Upon hearing this news, I was reminded of a moment from the Divisional round playoff game in January between the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, won 30-27 by Los Angeles on a last-second field goal. The winning kick was set up when quarterback Matthew Stafford hit receiver Cooper Kupp on a 50-yard pass play with less than 30 seconds remaining.
The throw to Kupp was what Stafford later described as a “love of the game” route. This meant that Kupp was not intended to be an option on the play. His route, a deep post, was designed to clear out the near safety so Stafford could hit a dig route breaking underneath him. Stafford called it a “love of the game” route because it required maximum effort on Kupp’s part to take the top off of the coverage even though he believed he was not getting the ball. He had to sprint for 40 yards to convince the safety he was trying to beat him deep so the safety would run with him. Otherwise, the safety would come off early to defend the dig.
On this play, however, the Bucs brought an all-out blitz. With the heat coming, Stafford knew he didn’t have time for the dig to develop. He also knew Kupp was one-on-one against Antoine Winfield, a matchup Kupp would win if he was running at full speed. Stafford trusted he would be, so he threw the ball up and let Kupp run under it. The rest is history. The Rams won the Super Bowl, and Kupp capped an incredible season by being named its MVP.
When we think back on the play of Pittsburgh’s receivers in 2021, it’s worth asking ourselves this question: would Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson have run all-out on Kupp’s route without the expectation they would be thrown the football? Would they have done so for the “love of the game?”
The Steelers parted ways with Hilliard because his unit under-achieved. It was an inability to get them to make plays like Kupp’s, however, that hinted at something more than stalled production. Pittsburgh’s receivers too often lacked focus, effort and awareness. These shortcomings, as much as production itself, are likely responsible for Hilliard not being retained.
His was a unit that had shown promise in 2020. Despite struggling with bouts of dropped passes, they demonstrated explosiveness and play-making ability. They were raw but young, with their top four receivers — Claypool, Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington — all high draft picks under the age of 25. It seemed logical to expect big things from them in 2021.
Those “big things” never materialized. Smith-Schuster was lost for most of the season with an injury. The other three put up similar numbers to their 2020 production – 190/2306/12 TDs in 2021 versus 180/2188/21 TDs in 2020 – but their play did not evolve. The flaws that had drawn concern in 2020 persisted.
Johnson continued to drop the football, especially late in the season in crucial games. He also led all NFL receivers in the dubious statistic of most pre-snap penalties (7). Both issues suggest a lack of focus.
Claypool’s immaturity and lack of situational awareness captured more headlines than did his production. His route tree was trimmed to the point that by season’s end he was running little more than receiver screens and jump balls. His touchdown production plummeted as a result, from nine in 2020 to just two this past season.
As for Washington, he became persona non grata. There were times he saw the field so little I forgot he was on the team. When he did play, he showed a penchant for making difficult catches. It was the ordinary stuff he failed to master. In the end, he played the fewest snaps of his four-year career.
The stagnant production of the group was not solely on the players, nor on Hilliard. Poor offensive line play reduced the passing game to a Pop Warner attack. Ben Roethlisberger’s decline limited opportunities as well. Under different circumstances, it’s likely their statistics, and the passing game in general, would have improved.
But statistics don’t tell the entire story. The shortcomings of the unit were defined by two characteristics unrelated to physical ability. First, the receivers did not block well. Blocking is one of the most selfless things a receiver can do. It demonstrates a willingness to perform tasks that do not show up in the statistics or earn a highlight on Sports Center. But it often determines the difference between success and failure.
For a team that professed a desire to run the football, Pittsburgh’s receivers blocked with the enthusiasm of a teenager pulling weeds in the yard. Watch Johnson here, to the top of the screen, in the season finale at Baltimore. He has a “push-crack” rule on the safety. This means he will push three steps up the field like he’s releasing vertically, then come inside to block (“crack”) the safety. If the safety creeps into the box, he should ignore the three-step release and come inside immediately.
The safety does creep down here, but Johnson shows no sense of urgency in attempting to block him. It’s a tough block, given the angle required to cut off the safety. But it’s one a willing blocker should execute:
Sometimes, technique was more of the problem than effort. Here, Claypool (top left of the formation), also must block the safety. He’s in a better position than was Johnson, given his reduced alignment and the fact the safety is just off his inside shoulder. Claypool fails to step flat, though, then lunges at the safety with all of his weight forward. It’s more of a push than a block, and the safety plays off easily to assist on the tackle:
On this play, Claypool (top left) is asked to down-block the edge-player on a counter-sweep. The edge is an outside linebacker, no easy block for Claypool, but at 6’4-235 he should be physically capable. Poor technique dooms him again, though. He does not square up on the block and again lunges. The edge plays through him easily as a result:
If the Steelers are going to use receivers this aggressively in the run game, their technique and desire must improve.
The other area where the receivers struggled this past season was with coverage-recognition and route adjustments. As with their blocking, this was not about ability. It was about practice habits, film study and focus. I can’t vouch for the mental makeup of Pittsburgh’s receivers, but these types of mistakes suggest a group that concentrated too little on detail. Far too often, they were not on the same page as their quarterback. Roethlisberger grew increasingly frustrated with these mental errors. As the season progressed, his frustration began to show.
The boiling point occurred in the Ravens’ game in early December. Claypool, seen at the top of the screen in the GIF below, missed a “hot” check on an all-out pressure, causing Roethlisberger to force a ball into traffic that was nearly intercepted:
When Roethlisberger came to the sideline after the play, he unloaded. At first glance, it seemed he was venting to Hilliard about Claypool’s error. In retrospect, perhaps Roethlisberger was venting at Hilliard. After all, the responsibility for having players prepared falls to their position coach. Roethlisberger cannot be faulted if he was blaming Hilliard, given how frequently these mistakes occurred.
In Hilliard’s place, we now have Frisman Jackson. Jackson’s background includes several college stops, including one at N.C. State with Matt Canada, and four jobs in the NFL. In addition to being the receivers coach in Carolina, he held the title of passing game coordinator, too.
Jackson’s association with Canada may have helped him land the job here. Former Wolfpack assistant Eddie Faulkner is on staff as well. While Canada isn’t exactly putting the N.C. State band back together, that squad did average 30 points per game, and dropped 41 on top-ranked Florida State. Canada may feel comfortable with coaches with whom he has had past success to help implement his scheme in Pittsburgh.
The other interesting aspect of the Jackson hire is the fact he held the title of passing game coordinator in Carolina. Carolina’s passing statistics were not great last season. They finished 29th in yards per game and were last in combined passer rating. Then again, the Panthers were quarterbacked by Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker. It’s hard to judge Jackson harshly given the group with which he was saddled.
Pittsburgh’s passing game wasn’t much better. It will be interesting to see if Canada leans on Jackson for assistance with the scheme. The two-heads-are-better-than-one approach helped the defense in 2019 when Teryl Austin was brought in to assist Keith Butler. For Pittsburgh's sake, let’s hope the same is true with the offense.
This is all speculation, of course. What we do know is that Jackson will be tasked with helping develop the stalled progress of the receiving corps. That corps will include some new faces in 2022. With Washington and Smith-Schuster both unlikely to return, the Steelers will have to address the position in free agency and/or the draft. The mainstays, though, will again be Johnson and Claypool, both of whom are talented, but flawed.
Ideally, Jackson will have the same effect on them as he did on D.J. Moore in Carolina. Moore flourished under Jackson’s guidance, netting 2,350 receiving yards the past two seasons despite poor quarterback play. Jackson helped turn Moore into a bigger version of Steve Smith. He became a tough receiver who ran good routes, blocked hard and gave great effort. Moore’s production, as shown by the tweet below, was tremendous in relation to his opportunities. He is a good model for the development of Pittsburgh’s young receivers.
The Carolina #Panthers DJ Moore did the most with less and produced with the highest catch rate per the targets he got per Next Gen Stats and was the 2nd most accurate to #Bears Allen Robinson. #KeepPounding #NFL #NFLRumors pic.twitter.com/EwW5Wmry2I— NFL Rumors (@nflrums) July 8, 2021
In the end, no matter why Jackson was hired, or what role he plays, his immediate challenge is to build a receiving corps that is tougher, both mentally and physically, than the one Hilliard left behind. The unit’s success will certainly be measured in traditional statistics like catches, yards and touchdowns. But the intangibles — blocking, focusing on the details, doing those “love of the game” things that don’t show up in the box score — will be just as important. That, inevitably, may be the criteria upon which Jackson is judged.