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Steelers Vertex: Success passing the ball to the left of the formation in 2020

Breaking down the success of both short and long passes to the left side of the offensive formation last season.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Denver Broncos Set Number: X163366 TK1

As the Pittsburgh Steelers approach 2021 training camp, we are going to spend the next several weeks breaking down various aspects of the Steelers passing game in 2020. Next up this week is looking at passes thrown to the left of the offensive formation and the Steelers’ tendencies they will hopefully overcome in 2021.

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:

Once, I’m going to give the same disclaimer as last time. Although they don’t explicitly say it, I’m assuming the cutoff for whether it is a short pass or a long pass is the receiver being 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The two sources for information in regards to the stats included are coming from NFLGSIS and Pro Football Reference. Their stats are extremely close as it is sometimes a fine line between whether or not the pass was thrown to the left or to the middle of the field. For this next exercise, we are looking at the statistics and the film of passes thrown to the left side of the formation as both short and long passes. This also is only including regular-season data.

Although the Steelers were ranked poorly across the NFL when it came to their passes to the right side of the formation, the left side is a completely different story. The Steelers threw 36 passes to the deep left in 2020 which ranked them 19th in the NFL, but their completion percentage of 50.0% and average gain of 15.28 yards per pass had them ranked 7th and 5th in the league respectively.

The Steelers scored only two touchdowns when throwing the ball to the deep left. As for who caught these passes, The first was an 84-yard touchdown to Chase Claypool against the Denver Broncos with the other being a 25-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster against the Colts. Both passes were thrown by Ben Roethlisberger as he was 16 of 32 for 458 yards and no interceptions to go along with the two touchdowns one passing to the deep left on the season. Mason Rudolph was also 2 for 4 with 88 yards of passing and no interceptions to the deep left.

When it comes to the receivers, Chase Claypool had the most yards on passes to the deep left with 161, but only had three receptions on nine targets. Diontae Johnson was targeted the most as he had five receptions on 10 targets for 158 yards. Eric Ebron was close in targets as he had nine just like Claypool but had five catches for 106 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught every ball thrown to him deep on the left side of the formation as he had four receptions on four targets for 94 yards. To round out the receiving stats, James Washington had one reception on four targets for 27 yards.

When it came to short passes on the left side of the formation, the Steelers threw 208 passes which ranked 4th in the NFL. In the short passing category, the Steelers threw more passes to the left than they did to either the middle or the right. As for the Steelers completion percentage on passes to the short left, they completed 78.44% of the passes ranking 9th in the NFL. They gained 6.74 yards per attempt which was 6th in the league.

The Steelers scored 10 touchdowns on passes to the short left side of the formation. Of the touchdowns, three went to JuJu Smith-Schuster while two apiece went to Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Eric Ebron. James Washington added one touchdown. The Steelers targeted 12 players to the short left of the formation. Other than Kevin Rader being 0 for 1, the lowest catch percentage belonged to Diontae Johnson with 35 receptions on a team-high 54 targets for a 64.8% catching percentage. James Washington is the next lowest percentage at 10 receptions on 15 targets for a 66.7% catch rate. Other than those three players, all other receivers had at least a 75% catch rate on balls thrown to the left that were fewer than 15 yards downfield.

As for the quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger completed 145 of 193 passes to the short right for a completion percentage of 75.1% with 1,253 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Mason Rudolph completed 10 of 15 passes for a 66.7% completion rate and 106 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.

When passing to the left side of the formation, the Steelers had much more success than passing to the right. Is there a specific reason for this? Let’s see if the film gives any indication.

The Film Line:

One of the points I tried to make in our vertex covering passing to the right side was the right side of the offense being where the Steelers put their slot receiver. The left side is more likely to have a big gap between the outside receiver and the next receiver. That space makes it harder to give the corner help, and the Steelers love to attack that space. Antonio Brown was the Steelers X receiver and used his incredible change of direction and elite route running to dominate 1v1 coverage, forcing teams to pull defenders from the rest of the field to help cover Brown. Antonio Brown is no longer a Steeler, but the Steelers have a few players who have shined in that role.

Week 1, third quarter, 1:36. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The left side of the field is the shorter side, or boundary side of the field (the ball is on the left hashmark). The Steelers, in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), put Johnson all alone on the left side. You can see how the Giants deep safety is moving to help the side with three receivers, leaving Johnson in a 1v1 matchup, and Johnson uses his change of direction to win the route and create yards after the catch.

Week 5, second quarter, 11:57. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This was a devastating route combo early in the season, and a major reason the Titans started dropping linebackers into the hook zones by the X receiver on almost every snap in Week 7. With Eric Ebron in-line at tight end, Claypool still has a lot of space to work with at the X receiver. With a single high safety, the corner can’t get beat outside, and a quick fake to the outside has Claypool driving upfield while Ebron’s out route pulls the linebacker out of the way of the throw. The space Claypool has at the catch point gives him time to see and avoid the tackle from the safety and the Steelers get a touchdown.

Week 5, third quarter, 15:00. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Eagles aren’t going to get beat like that twice, so they start the second half running 2 deep safeties, and to Claypool’s side, you can see the safety preparing to jump an inside route while the outside corner is dropping deep. Any in-breaking route is going to be covered by the safety, while anything outside or vertical is the cornerback’s. The Steelers are a step ahead and use that cushion to get a quick 5 yards on first down.

If you’ve seen the Steelers pattern matching coverages, you know how defenses can defend this much better if there are more receivers and less open space, it’s much harder to switch responsibilities when there is more distance between the receivers.

Week 7, second quarter, 1:03. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

First watch the edge to the top of the screen, look at his drop. The Titans rush the middle linebacker but make sure there is a defender watching that slant route as the middle linebacker shuffles to the other side. The Titans, by the end of the first half, were watching for those routes. Meanwhile Diontae Johnson takes advantage of a big cushion to pick up 6 yards on 2nd and 8. Again, you’ve seen Mike Hilton read a pass like this to the outside receiver and attack it from his nickel spot. With only the outside corner to Johnson’s side, there are fewer defenders to be concerned with, the outside corner gives a cushion, and the quick pass is there.

Of course, you can always just play tight coverage and take away those quick throws.

Week 11, second quarter, 15:00. Diontae Johnson is the receiver.

With less deep help to his side and a tight coverage start, the corner has to turn and run with Johnson, and can’t afford to trail him. That sets up this catch. Johnson runs into the body of the corner, shedding him and creating space for the catch. While there were far fewer deep shots to the left than the right as Dave mentioned above, they connected far more often on them, and it is precisely because the short routes are harder to defend with more space, and when a defender over-commits to defending the shorter passes, you burn them deep.

Both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool excelled in the X receiver role, and that shows up in their left/right splits. Johnson averaged 7.89 yards per target to the left side, and 5.41 yards per target to the right. Claypool posted an even bigger gap with a 5.61 yards per target to the right but an incredible 12 yards per target to the left side. JuJu Smith-Schuster also posted much higher yards per target to the left, a lot of that on routes coming across the formation underneath, while Claypool or Johnson pulled defenders deep.

With two players that are at their best playing the X receiver spot, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers split time at that spot between their two young receivers in 2021.

The Point:

Although the stats only break it down as right, left, or middle, the film ultimately shows how the Steelers were much more successful attacking defenses from the single-receiver side. While this side is generally the left side of the formation, it’s not always the case. And of course, different formations can throw things off as well as there may not even be a side with only one receiver. The biggest takeaway of all might be pointing out how the Steelers have a multiple receivers, such as Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, they can use to successfully attack the single-receiver side of the formation.