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How Week 1 reflected the Steelers’ updated usage of Chase Claypool

The third-year wideout received ample opportunity as a playmaker in a new yet familiar offensive spot.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium, the Steelers generated five turnovers from the Bengals, sacked Joe Burrow seven times, stifled several goal-line attempts and even blocked an extra point. Based on just those tidbits, you would imagine Mike Tomlin’s team cruised to victory to begin the 2022 season, but that was not the case.

Pittsburgh rallied to a 23-20 victory in overtime, staving off countless Cincy comeback attempts. A team that produces such historic organizational efforts should never be in this close of a game.

That is, any team with a semblance of an offense.

The Steelers posted 267 total yards, including 75 rushing, on Sunday; that includes 104 yards amassed between the start of the third quarter and before the game-winning drive, or 104 yards in 39 minutes of football. Per, the Steelers ranked 24th in overall EPA/play (-.117) and were 31st in offensive success rate (34.4%).

Matt Canada’s unit was not efficient nor effective, granting Burrow & Co. additional opportunities to inevitably roar back rather than seal a hard-earned victory.

In spite of such woes, however, one element of Pittsburgh’s offense stood out in a positive way. On Sunday, Canada made third-year receiver Chase Claypool a considerable focal point of his game plan.

Claypool received a career-high six carries, accumulating 36 rushing yards and a long run of 15 yards. In fact, according to Next Gen Stats, Claypool was the fastest ball-carrier in Week 1, reaching 21.46 MPH on an overtime run that went for 12 yards.

Since he entered the NFL, Claypool’s ability as a runner has been evident. With a special combination of size (6-foot-4) and speed (4.42 40), it’s imperative that the Steelers get the ball in Claypool’s hands with room to roam. The Notre Dame product has proven such carries are largely productive, totaling 4.9 yards per attempt thus far in his career. In fact, when Claypool receives two or more carries in a game, the Steelers are 7-1 — Pittsburgh should undoubtedly proliferate the trend for the rest of the year.

It’s not just allowing Claypool to navigate downhill and elude defenders, however. Once establishing the receiver as a running threat, Pittsburgh forces opposing defenses to clue in on sweeps/pitches. As such, that enables Canada to utilize Claypool in motion, on either play action or run fakes, to create greater traffic and confusion for defenders. That was the case in Week 1, as Claypool consistently ran behind Mitch Trubisky under center before inside zones or passing plays.

The Steelers re-established a role for Claypool we’ve seen and appreciated since his rookie campaign. Yet Sunday simultaneously introduced us to a newfound approach for implementing the big-body receiver.

According to PFF, Claypool was on the field for 41 pass plays — 39 of which came from the slot. The 95.1% of routes transpiring from the slot easily eclipsed Claypool’s previous high slot rate of 42.9% in 2020.

Claypool hauled in only four catches for 18 yards to open 2022, numbers which may be perceived as disappointing, yet which reflect a Pittsburgh offense that was lackluster and did little over the middle of the field. Regardless of actual production, Canada placing Claypool in the slot permits the WR to work against smaller cornerbacks and utilize his frame and hands to secure first downs within the MOF. On top of that, when the Steelers turn to three or four receivers, it enables Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, two tremendous route-runners and separators, to line up outside against boundary corners.

As mentioned earlier, it was far from a banner day from Canada’s unit on Sunday, leaving little about which to be excited aside from some encouraging play designs and an occasional deep pass. In spite of the team’s offensive output, Canada’s decision to use Claypool as both a runner/motion man and slot receiver elicit positive thoughts moving forward about the structure of the Steelers’ offense and playmaking chances for an uber-talented weapon.