You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.
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.
Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush
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.
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.
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.