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The Steelers re-signing Ray-Ray McCloud is about more than filling a special teams need

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Ray-Ray McCloud to a one-year contract, and this might have more of an impact on offense than some might believe.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Steelers resigned Ray-Ray McCloud earlier this week. McCloud was an effective return man last season, finishing fourth in the league in punt return average (10.6) and ninth in kick returns (23.1). He added 142 total yards on 24 touches on offense, primarily as a slot receiver. While his signing is not likely to be a game-changer, it does solidify the return-man role. It could, however, turn out to be more, as McCloud’s versatility may be useful in the revamped offense new coordinator Matt Canada is likely to unveil come September.

McCloud was a niche player on offense last season, logging 165 snaps primarily from five-receiver packages. His role was limited, though, and by mid-season defenses knew what to expect when he was on the field. McCloud accumulated just seven total yards over the final six games.

Here is how then-offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner utilized McCloud. This is his signature play from 2020, a reverse against Philadelphia that went for 58 yards. The Steelers faked a counter play to James Conner then had Ben Roethlisberger toss the ball to McCloud coming around from the top of the formation. McCloud got a good block from Vance McDonald, who bluffed a pull before returning to kick out the corner. It was a nice play design (likely a Canada scheme) that took advantage of McCloud’s open-field ability.

Beyond that, McCloud was limited to a bunch of quick screens like the one below, where the Steelers tried to get him the ball in space where he could use his athleticism to make defenders miss:

These types of plays produced only moderate success. McCloud caught 20 passes for 72 yards, an average of less than four yards per catch. This one failed because the Steelers were out-numbered on the perimeter, with just two blockers to account for three defenders. McCloud, in limited space, could not shake the unblocked player.

McCloud was, on rare occasions, deployed as a split end. Here, in that Philadelphia game, he drew a pass interference penalty on a “Go” route against the corner. He’s not a great route-runner but his quickness off the ball and vertical speed can cause problems for defenders:

Now that Canada has taken over the offense, McCloud’s role may expand. I wrote recently about how Canada loves having a versatile athlete to play in the slot. While speculating on potential draft picks who could fill that role, I mentioned McCloud as an in-house candidate.

McCloud is very similar to Quadree Henderson, who was a jack-of-all-trades in Canada’s offense at Pitt in 2016. Henderson carried the ball 60 times for 631 yards (an astounding 10.5 yards per carry) and caught 26 passes for 286 yards that season. Henderson and McCloud are both listed at 5’9-190 and are similarly quick. While McCloud is unlikely to touch the ball as often as did Henderson, especially as a rusher, he could be used similarly as a motion, change-of-pace and constraint player.

Here are some examples of Henderson’s role under Canada at Pitt. This is a reverse similar to the one we saw McCloud hit for a chunk play against the Eagles. Rather than fake the counter action, Pitt ran it off of their split-zone concept. On split-zone, the H-back kicks out the back-side end. Here, he bypassed the end to become the lead blocker on the perimeter. It’s the same basic idea as the counter-reverse: get the defense flowing to stop a core play and then exploit their aggression with misdirection:

Below is jet sweep, a Canada staple. The Steelers did not use McCloud much on jet sweep last season, preferring to run it with Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson. This, I believe, is because Fichtner liked it from compressed formations as a short-yardage/goal line concept where he knew a defense would be packed in tightly to defend the inside run. McCloud was rarely a part of those packages. Canada ran jet sweep at Pitt from a variety of looks, handing the ball to Henderson out of the slot, the flanker position and, as we see here, an unbalanced formation (the tight end to the top of the screen is covered up by a receiver just out of the frame).

The interesting thing about Canada’s jet sweep was how he had the ball-carrier read the block on the edge player rather than simply run to the perimeter. In the GIF above, Penn State did not set a hard edge, which alerted Henderson to take the ball outside. In the play below, Oklahoma State forced a quicker cut up the field, which Henderson executed seamlessly:

These jet sweep GIFs show how the runner must make fast decisions and adjustments in order to recognize how the play is being blocked and where to find his cut. Having a ball-carrier with the quickness of Henderson or McCloud is necessary, then, since decisions and reactions must be made immediately.

(Canada ran other types of jet sweeps, too, some involving fullbacks and tight ends. I would expect to see Claypool or even Derek Watt and Eric Ebron involved on these concepts, especially near the goal line).

Much of the jet motion Canada used at Pitt was simply window-dressing to attract the eyes of defenders and to slow them down so he could run the football inside. Once a defense realized as much, they might start ignoring the motion and playing more aggressively. Canada had adjustments for that as well, such as the flea-flicker below. Here he brought Henderson in motion, handed the ball off and then had the back return it to the QB, who tossed it to a wide-open Henderson running a wheel route:

Canada’s creativity is evident in the way he so often anticipated how defenses would react to core elements of his offense and then built in multiple counter moves to take advantage. The jet motion, for example, is a tactic to protect his desire to run the football between the tackles. The jet sweep is an adjustment to a defense that loads the box to stop those inside runs. And the flea-flicker is a further adjustment to punish a defense that ignores the jet man as a potential vertical threat. A versatile slot player who can execute each of these roles stresses a defense by making them defend the entire field. This slows a defense down, which is something the Steelers, who so often were predictable by formation and alignment, rarely did under Fichtner.

Defensive coordinators are pretty smart, however, so the real value in all of this is having a slot player who can do more than just motion and run constraint plays. If he can participate in the base offense as well, it eliminates tendencies and makes the motions and gadgets more effective. That’s where the Steelers came up short with McCloud last season. His role was predictable, providing defenses a template on which to focus.

It’s possible, of course, that McCloud was simply not a complete enough receiver to do these things, and that the offense Ben Roethlisberger wanted to run, with its route-checks and site-adjustments, was beyond him. Henderson was not a complete receiver, either, but Canada was able to get him to execute well-enough in a traditional role, like we see below with him running a solid corner route, to protect his other uses. The degree to which McCloud can participate in the base offense may determine his effectiveness in the other roles highlighted here.

McCloud is no superstar. He isn’t going to morph into Tyreek Hill just because Matt Canada is running the offense. He does, however, represent a type of player Canada desires. I’m sure Canada would prefer a guy like Hill in this role. So would every other coordinator in the league. He might even prefer Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who, with his ability to catch the football and his training as a running back, would be a true jack-of-all-trades (the Steelers sent Canada, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert to Clemson’s Pro Day on Thursday, so stay tuned). For now, though, McCloud may be more valuable than it appears. His return skills alone make his signing a solid one. But his ability to develop on offense in Canada’s system could make it a steal.