When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Diontae Johnson from Toldeo in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, it felt as though the team was trying to send a message. An undersized, and under-recruited wide receiver from the MAC with good return skills and an ability to pluck the ball out of the air was drafted to replace that very skillset that blossomed Antonio Brown’s career with a pick that the team received in the Brown trade.
The Steelers are known for drafting talented wide receivers, but it was still going to be a stretch to see a rookie wide receiver fill into those shoes right away. Many assumed that with Brown out that the Steelers turn to JuJu Smith-Schuster in hi spot. However, Smith-Schuster has a completely different skillset than players such as Brown..
Smith-Schuster dominates the slot and the middle of the field. He finds space in the short passing game to make plays after the catch. Smith-Schuster can put up “Number One” receiver numbers, but he will not do it in the same manner to where he would step right in for Brown.
To move Smith-Schuster around the formation and find the right spots to get the football in his hands, the Steelers needed someone on the outside to hold the defensive backs’ attention away from creeping in. They still needed to replace Brown in his role and saw Johnson as the perfect fit to do it.
After an injury in training camp slowed down the progression of Johnson, the drops by Donte Moncrief left the Steelers with no choice but to throw the rookie who they regarded so highly onto the field. In his first career start, he caught a touchdown in a losing effort.
In his second career start, Johnson took the top off of the defense once again, this time to break open his first win in a Steelers uniform.
“The safety took a step towards Johnson, then saw JuJu and that detracted all of the attention,” quarterback Mason Rudolph said on his big touchdown reception. When a player such as Brown takes the up top attention, Smith-Schuster was able to shine underneath. Now, Smith-Schuster is opening up deep shots for his teammates.
You can see the deep safety turn toward Smith-Schuster from the end zone view of the play.
It was not just the deep shots, though. Johnson was 6-for-6 when targeted on the night, which included passes behind the line of scrimmage, over the middle of the field, and of course deep. Johnson was labeled as a do-everything outside threat coming out of Toldeo, and he has lived up to his tag to date.
While the Steelers have a great track record of drafting wide receivers, they also have a history of taking it slow. Timing and trust are so valuable in that position, and as the Steelers find gems in the middle rounds, that can come with a slow learning curve.
However, Johnson has been electric from the start. He made a few plays in the first two games, to ensure that he should be on the field. When comparing the first four games to other prominent receivers the Steelers have drafted, Johnson is well ahead of that curve.
Johnson is outpacing Smith-Schuster, who put up 917 yards as a rookie. Keep in mind that Martavis Bryant was inactive for the first six games of his career.
Compared to the other wide receivers in his draft class, the past two games have shot him into being one of the hottest rookie wide receivers in the NFL.
With an injured tight end, along with a rookie and second-year receiver seeing their second career games in big roles somebody needed to step up and take the pressure away from Smith-Schuster, the running game and of course the young quarterback.
Johnson was the one to step up the plate. He became an outside threat that can move Smith-Schuster around pre-snap and a deep threat that can open up the middle of the field as well. Considering James Washington has a feel for Rudolph as it is, the attention that Johnson will start to receive may open up the other side for the rekindling of that relationship. The play of Johnson may have a ripple effect that makes the rest of his receivers better and makes life much easier for his young quarterback.
Look for Johnson to continue to ascend, and prove once again that when the Steelers draft a wide receiver, you can trust them on it.
Chase Claypool Working, Developing with T.J. Houshmanzadeh
Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was the team’s highest draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after the Steelers selected him with the 49th overall pick. While he and other rookies have missed rookie minicamp due to COVID-19, Claypool is still making sure to get work in during the offseason.
On social media, Claypool has been posting numerous videos of himself working out with former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The former Bengals receiver was a long time nemesis of the Steelers, but Claypool certainly has appreciated Houshmandzadeh’s help during the downtime.
“I worked out with him in the pre-draft process all the way up until now, so I got a lot of work in with him. He kind of really – he was really excited for me, where I went because he thought it was a great fit for me, He thought I’d do really well just in the system,” Claypool said.
Coming out of Notre Dame, one of the biggest criticisms of Claypool’s game was his route running and ability to win off the line of scrimmage with his releases. The innate ability to defeat press coverage and attack leverage with his consistency to create separation was not there. However, Claypool seems to have been hard at work to try and fix those issues.
“You know, we worked on a lot of things, but the two main things were top of the route and then releases that we did. We did a lot of technique stuff within those two categories. The work with him definitely paid off,” Claypool said of his work with Houshmandzadeh.”
It is clear that Claypool’s physical tools lend themselves to potentially be a downfield threat. In some ways, he already is a vertical threat with his physicality and contested-catch ability being his main selling points. It seems even to the Steelers staff that is part of the allure of having Claypool on the roster. Certainly, Claypool recognizes his physicality as an asset.
“I think I can do that (be physical) within my route running, in terms of just releasing downfield. I release pretty aggressively, going to attack the ball,” Claypool remarked when asked about how he showcases his physicality.
With weaknesses to fix and limited offseason programs, Claypool could be limited. His on-field action on offense could be limited to redzone reps and a small route tree. If he can leverage his size and physicality with some new improvements from his training with Houshmandzadeh, Claypool can make a big impact even this early into his career.
The Steelers drafted Claypool with the intention of making him a boundary receiver. Steelers Now previously highlighted how Claypool could impact opposing defenses with his athleticism and size on the boundary. Creating separation is paramount in the modern NFL. Should Claypool improve his ability to create separation, the Steelers offense will be that much more dangerous. The training with Houshmandzadeh should help Claypool’s growth to reach his high ceiling in the Steelers offense.
Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside
The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.
As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?
What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.
A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.
It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.
One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.
As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.
The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.
There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.
Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.
Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed
It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.
The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.
The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.
This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.
Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.
This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.
That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.
This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.
In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.
McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.