Universities noted for football have earned certain monikers through the years, such as Penn State formerly calling themselves “Linebacker University,” reflecting the large group of outstanding linebackers who have played for the Nittany Lions before moving on to make it big in the NFL.
In the same vein, the Pittsburgh Steelers might call themselves the “Wide Receiver Factory” of the NFL. You’d be hard pressed to find a team that not only drafts ridiculously well at the wide receiver position, but also takes mid-to-late-round picks and turns them into playmakers for the team.
We’ve seen it with Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers, but there’s a new name to add to the group — Demarcus Ayers. After being drafted in the 7th round out of the University of Houston, Ayers was tabbed as a special teams player who lacked the explosion to be considered a true threat as a wide receiver.
To be honest, he still has a long way to go before he’s going to crack the lineup with any regularity, but he’s well on his way to dispelling a lot of those labels as he finally gets his shot to make plays.
Ayers played in 66 snaps (93-percent) in the Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field, a career high for him, and that was due to the absence of Antonio Brown. Nonetheless, Ayers made the most of his opportunity, and we’re going to highlight his performance in the plays below:
4th quarter 14:57 left. 2nd and 10. Jones pass short middle to D. Ayers for 15 yards
Ayers might not have elite speed, but neither did Antonio Brown coming out of college. What he and Brown both have in common is how they play in space. As a punt returner, you make a living off of making at least one defender miss, and Ayers shows that capability on this play.
Out of the shotgun formation, Todd Haley dialed up one of his many crossing-routes over the middle of the field. With protection, these routes almost have the look of extended “rub routes” where the crossing defenders can get in each other’s way, or create miscommunication.
Either way, you see Ayers getting a free release off the line of scrimmage and, when the ball is delivered, it’s one-on-one in the open field. Ayers has the great ability, like most punt returners, to be able to judge exactly how committed a defender is on his specific angle. When Ayers sees him over-commit, he puts his foot in the ground and makes him miss. He adds to this by making the second would-be tackler miss before being taken down for a 15-yard gain.
4th quarter 5:24 left. 3rd and 10. Jones pass short right to D. Ayers for an 11 yard TD
Here are those crossing routes again, only this time Ayers is moving from left to right instead of the right-to-left pattern he ran in the previous play. On both plays Eli Rogers is lined up opposite to Ayers and he’s running the underneath drag-route to interfere with Ayers’ defender. It isn’t a pick play, but it causes separation and, on this play, the result is Ayers’ first touchdown of his career.
Notice the formation used. In the second half, the Steelers started to deploy four potential receiving options to help slow down the Browns’ pass rush. The Browns couldn’t send “the house” while trying to cover four receivers in the back end, and Pittsburgh’s protection held up well enough to allow Landry Jones to pick apart the Cleveland secondary. This wouldn’t be a bad strategy to deploy in the AFC Wild Card game if Ladarius Green is healthy along with expected starters Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.
Overtime: 3:49 left. 4th and 2. Jones pass short middle to D. Ayers for a 6 yard gain. B. Boddy-Calhoun covering on the play
If you’re like me, you were excited that Mike Tomlin decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 in overtime, just to try and end the dreadful game. But as noted in the previous paragraph about the 4-wide deployment, we’ve seen what can happen when the opposition sends a blitz and doesn’t get to the quarterback in time.
Again, another crossing route and the man-coverage the Browns were using just wasn’t able to withstand the speed of Pittsburgh’s wide receivers. We could imagine what Antonio Brown might have done against these same schemes, but I digress. Landry Jones is given a clean pocket and it’s a really easy pass-and-catch with Ayers for the first down. If it weren’t for a desperation tackle by Boddy-Calhoun, Ayers might have taken this in for his second touchdown of the game.
The Steelers know how to find talented wide receivers. The prototype is widely known by now. They aren’t enamored with height, but want good route-runners who excel in open space. This fits Ayers to a ‘T’, and it’s the reason why he’s starting to find his niche in the Pittsburgh offense.
Ayers is far from a finished product, of course, but his speed and play-making ability have been on display for two weeks now. Yes, this happened versus the 1-15 Browns, but his performance against the Baltimore Ravens in a must-win game in Week 16 showed that the stage isn’t too big for him — something which bodes well for the Steelers’ offense entering the playoffs.