The Film Line:
The Steelers offensive explosion against the LA Chargers has a lot of reasons behind it. From Ben Roethlisberger returning to the way the Chargers decided to defend the Steelers, a lot of things contributed. But one of the more important factors was the return of Chase Claypool.
Chase Claypool has been a great weapon since he was the Steelers 2020 2nd round draft pick, and while he still has a lot of room to grow to be a top tier receiver, he presents threat on the football field that isn’t easy to replace.
Steelers v Chargers, 2nd quarter, 13:02.
This was a big play, and it shows off Chase Claypool’s biggest assets— his speed and size. You can see his speed as he creates distance between him and the defender even after he gets past him and the defender is chasing him. You can see his size and power in how little the corner’s attempt to grab and slow Claypool works. These big plays make a huge difference in the drive and the game, but the threat of these plays helps everything else work better. In Week 10, the same level of deep threat just wasn’t present.
Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 9:46.
Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Johnson turns a free play from defensive offsides into a do over with a pass interference penalty here. The reason for that penalty is Johnson trying to clear room to make the catch. Chase Claypool is six inches taller than Johnson, with longer arms and a greater vertical jump. Claypool doesn’t have to physically create room for a catch like this, he can go up over the defender to try and make a play.
Diontae Johnson can’t do that. I’m not trying to say Claypool is a better receiver than Johnson, just that this play is a better play when Chase Claypool and his assets as a receiver is the one running this specific route.
The Steelers have another receiver who has a reputation for making those types of catches though.
Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 9:46.
James Washington is the receiver to the top of the screen.
This incomplete pass isn’t from a lack of effort or “contested catch ability” by James Washington. Watch the cornerback, he isn’t running hard to keep up with Washington. That makes it easy for him to slow down and defend the back-shoulder throw. It’s a lack of speed, the inability to create separation, or at least make the corner run full speed to keep up.
Washington just doesn’t pose the same level of threat.
This is all compounded by the real problem with Claypool being out, and that is the drop in the number of real threats on the field. Against the Lions, the only wide receiver that posed a big threat was Diontae Johnson. The Lions could respect but not fear James Washington, and they didn’t respect Ray-Ray McCloud. While McCloud put up stats because of it, the rest of the team faced more defensive attention and struggled because of it.
With Chase Claypool in the game, the Steelers have multiple threats that have to be respected.
Steelers v Chargers, 1st quarter, 10:36.
Receivers, top to bottom: Chase Claypool, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Diontae Johnson.
Fans have often complained that they don’t see receivers running free in the Steelers offense. It happens, and here is a rare example of one of those receivers being targeted when wide open.
This play starts with a common attack for the Steelers, and one of the most respected combos the Steelers run. A deep route from Chase Claypool paired with an out route from Eric Ebron. Notice how quickly the safety gets back when he sees Claypool heading his way. Look at the defenders react to Ebron coming underneath, looking to exploit the defense worrying about Claypool.
Notice how James Washington pulls two defenders, with the corner expecting someone else to pick up Johnson’s route.
Now to the real meat of Claypool’s impact. Watch the safety to the bottom of the screen, he is between the 30 and 35 yard lines until James Washington is running by him. To the top of the screen, that safety starts closer, but has dropped to the 25 yard line by the time Claypool crosses the 35.
Take a look at the play at that point.
If the safety to the top of the screen is on the 30 yard line he is in position to make a play on this pass. This is Chase Claypool stretching the defense. The cluster of defenders eyeing Eric Ebron is a mistake, but they over-defend it in part because of how good that play has been the last two years.
It’s a great play design, but it’s a much tougher throw if the defense doesn’t respect Claypool enough to give their safety a ten-yard cushion that far downfield.
Steelers v Chargers, 1st quarter, 13:35.
Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Another factor Chase Claypool adds to the Steeler offense is a knack for converting plays. Whether that’s on jet sweeps, finding the gaps to score on a screen pass, or here, where he hurdles the first defender, taking the hit in air to make sure he gets the first down. Diontae Johnson is more likely to break a short pass for a big gain than Claypool, but he’s also more likely to fail to convert. Claypool seems to have a nose for converting plays, and those conversions lead to longer drives and more scoring opportunities for the Steelers.
Chase Claypool leads the Steelers in third down conversion receptions both this season and over the last two seasons. While Chase Claypool needs to grow in some areas, like staying on his feet more and getting open when plays break down, his impact on a Steeler football game is a big deal. Even when he isn’t the targeted receiver, the respect the defense has to give Claypool allows other options to open up within the Steelers offense.