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Analysis

Film Study: Chase Claypool’s Fit With Steelers

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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

Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside

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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?

IMPRESSIVE TAPE

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.

DOTSON’S OUTLOOK

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.

 

 

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Analysis

Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed

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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.

So, with McFarland now on the team what will the team be getting out of the former Maryland rusher?

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.

McFarland’s Film

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.

McFarland’s Outlook

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.

*You can also learn about McFarland by watching Mike Asti’s talk with Adam Zielonka of the Washington Times.*

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2020 NFL Draft

Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush

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The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.

All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.

Highsmith’s Tape

The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.

One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.

Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.

Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.

This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.

Highsmith’s Overview

The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.

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