Carney: Steelers Talked All Offseason About ‘More YAC’ But Route Concepts Aren’t Lining Up With Desires
The vibe surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers coming out of the 2022 season based on the way the Black and Gold played down the stretch were quite high.
Pittsburgh showed real fight and saw great promise from young pieces throughout the roster, especially on offense.
One key thing was missing though offensively, and it was a major point of emphasis in the offseason. Now, it wasn’t scoring more points — which is an obvious. Instead, a lot of attention was put on improving Yards After Catch.
“It’s high risk, throwing the ball all the way down the field, maybe in double coverage or if it’s 40 yards in the air,” Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky said to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor regarding the emphasis on YAC in today’s game, compared to deep shots. “Rather, (you can) throw it five yards and let that guy run the rest of the way, so the run after catch has been a huge emphasis …You see the really good teams who are scoring a lot of points. They’re not necessarily always throwing it deep. They’re throwing it underneath and letting the guy run the rest of the way.”
With the deep ball seemingly dying in the NFL game as more and more teams are rolling with more two-high safety looks defensively, putting two safeties back deep to combat the deep ball down the sidelines, making it all the more difficult for receivers to get open on the vertical routes.
That’s caused teams to adjust, throw underneath and rely on yards after catch.
All teams, that seems, outside of a few. One of those teams that can’t rely on yards after catch is the Steelers, who were dead last in the league in 2022 with just 4.0 yards of YAC per reception. The Buffalo Bills were nearly a half yard better than Pittsburgh but were still 31st at 4.4 yards of YAC per reception. The league leader in the category in 2022 was the Carolina Panthers at 6.7 yards.
Big, big gap between the Steelers and the NFL’s best in that key category that is becoming all the more important as defenses continue to adapt and adjust to the high-powered offenses.
Not only were the Steelers as a team the worst in average YAC per reception, the Steelers also had three receivers in the bottom 10 of the league in YAC per reception, on average, including Allen Robinson II, who was traded for this offseason. Here’s how the YAC/R looked on a minimum of 30 receptions in 2022 for Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Robinson: Johnson (2.7, 142nd), Robinson (2.2, 148th), Pickens (2.0, 150th).
Throughout the offseason, the Steelers emphasized more run after catch and more big plays by throwing short and running lot.
Then, in Week One the Steelers really struggled to do just that, generating 112 yards after catch, which included a big chunk of yards after catch on Johnson’s 26-yard catch-and-run before getting hurt in the third quarter and Robinson on his 31-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
Last season, the YAC issues for the Steelers were due to scheme and overall usage with offensive coordinator Matt Canada not putting guys like Johnson and Pickens to succeed from a YAC standpoint, running a lot of stop routes and sideline routes, hindering any chance to truly create some YAC for the Steelers.
Of his 82 receptions last season, Johnson had 41 receptions on outs or curls, which are not designed to help receivers with YAC. He had just six receptions on slant routes in 2022, which was a significant downgrade from the 17 he had to lead the league in 2021.
That didn’t change on Sunday against the 49ers. The Steelers ran just three(!) slant routes on the afternoon, one of which was by Johnson who was wide open in the red zone. The throw from Kenny Pickett was behind Johnson, leading to a pass breakup. But on 51 drop backs, running just three slant routes while searching for more YAC is downright insane.
The definition of insanity, which is well know, is doing something over and over again but expecting a different result. Wanting more YAC from their receivers, the Steelers and Canada didn’t change a thing when it came to route concepts and usage. Outside of just three slants, the Steelers — again, according to Sports Info Solutions — ran 51 curl/stop routes on Sunday against the 49ers.
Pittsburgh is seemingly unwilling to run slant routes in Canada’s scheme, yet there is a great reliance on the curl route. Instead of Four Verts in Canada’s vocabulary, it’s Four Curls.
How, exactly, does an offensive coordinator expect to generate more YAC by having his receivers come to a complete stop on a route and catching the football with his back to the defender? More YAC means hitting receivers in stride, facing upfield to see the defense, allowing natural instincts to take over.
Canada’s route concepts and overall scheme didn’t change at all on Sunday in the passing game, and that’s very concerning overall.
Some of those quick-hitting stop routes and out routes are designed to get a quarterback in rhythm. That’s all well and good. Slant routes and drag routes do the same thing, too. Canada’s scheme and overall route concepts need to match up with the desires of head coach Mike Tomlin and wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson, who want more YAC from the receivers.
So far, he hasn’t been able to do that. There’s no real confidence that’s going to change anytime soon, either. That’s frustrating.