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Mix and Match: How Steelers Will Work 6-Wide Receiver Rotation



Steelers WR Steven Sims

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers surprised many people by deciding to keep seven wide receivers coming out training camp, and six on their 53-man roster heading into the team’s Week 1 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, including the receivers themselves.

Starters Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens were fairly sure things, and the team isn’t in the habit of cutting fourth-round rookies like Calvin Austin III.

But a late-camp injury injury to Austin left it up in the air what the Steelers would do at receiver, and Omar Khan, Mike Tomlin and company decided they wanted to keep them all. Austin landed on the injured reserve list, and Gunner Olszewski will be joined by Miles Boykin and Steven Sims as backups heading into Week 1.

Last year, the Steelers kept five receivers on their active roster all season, with Cody White replacing JuJu Smith-Schuster after his early-season injury. White got all of six targets last season. So if there wasn’t enough work for five, in what was probably a more pass-heavy offense than the Steelers will run this year, how are they going to spread the ball around to six guys?

That’s the big question, but the Steelers aren’t interested in giving away their game plan just yet. When asked about it, Olszewski said simply, “Coaches coach. Players play. I’ll go where I’m told.”

But he did acknowledge that if what the Steelers are doing with their receivers is unclear enough to pique the curiosity of this reporter, it’s probably going to be tough on opposing defenses, too.

“I mean, we’ve got we got a ton of talent in there,” Olszewski said. “There’s studs all over the room. … The defense has got to account for everybody on the field. Sometimes, guys know they’re dummy guy, but you can’t look at anybody on the field, no matter who we put out there at receiver, and think like, he might not get it, or if he gets it, he can’t hurt us.”

So the Steelers aren’t giving anything away with regards to the mix of repetitions, but figuring out where each player will play should be easier. After all, Olszewski and Sims are 5-foot-10 and 6-foot while Boykin is 6-foot-4. So the little guys are the slot receivers and Boykin will back up outside? You’d think, but not necessarily.

First of all, the Steelers starting slot receiver, Chase Claypool is 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds — hardly the typical body type for that position. Second of all, even to a greater degree than they have in the past, the Steelers have moved their wide receivers all around the formation so much this year that it’s even hard to classify who plays where most of the time.

“That’s what they told us when we first came in here: you’ve gotta learn the whole offense,” Olszewski said. “It’s not gonna be one of those offensive where you play one position and that’s it. … It helps you understand the offense as a whole so. When you do just have one job, you know what the whole play, what everybody’s doing, so it’s just good football.”

Johnson, who suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason finale, might not play Week 1 in Cincinnati, Tomlin confirmed on Tuesday. Who will replace him? Well, it could be Claypool moving outside and Olszewski playing the slot. Or it could be Boykin. Or it could be Sims, either in the slot or as an outside receiver.

“I feel like I’ve shown that I can play anywhere in the receiving room and anywhere Danny (Smith) asks me to on special teams to so, I honestly don’t know how they’re dividing up the work,” Sims said. “I’m excited to see how. I know it’s a lot of guys, we all can make plays, and we all have different roles, different play styles, so it’s gonna be fun to see how they divide up the labor.”

It was when Claypool and Johnson went down with early training camp injuries that the Steelers receiver depth really started to take shape. That’s when Boykin, Olszewski and Sims got their chance to work with the starters and prove what they could do. Those opportunities came wherever, whenever, depending on who wasn’t practicing, and Matt Canada and Frisman Jackson didn’t seem to hesitate to put any receiver into any situation.

“We got more opportunities to show what we could do in different situations, different plays, different scenarios,” Sims said. “So, I feel like it helped us, but that was gonna be the case, either way, you know, we were gonna have to come in and fight and show what we can do, what we can add to the room, because they already know, Chase and Deontae, what they can do on the field. … We just had to show our value and that’s all we did we all competed against each other work hard.”

That competition eventually got so close that the Steelers just couldn’t pick between players, and decided to keep them all.

“I didn’t think that they were gonna keep that many of us, honestly,” Sims said, adding that the injury to Austin means that while there are six on the roster for now, they know it might not always be that way.

“Who knows what’s gonna happen when he comes back healthy, but I’m just gonna stay doing what I’m doing, head down, working.”

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