Chase Claypool had a phenomenal rookie year in 2020, His 62 receptions rank first among Steeler rookies, his 873 receiving yards second only to JuJu Smith-Schuster and his eleven touchdowns scored tied for first with Louis Lipps.
His best game came in week 5, when following the bye week he exploded for his first 100 yard game while scoring 4 TDs. He wouldn’t record 100 yards again with Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback. But that October afternoon at Heinz Field, Chase Claypool showed the ability to be a great receiver.
3rd quarter, 13:04. Chase Claypool is the receiver at the back of the bunch to the top of the screen.
Chase Claypool showed a nose for the end zone as a rookie. He has good vision with the ball and finds a way to get the yards the team needs for a score or a first down. This made him a real threat on the jet sweeps the Steelers ran frequently early in the season.
1st quarter, 1:07. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
That’s a nice cut into the end zone, slipping through the defense. Chase Claypool is a natural football player, he sees lanes and attacks them.
Against Philadelphia Chase Claypool was involved in the run game early, with two jet sweep runs in the first quarter, one to convert a 3rd and 2, and the above touchdown.
With Claypool establishing his ability to make plays on jet sweeps, the Eagles had to take that motion seriously, and that opened up bigger plays.
2nd quarter, 13:47. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Watch the safeties, at the motion the strong safety drops deep and motions his partner forward. The safeties and one linebacker moving because of the sweep open a huge run lane for James Conner and he takes it for 25 yards. Opposing defenses were still respecting the deep ball at this point. When teams figured out the sweep was more of a threat than deep passes, they started keeping both safeties closer and both the jet sweep and the runs off of them were far less effective.
With Matt Canada taking over the offense, the Steelers will hopefully be able to bring back this threat and make teams pay when they cheat up. Because the offense was much more effective when the motions were real threats, and not just window dressing on the same old plays.
1st quarter, 6:48. Chase Claypool is the third receiver from the bottom.
Look at how fast Ben Roethlisberger gets this pass off. Catch the snap, one step and throw. The key to this route is timing from the quarterback and having a receiver you can trust to use his body to protect the ball. Claypool consistently squares up to the pass, putting his frame between his defender and the ball. A quick 7 yards like this is a huge problem for a defense, and it forces the cornerbacks to play Claypool tighter.
4th quarter, 8:50. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Here Claypool is outside in the X receiver role, outside Eric Ebron. That matchup, with Ebron in-line at tight end and Claypool out by himself in space was Claypool’s most effective position, and where I would like to see him line up primarily in the future. That much space puts his defender in more of a 1v1 situation, as there aren’t other offensive players putting defenders nearby to help.
Chase Claypool wins those 1v1s a lot.
He eats up the cushion to get into contact with the defender, beats him with his hands, keeps his body between the defender and the pass and secures the catch through contact. Chase Claypool is the kind of receiver you can rely on to win a 1v1 and get you the yards you need to keep a drive going.
He doesn’t have to make contact to create separation, his releases off the line are very good.
2nd quarter, 11:56. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Similar to the last play, Ebron runs a quick out, pulling the linebacker out of the passing lane for Claypool’s slant. you can see the head fake to the outside that wins Claypool the inside route, and his running with the ball shows up again and it’s another touchdown for the rookie.
Slants and posts from the X receiver spot were Claypool’s best weapon in 2020, and it led to teams camping defenders in the hook zones even when they were in man defense to take away these routes. This play specifically reminds me of Calvin Johnson, who was deadlier on slants than probably any other receiver in NFL history.
Like Johnson, Claypool is never going to have elite change of direction, there’s too much mass changing direction for him to cut hard at high speeds, but he has several ways he creates space, with his physicality and hand fighting, his releases, and the threat of his speed.
3rd quarter, 15:00. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
That’s not the sharpest of cuts, and Claypool isn’t going to be a receiver that makes sharp out cuts, but with the corner 8 yards off and backing up, it doesn’t have to be. Playing tight coverage on Chase Claypool lets him beat defenders with his physicality and releases, backing off just opens up more routes for him.
And that leads us to the last part of the film room, and the biggest question mark in Chase Claypool’s game, his deep routes.
3rd quarter, 14:25. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
This is on Ben Roethlisberger. The defensive back is trailing Claypool, there’s no reason to throw the back shoulder here, the defensive back is positioned to play that ball. A lot of Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool’s limited success on deep throws is on the rookie receiver, but the quarterback wasn’t completely innocent in their struggles to make the deep ball a big threat.
3rd quarter, 2:55. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Ben Roethlisberger nails this one. That’s a perfect ball for this route, and it would have been a big gain if Claypool’s foot hadn’t come down on the defenders leg instead of the grass. For his part Claypool did a great job setting up this route, using his space to the sideline really well.
4th quarter, 7:15. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
That’s when you throw back shoulder, when the cornerback is trying to stay right on Claypool’s hip and drive him into the sideline. This one was called offensive pass interference, and it was a terrible call.
Officially these three plays are two incomplete passes and a 10 yard penalty on a no-play. But the film shows how close Roethlisberger and Claypool were to a much bigger day than Claypool’s already incredible week 5 stat line.
For various reasons Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool never got the deep ball really going. On passes thrown fewer than 15 yards downfield, Chase Claypool caught 71.2% of his targets, recording 504 yards and 5 TDs. His 6.9 yards per target on those short routes led the team, and was more than a yard better than Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
While Chase Claypool led the team in deep pass yardage, his 27.8% catch rate was the worst on the team, and he was 4th in yards per target on deep balls because of it.
There is hope. Chase Claypool showed the traits to be a really good deep threat, he just needs to get on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger. In week 17, with Mason Rudolph starting, Claypool had his second 100 yard game, and caught 2 of 5 deep passes form Mason Rudolph. That’s where Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger were in 2009, when Wallace was a rookie speedster. In Wallace’s second season his catch rate jumped 19% to above 60%. A similar jump for Claypool would put him above 40%, and would be a big boost to both his game and the Steelers offense.
If Claypool can become a reliable deep threat with Ben Roethlisberger, it will stress defenses more, and force help to Claypool when they line him up outside in space, and that creates numbers advantages across the rest of the field, similar to what Antonio Brown did. The amount of impact a true number one receiver has on an offense cannot be overstated. Chase Claypool has the ability, he just needs to get on the same page as his quarterback and start turning near misses into big plays.