When the Steelers passed on Denzel Mims in favor of Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, a lot of people questioned just why the Steelers would do that. Just based on true talent from film, Claypool really seemed like a lesser talent that Mims. Both of their skill sets match up well, but Mims has better functional athleticism, body control, and separates easier than Claypool does. To put it in simple terms, Mims was more polished coming out than Claypool and still had some freaky measurables himself.
However, there was one thing that Mims lacked that may have allured the Steelers to Claypool. At Baylor, Mims was locked in as an X-receiver, but Claypool has true versatility to play the X-receiver, Z-receiver, and even more importantly, he can be used as a big slot. That means the Steelers have the option to scheme Claypool open against nickel defenders. However, that does not have to be what Claypool is in the NFL. In fact, the Steelers have stated as much that they are going to play him on the boundary.
The Red Zone Element
The first and most obvious benefit of putting Claypool on the boundary is that he is a big, massive target for Ben Roethlisberger to throw to down there. In addition to the Eric Ebron, Claypool will help the Steelers improve upon the worst red-zone offense in the NFL in 2019. Here against Georgia, Claypool uses his size and physicality to open up a window to the pylon, drag his feet down good body control, and get a touchdown out of it. Expect similar things like this to enter the Steelers offense as well. Some back shoulder fades could be dialed up since Claypool opens up those windows so well with his physicality, which is arguably his best trait.
What does Claypool do to the Steelers offensive formation?
This one is a little interesting to look at because Claypool felt like he was a guy the Steelers took because he has the size and speed to stretch defenses on the boundary. More importantly, it represents a helpful addition for star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who even last season was playing far too much on the boundary instead of in the slot, which is his best and natural position.
This is what a base three wide receiver set could look like for the Steelers in 2020. The key to the Claypool pick was not just because of his skill set, but it was in order to help Smith-Schuster return to the spot that saw him put up monster numbers in his sophomore season. With the sure-handed target of Smith-Schuster returning over the middle of the field, things are going to be a lot harder for defenses, as long as Claypool poses a threat.
That is the thing and caveat here. In order for this all to work, Claypool has to be a legitimate threat to win vertically against defenses. Otherwise, Smith-Schuster will be doubled every game and his move to the slot will mean next to nothing since Claypool will not see the field at all.
Here is why Claypool is a threat to win vertically. On this play, he dismantles the press coverage with a vicious swipe and rip move that gets the cornerback reeling and almost off his feet. With the safety in conflict due to the skinny post working over the middle of the field, Claypool is open up the seam, elevates to high point this ball with his massive catch radius, and gets a touchdown. This is a play that the Steelers could use in their four wide receiver sets this year.
For a defense to make sure guys like Diontae Johnson and Claypool do not win over the top, they have to go into Cover 2 shells to defend the boundary. What that then does is while they are attentive to the vertical threats, the middle of the field is opened up with room to work with and single-coverage opportunities. That is precisely what the Steelers are trying to do here with the addition of Claypool. One on one opportunities for Smith-Schuster and Ebron over the middle of the field spells great news for the Steelers. Everything here is a match game and in order for defenses to defend over the top, they are going to have to expose the middle of the field or get burnt.
Claypool can help in the running game too
The Steelers are known for liking their tight ends to be blocking menaces. Claypool is just another one of those guys that gets after it when in the blocking part of his game. That can help in the run game, but this is not how he can help. it stems back to those cover 2 looks.
This is a basic cover 2 scheme. It puts the defense in a compromising position against the run since the linebackers are often asked to drop back into the deep middle in traditional Tampa 2 coverage or they are asked to buzz out to the flats. As such, it very often lightens the box and allows for more room to run the ball. The Steelers when they added Claypool were adding to the running game as well since this will spread out the defense and allow for lighter boxes. With the addition of possible motion into the equation, the Steelers have just booked the run game with an outside receiving threat. This is just one example of how a team’s passing game can help the running game, too.
Claypool’s Skill Set
As an actual individual player, what does Claypool bring? This is a guy, who as shown above, is a master of physicality and the contested catch. He struggles to separate downfield and has some wonky reps against press coverage that are concerning. In addition, there are issues with separation. He certainly does separate with his physicality and strength, but attacking leverage with consistency is something he needs to work on. The quickness in and out of breaks is another thing that needs to be worked on, however, he has shown flashes of doing that at Notre Dame.
One of the best examples of how he can separate is here against Iowa State. He attacks the cornerback’s outside leverage really nicely here. Claypool accelerates with good pad level to sell the vertical, gets on the cornerback’s toes, gives an outside pressure step and a head fake, and then cuts back inside of the inside arch of his left foot. While doing that, he dismantles the cornerback’s attempt to get hands-on him as he swats that done. Even more so, as he accelerates towards the post, he gives a violent head fake and carries that violence back through his hips to run a smooth route. After that, he simply adjusts to this underthrown ball, tucks it into his frame, and has the catch. The traits are there for him to improve as a route runner, which just has to occur more frequently.
Of course, Claypool’s bread and butter are contested catches. He shows that off here as well against USC. Something he does when faced with press coverage is that he tries to bully his way through it. That issue shows itself up a bit here as he is re-routed to the outside, but he has the play strength to fight through the attempts, even by lengthier cornerbacks who may pack a punch. As such, with a window of separation, Claypool rises up to high point this ball and tuck it into his frame. This is why there has to be a safety over the top of Claypool, simply because he can make these catches even when well covered.
And that is what makes him so valuable to the Steelers.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.