It was a tale of two stories worthy of a Dickens novel. The first featured a sloppy, disinterested Pittsburgh team who couldn’t block or tackle, was often misaligned or put into unsound alignments by the coaching staff and who treated pass protection like a foreign language they’d never translated. The second showcased a team clicking on all cylinders who moved the ball with urgency on offense, created turnovers on defense and played with the passion and energy befitting a group fighting for its playoff life.
In this regard, receiver Chase Claypool was both protagonist and antagonist. Claypool is an immensely talented player who turned in some spectacular plays that were integral to Pittsburgh’s comeback. Yet he can also be immature and selfish, and his undisciplined actions created additional hardship for the Steelers on a night where they needed the opposite.
While Claypool’s ability to catch a football draws raves, his side-show antics seem to be wearing thin on many in the organization. Head coach Mike Tomlin benched Claypool for a stretch on Thursday night after he drew an early unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. When asked at his post-game press conference whether he believed the benching will send a message to Claypool, Tomlin remarked, curtly, “We’ll see.”
This came on the heels of Claypool stirring controversy in the locker room last week by suggesting the Steelers needed to play music and have more fun at practice. He then missed a crucial check-down in the subsequent game against the Ravens which drew the ire of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I chronicled that play in the article to which I’ve linked below. Thursday night at Minnesota, he again angered his teammates with his on-field antics, which included an astonishing sequence in the final minute that may have cost the Steelers the game. The degree to which Claypool can put his juvenile behavior behind him and focus on honing his craft will likely determine his future in Pittsburgh.
Here’s a look at his performance against the Vikings and at why he is both a tantalizing and infuriating talent.
Claypool’s unsportsmanlike penalty came on Pittsburgh’s opening drive. Minnesota had just missed a field goal and the Steelers had a chance to grab some early momentum. They picked up a few quick first downs to move the ball to midfield. On a 1st and 10 play, Claypool caught a flat pass from Roethlisberger and was run out of bounds by cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Breeland gave Claypool a little nudge as the players got to their feet. Claypool responded by doing this:
The gesture, in which Claypool seemed to signal for a first down (on a play that wasn’t) by sticking his finger into Breeland’s facemask, is so childish I find myself struggling to describe it. The fact he did it in the immediate presence of two officials makes it even more astounding. Granted, one could make an argument that Breeland started the altercation by nudging Claypool on the sideline, or that Breeland could have been flagged as well for retaliating to Claypool’s gesture. But neither of those points excuses Claypool for his actions. This is a petty act that turned a 2nd and 3 into a 2nd and 18. The fact the Steelers managed to overcome it and gain a first down to extend the possession is not the point. Claypool needs to be smarter and less selfish. Period.
Clearly, though, the moment that made Steelers fans apoplectic came in the final minute of the contest. Pittsburgh had rallied back from that 29-0 deficit to cut Minnesota’s lead to 36-28. They took possession at their own 3 yard line with just over two minutes to play and no time-outs remaining. Roethlisberger led them out past midfield, in part because of an amazing catch by Claypool, which we will get to shortly. The Steelers faced a 4th and 1 at the Minnesota 43 with 0:42 left. Roethlisberger found Claypool on a slant to the 35, where he was tackled in the middle of the field. Then, this happened:
This would seem to suggest the message to Claypool didn’t get through pic.twitter.com/uVbVv26GzE— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) December 10, 2021
With Claypool in no obvious hurry, guard Trai Turner rushed over to grab the football so the officials could set it and Roethlisberger could spike it to kill the clock. Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was milling around the pile, seemed to swat at it, jarring it loose and wasting valuable time as the officials retrieved it. Looking at the full video of the play, it appears the Steelers lost five to six seconds. That time would have been enough to run another play at the end of the game after Pittsburgh threw incomplete from the 12 yard line to Pat Freiermuth in the end zone. There were three seconds remaining when they ran the play to Freiermuth, and the play took five seconds. So, with the time Pittsburgh lost during the incident between Turner and Claypool, they could have run one more play. One play that may prove costly to their season when all is said and done.
Some may blame Kendricks for causing the delay. He’s the one who pried the ball loose, after all. Others may blame Turner. Had Turner simply allowed Claypool to hand the ball to the official, it wouldn’t have gotten knocked away. It’s hard to blame Turner for his actions, though. In a situation like that, the receiver’s job is to jump up after being tackled, locate the nearest official and get the ball to him as quickly as possible. Claypool wasn’t doing that, so Turner took action. It was a smart move by a veteran who understood the situation, and the antithesis of how Claypool acted.
And yet, despite the level of frustration fans feel towards him, the Steelers would not have been in position to make such an astounding comeback had it not been for Claypool’s contributions. Late in the third quarter, for example, with the Steelers down 29-7, he made this incredible grab to convert a 3rd and 4. Claypool got physical at the line of scrimmage to win on his release, then displayed tremendous timing and athleticism to high-point the football and bring it in for a completion:
The catch is even more impressive when you consider that the corner Claypool was operating against was Patrick Peterson (7), who is widely regarded as one of the best coverage players in the game. It set up a touchdown run by Najee Harris that made the score 29-14, and the Pittsburgh comeback was officially on.
On the Steelers’ final drive, as they scrambled down the field in hopes of tying the game, Claypool topped that catch with one that was nearly impossible. On 2nd and 4 from the 7, he ran a vertical route against off-coverage from Breeland (21). Breeland did everything right here. He established good position by riding Claypool into the boundary with his hips. He didn’t reach or grab at him. He got his head around to eliminate the possibility of pass interference. And yet, with an assist from Roethlisberger for a wonderfully-thrown ball, Claypool somehow managed to reach around Breeland as he fell to the ground, locate the football, catch it and keep himself in bounds:
Here it is again, from a better angle:
The catch, which only a handful of players in the league possess the combination of speed, size, strength and ability to make, pushed the Steelers out to midfield and gave them a chance to convert the drive. For a few moments there, I thought they would. I thought, after a play like that, they were destined to score, tie the game with a two-point conversion and win in overtime to complete the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history.
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
It is imperative the Steelers find a way to help Claypool mature and put these issues behind him. He is simply too good, and too important to what Pittsburgh does on offense, to allow him to become a cancer.
Part of this is on Claypool. At age 23, he is still a young player. But he’s played 27 career games now, which is enough to give him some idea of how to be a professional. One thing young players like Claypool do understand is their image and how they are perceived. Claypool was hammered in the media following the Minnesota game. The New York Post ran an article titled, “Chase Claypool’s boneheaded celebration crushed Steelers’ comeback hopes.” Pro Football Talk wrote “Claypool costs the Steelers precious seconds with late post-play celebration.” Other media outlets cited his lapse of judgment and called his actions “dumb.” Perhaps being lambasted nationally will resonate with Claypool.
As for his teammates, Roethlisberger told Brook Pryor of ESPN it wasn’t his job to deal with “player issues” like Claypool. Roethlisberger said, “To me, that goes up to Coach Tomlin. That’s what he needs to do. That’s his job as head coach.”
Indeed it is. How Tomlin handles the situation will be telling. He seems exasperated with Claypool at present. While taking away playing time could send a distinct message, it could also hinder the offense at a time when the Steelers desperately need wins. Tomlin will have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of such an approach.
Moving forward, the Steelers would be wise to bring in a veteran player to assist Claypool as well as Diontae Johnson, their other talented, young receiver. Neither has had the fortune of a mentor like Jerricho Cotchery or late-career Hines Ward to help them with the details of being a professional, whether that means how to practice, how to conduct themselves on the field, in the locker room or with their study habits. The Steelers have done their young receivers a disservice by not providing such a player. They would be wise to invest some cap space in one next season.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen if Claypool can pull himself together for the stretch run. If he can eliminate the self-absorbed behavior, the petty squabbles with opponents and the mental lapses that result in mistakes, and direct his focus instead towards developing better habits, he could be the catalyst for a playoff push these final four weeks. That’s a big “if,” however, and one both he and the Steelers will have to take to heart to achieve.