Most Steelers fans who watched the team’s final preseason game at Carolina on Friday night came to the same conclusion: the team stunk, and it’s time to put the varsity on the field.
Among those who were widely criticized for their play was quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Haskins was tapped to run the offense for the entire first half in what some pundits billed as an opportunity to pry the backup job away from Mason Rudolph. By most accounts, Haskins squandered that chance. In five first-half drives, the offense produced 56 total yards, 3 first downs and more turnovers (1) than points (0). Haskins went 3-9 for 24 yards, fumbled a shotgun snap from center and threw an awful interception.
While the results were certainly ugly, a more critical inspection reveals that Haskins didn’t play nearly as poorly as the numbers suggest. Mistakes from his teammates, particularly his receivers, torpedoed much of the offense. Haskins certainly bears some of the blame, but the narrative about his performance would be much different had his teammates backed him up.
For a closer look at what transpired, let’s go to the film.
The Steelers received the opening kickoff. A run on 1st down picked up a yard. Then, on 2nd and 9, they had Haskins execute a sprint-out concept to his right. Specifically, they ran “Smash,” a high-low route to the boundary. It was a nice call by coordinator Matt Canada for a few reasons. It got Haskins on the move, where he is often more comfortable than he is standing in the pocket; and it gave him a simple half-field read which minimized the thinking in his progression.
Unfortunately, the play was poorly executed. Here it is in full before we break it down:
The problem began with the blocking. Right tackle Dan Moore Jr. and tight end Eric Ebron had a double team on Carolina’s edge defender. Their job was to flatten the edge by preventing penetration. This would provide Haskins a clear view of the routes as they developed and would allow him to square his shoulders towards the line of scrimmage as he threw. But, as you can see in the image below, Moore and Ebron failed in their assignment, forcing Haskins to pull up and throw prematurely:
The second problem occurred when receiver Chase Claypool failed to work back to the sideline out of his break. In the NFL, receivers rarely get open simply by running past defenders. The greatest separation they create is often in the space between the break point and the catch point. This is where they have the biggest advantage over the defender. The receiver knows where he’s going, the defender does not. Therefore, if the receiver bursts out of his break, he can gain ground as the defender is forced to react.
Unfortunately, Claypool did not work away from the defender. He just pivoted and stopped. Had he worked back, Haskins could have taken him more towards the sideline with the football. While Haskins missed slightly inside on the throw (likely a product of having to pull up too soon on his sprint-out), the coverage was tighter than it should have been because of the way Claypool stalled out of the break:
Pittsburgh’s second drive was hamstrung by a similarly subtle error. Canada began with another seemingly easy throw for Haskins. It was a timing route to the wide side of the field to receiver James Washington. With Carolina showing soft corners, a quick hitch should have been an easy pitch and catch. The throw fell incomplete, however, on what seemed like a bad ball from Haskins:
I can practically hear the howling from living rooms throughout Steeler Nation: “Come on, Haskins, make the throw!” However, while I cannot swear I know this to be true, my reading of this play puts the onus for the incompletion on Washington. Here’s why.
Most hitches are four-step routes. That’s exactly what Washington ran — a four-step hitch with the break at seven yards. However, because the Panthers gave a pre-snap blitz look, an adjustment was necessary. This route needed to be shorter to compensate for the fact Haskins had to release his throw quickly. Watch how Haskins caught the snap, pivoted and threw. There was no drop. This tells me he made a sight adjustment to the blitz. Washington did not. He ran his normal hitch at seven yards. So, while the throw from Haskins came in short and behind Washington, and while many fans probably blamed Haskins for the resulting incompletion, Haskins was throwing to where Washington should have been. Washington’s failure to adjust was likely the real culprit.
While Haskins could be absolved for the shortcomings of the offense on the first two drives, the mistake he made on the third was inexcusable. On 1st down, Canada dialed up a play-action bootleg that had Derek Watt, who aligned as an H-back on the left side of the formation, sneak behind the line before flashing out into the right flat. He was wide open for what should have been a positive play to start the drive. Haskins simply had to dump him the football. Instead, this happened:
Haskins failed to square up and had to throw across his body. He missed high and inside. It was a throw that underscored everything Steelers’ fans fear about Haskins: too inaccurate, too erratic, not fundamentally sound.
Fortunately, the defense bailed Haskins out and Carolina, despite great field position, missed a field goal. The Steelers took over and, on 2nd down, Haskins did this:
Much of the intrigue around Haskins involves his ability to make plays like this one. This is a play neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Mason Rudolph can make at present (Note: please don’t write in the comments that I’m suggesting Haskins is better than Roethlisberger. I am not. I’m simply saying he possesses an ability to make plays out of the pocket that exceeds Roethlisberger’s at this point). While Haskins will need to improve his ability as a pocket passer to be considered a viable starting candidate, his improvisational skills are significant.
Unfortunately, his teammates let him down again a few plays later. Scrambling out of the pocket on 3rd and 12, Haskins set his feet and threw a laser into the chest of receiver Ray Ray McCloud at the Carolina 23 yard line. McCloud dropped it.
From this angle, you can see that the throw had great velocity but was also accurate. It hit McCloud in a perfect spot despite a small window and the presence of four Carolina defenders. Once again, a drive was derailed with a mistake from a receiver.
After a muffed punt from returner Matthew Sexton led to a Carolina touchdown, the Steelers took possession again. On 1st down, Haskins seemed to jump-start things with a beautiful throw up the left sideline that hit McCloud in stride. McCloud lost track of the boundary, however, and his toe hit the chalk as he came down on his second step for an incompletion:
This was a big-boy throw from Haskins that could have generated some momentum for the offense. The Steelers did manage to overcome McCloud’s error and moved the ball across midfield. But the mistakes resumed. On a 1st and 10 from the Carolina 47, Haskins was forced to scramble out of the pocket for a short gain when a blitzer (#43) came unblocked off of the left edge:
Running back Benny Snell Jr. appears to have recognized the blitz late and failed to pick it up off of his play-fake. Haskins saw it immediately, however. You can see how quickly he was prepared to get the ball to his hot receiver, tight end Zach Gentry, who is circled in the image below. But Gentry didn’t see the blitz either and was late turning his head to locate the ball. With no time to look elsewhere, Haskins had to bail. He shrugged off the blitzer then reversed field, doing a nice job of making two yards out of a play that should have been a sack.
This drive came to an end two plays later when, on 3rd and 9, Haskins had to scramble again when left tackle Chuks Okorafor got beat in pass protection. His throw fell incomplete and Carolina went on a long drive to essentially close out the half. A frustrating evening for Haskins appeared to be over.
In the 4th quarter, however, Josh Dobbs, who succeeded Haskins at QB, sustained a toe injury that forced Haskins to re-enter the game. Haskins led the Steelers on their only touchdown drive of the night, taking them 75 yards in 6 plays while executing a no-huddle tempo. The score itself, which came against players who are unlikely to make Carolina’s final roster, was insignificant. It spoke well of Haskins, though, as he was able to re-focus, make the necessary mental adjustment and take the team down the field.
I’m no Haskins apologist. I recognize his limitations and his need for development. You can see it in the simplicity of the route concepts Canada ran for him. Half-field and underneath reads, mostly. Not much in the way of structured downfield throws. He is moving Haskins along slowly.
As things currently stand, it seems valid that Mason Rudolph should remain the backup to Roethlisberger. Rudolph is the safer pick. That said, Haskins is an intriguing talent and a great fit for a Canada offense. Between he and Rudolph, I believe Haskins has the higher ceiling. Nothing I saw from him against Carolina persuaded me otherwise. Yes, I saw him make a terrible throw that resulted in an interception. Yes, I saw him struggle with some reads when he was in the pocket. Mostly, though, I saw him make sound adjustments, scramble effectively and put the football on the money. I loved how he bounced back from his interception to make some of his best throws of the night. And I loved his attitude when he re-entered the game in the 4th quarter. He could have sulked at having to mop up. Instead, he used the reps to get better. That’s a sign of a player who is maturing.
How different might things have gone had his receivers executed their responsibilities correctly, or had there been any sort of a run game to keep the offense on schedule (7 of their 9 runs in the first half went for 3 yards or less), or had the line provided better protection and allowed Haskins to breathe? These are fair questions and should factor into our evaluation.
We still haven’t seen Haskins play behind Pittsburgh’s best talent. Until we do, I’m unwilling the write off the young man. I think he has great potential. I don’t know if he’ll realize it or not. But, at some point, I’d like to see the Steelers give him an honest chance to try.