The obvious question surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2019 season was how the team’s offense will look without Antonio Brown. Regardless of his off-the-field antics, he had natural chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.
JuJu Smith-Schuster can certainly step up, but he will do it in different ways than Brown. Instead, the Steelers are going to look for a variety of pass catchers to step up to the plate and take a little bit of the workload. That was demonstrated immediately in the openers versus New England with the team starting Ryan Switzer and Donte Moncrief next to Smith-Schuster, while also using Johnny Holton on the first drive. James Washington and Diontae Johnson saw a little work in the first half as well before seeing more utilization in garbage time.
The Steelers are testing things out at wide receiver. Roethlisberger missed Holton deep, Moncrief recorded seven drops, Switzer had the stat line of a short-yardage running back, Washington questionably ran out of bounds on his best play, and Johnson had a penalty. It is safe to say there is still a jumble of receivers on the depth chart behind Smith-Schuster.
When asked about the development of the group, Mike Tomlin noted that the group is a work in progress.
“That’s a process that we’re going to go through particularly at the early stages of this season every week, not in reaction to what transpired in-stadium Sunday night, it’s just the nature of this thing as you harden up your division of labor and find your personalities at the early stages of this thing.”
Tomlin noted that he will not overreact to Week 1, but also that it is the nature of things that the room will develop. That is a fact in Pittsburgh when looking at their history at receiver. Since the new CBA in 2011, practice times have been limited, and starters have played less in the preseason. Teams will try to use the first four weeks to sort things out and try to get hot for a playoff run.
This can be shown in the Steelers receiving core going back to 2014. In 2014, the team started Week 1 shuffling Lance Moore and Justin Brown next to Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown. By the end of the year, rookie Martavis Bryant had eight touchdowns and was an established splash player in the offense. A 2015 suspension to Bryant saw Darius Heyward-Bey start early in the year before Bryant put up over 750 yards. In 2016 Bryant was suspended. This was supposed to lead to Sammie Coates emerging, but by the AFC Championship Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton were the starters next to Brown.
In 2017, Rogers started over Smith-Schuster in Week 1 before Smith-Schuster put up 900 yards as a rookie. Smith-Schuster went over 50 yards just once in the first seven games of his rookie year. Finally, last season saw Justin Hunter as a starter through three weeks. In the Steelers loss to the New Orleans Saints, Brown, Smith-Schuster, Washington, Rogers, and Switzer all saw snaps over Hunter.
So, when Tomlin talks about this process being natural and that they will sort things out in the first few weeks of the season, you tend to trust him on that one.
For the Steelers, their development track is obvious. They drafted Washington in the second round and have talked him up this preseason. They mentioned having a first-round grade on Johnson. This is their future. These are the players that should progress as the year goes on such as Bryant, and Smith-Schuster.
They are still not sold on Washington’s ability to be a complete receiver, and he has not earned the trust of Roethlisberger. However, the offense needs his splash-play ability to keep the defense honest. When looking at the routes where Smith-Schuster was successful on Sunday, he was at his best working the middle of the field. The Steelers motioned him around and got him in good matchups to take advantage of space he has always dominated.
However, Ryan Switzer is a true slot receiver, who does not test defenses down the field and works the short middle. With Vance McDonald typically operating in that space as well things will get condensed. Washington does not have a refined route tree, and he can get jammed up at times. He also has had issues finding chemistry with Roethlisberger.
However, he opens things up in the offense. He takes the role that Bryant once had. Bryant technically was a starter for just three games as a rookie, and five in year two. However, his presence as a player who can flip the field was enough to keep defenses honest and see him emerge as a number two.
You can see that the types of routes Washington runs will open Smith-Schuster up to do what he does best more than Switzer.
Washington does not have to start or play full games. However, he does need to get on the field to test defenses and open up space in the middle of the field for Smith-Schuster.
On the other side, the Patriots dared Moncrief to beat them, and teams will follow suit. Roethlisberger said he is committed to Moncrief. Tomlin said one game will not change things. However, this team has moved on from Moore, and Hunter, other veterans who did not quite live up to the hype.
Moncrief has a leash longer than one game, but his leash could still be short. Especially if Johnson can step up. Last week, Johnson was the last receiver in the rotation, behind Holton, and Washington, but may have brought the most optimism.
In his first career reception, he made a one-handed grab lined up on the outside. You can see that on the other side a deep route is being run while Smith-Schuster motioned into the slot to take over the middle of the field. This is how the offense will need to flow.
Later in the game, Johnson showed great quickness to create separation on the outside in the short area. His ability to create in the quick passing game could help get him on the field.
Johnson would typically play the “X” role that Brown occupied and Moncrief currently plays. However, if Johnson can emerge, then Moncrief and Washington can both be used to clear space which opens the middle of the field back up for Smith-Schuster.
Johnson missed a lot of preseason time with injuries but has impressed at every stop so far. The Steelers will certainly continue to ease him in, but If they really did have such a high grade on him they have to be happy with his presence and more willing to bump him into an every-down role than Washington.
Still, the Steelers need the splash element from Washington who will need to be mixed in more. The Steelers have typically eased their young wide receivers into the mix early into the season. While the changes may not come immediately, both young receivers could continue to slowly progress into bigger roles as the season goes on.
Over the next couple of weeks, look for all six receivers to mix and match as the team looks for who can be in their core rotation for the main stretch of the schedule.
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.