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Steelers Must Improve Their YAC Attack In 2023


The more I researched the problem, the worse it got. Pouring over the numbers on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ YAC last season was like battling quicksand. Slowly sinking to the bottom. The eye test alone made it clear Pittsburgh didn’t have enough “run-after” last season, not enough yards after the catch, but quantifying things truly puts into perspective how bad Pittsburgh was.

We can look at it marco and micro. Macro as in team YAC, micro as in individual play. Big-picture, the Steelers’ numbers were abysmal. They had 1463 total yards of YAC last season, 29th in football. But split that into relative numbers, YAC per completion (a more accurate number), and Pittsburgh ranked dead last in YAC per catch in 2022, a paltry 4.0. That’s a far cry from even 31st place, the Buffalo Bills sitting at 4.4. Pittsburgh was a negative outlier.

Here’s a quick look at the top and the bottom of the chart.

NFL YAC per completion, 2022

1. Carolina Panthers – 6.7
2. Kansas City Chiefs – 6.6
3. San Francisco 49ers – 6.6
30. Baltimore Ravens – 4.5
31. Buffalo Bills – 4.4
32. Pittsburgh Steelers – 4.0

Systems and schemes can impact the numbers, vertical attacks generally register fewer YAC, but the majority of teams at the top were successful NFL offenses. At the bottom largely sat teams who missed the postseason, including the Steelers.

It’s no surprise to see Steelers’ players post ugly numbers, too. And we’ll add in Allen Robinson, knowing he’s going to be one of the top three receivers in Pittsburgh’s 11 personnel this season. Of the 150 players who caught 30+ passes a year ago, here’s how the Steelers’ top wideouts ranked in YAC per reception.

YAC/R, 2022 (Minimum 30 Receptions)

142. Diontae Johnson – 2.7
148. Allen Robinson – 2.2
150. George Pickens – 2.0

The Steelers’ top three wide receivers this year rank at the very bottom of the list, including Pickens being dead last. To be fair (and to be obvious), Robinson played in Los Angeles last year, a half-season of action before suffering a season-ending foot injury. And he wasn’t in a good offense when healthy either as the Rams imploded. But Robinson is a slot/possession receiver at this point in his career and never been a YAC monster, under 3.2 YAC/R each of his last four seasons, so the production can’t be blamed all on his circumstances, either.

The YAC problem has been identified. You didn’t need the numbers to realize this, it’s far from a hidden problem, but it’s important to lay it out there. How does it get fixed? There’s no simple answer. There’s layers.

For Johnson’s poor YAC, I put the blame more on scheme than himself. Yes, Johnson had his own problems he must correct, clean up the drops, not run backwards (seriously, it got comical last year) but he’s been a strong YAC guy prior to 2022. In 2021, he sat at 4.9, more than two yards above where he sat a year later.

Pittsburgh’s offense misused him. Too many sideline routes. Outs, curls, so many sprintouts over the first month of the season. He’s an X receiver who can cross cornerback’s faces and win over the middle of the field. Based off his receptions last year, which of course isn’t his whole route tree, the two most common routes were outs and curls. Just six came on slants.

That’s simply not putting a player in position to succeed. It’s not utilizing how he wins. Compare that to 2021 when he had a route-leading 17 receptions on slants. 2022’s route tree limited or eliminated his YAC ability and it’s the driving reason why his numbers plummeted.

Pickens is a different story. True, he was a vertical receiver and used as such but that’s his skillset. That’s how he wins. So it’s less egregious by Matt Canada and the scheme shouldn’t garner as much of the blame. For his YAC numbers to improve, and they’re probably never going to be great, he has to continue to expand his route tree and become a more nuanced and technical route runner. He shows quickness and “little guy” skills for his frame and he began making strides there late in the season, logging more snaps out of the slot (9.3 snaps per game before the bye, 17.3 per game after the bye). The stats weren’t there, his YAC pre-bye was 2.0, post-bye 2.1, and doubling that number as a sophomore should be the goal.

For Robinson, there probably isn’t a lot that can be done. He’s older, should see a lot of work in the slot, and he doesn’t need to be a big-time YAC guy. Certainly, his numbers can be better than 2022, but I’m not expecting him to be a YAC machine. Other weapons like TE Pat Freiermuth (who saw his YAC rise last year) and WR Calvin Austin, who should have a healthy amount of YAC for the quick-game/RPO options with him, can make an impact there over between the numbers.

The good news is it’s a solvable problem. Pittsburgh should have a more stable and productive passing game compared to a year ago and numbers across the board should rise. Yards per game, touchdowns, along with YAC. But these numbers can’t just raise incrementally. There needs to be a serious boost. To set a concrete goal, their number should at bare minimum be 5.0, which would put them right around league average, but the higher, the better.

If Pittsburgh replicates their 2022 numbers, if they’re at the bottom in YAC and their top receivers are all in the same group, this offense is going to stall out. So will their season.

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