The more I researched about the problem, the worse it got. Checking out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ YAC numbers last season was like fighting quicksand. Slowly sink to the bottom. The eye test alone made it clear that Pittsburgh didn’t have enough run-after last season, didn’t have enough yards after catches, but quantifying things really puts into perspective how bad Pittsburgh was.
We can look at it Marco and Micro. Macro like in team YAC, micro like in single game. By and large, the Steelers’ numbers were abysmal. They totaled 1463 YAC yards last season, 29th in football. However, when you break that down into relative numbers, YAC per closure (a more accurate number), Pittsburgh ranks last in 2022 on YAC per catch at a paltry 4.0. That’s a far cry from No. 31, as the Buffalo Bills are at 4.4. Pittsburgh was a negative outlier.
Here’s a quick look at the top and bottom of the chart.
NFL YAC per degree, 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 patterns can affect the numbers, vertical attacks generally see less YAC, but the majority of teams at the top were successful NFL offensive players. It ended up mostly with teams that missed the postseason, including the Steelers.
It’s no surprise that Steelers players are also posting ugly numbers. And we’ll add Allen Robinson because we know he’ll be one of the top three receivers on the Pittsburgh team this season. From the 150 players who caught 30+ passes a year ago, here’s how the Steelers’ top wideouts fared per reception in the YAC.
YAC/R, 2022 (at least 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 are at the bottom of the list, with Pickens being the last dead. In fairness, Robinson played half a season in Los Angeles last year before suffering a season-ending foot injury. And when the Rams imploded, even when he was healthy, he wasn’t good on offense. But Robinson is a slot/possession receiver at this point in his career and has never been a YAC monster, with less than 3.2 YAC/R in each of his last four seasons, so the production can’t be entirely attributed to his circumstances either become.
The YAC issue has been identified. You didn’t need numbers to tell, it’s far from a hidden problem, but it’s important to disclose. How is it fixed? There is no easy answer. There are shifts.
As for Johnson’s poor YAC, I blame the plan more than himself. Yes, Johnson had his own issues to fix, clear the drops, and not run backwards (seriously, last year got weird) , but he was a strong YAC guy before 2022. In 2021, he was at 4.9, more than two meters above where he sat a year later.
Pittsburgh’s offense abused him. Too many branch lines. Outs, curls, so many sprint outs in the first month of the season. He’s an X-receiver who can cross cornerback faces and win in midfield. Based on his receptions over the past year, which of course doesn’t represent his entire route tree, the two most common routes were outs and curls. Only six arrived obliquely.
Diontae Johnson catches by route in 2022 according to SIS:
Broken game 3
Deep cross 1
Jet Sweep Pass 1#Steelers #NFL
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) January 25, 2023
That just doesn’t put a player in a position to be successful. It’s not about how he wins. Compare that to 2021 when he won 17 balls on the incline bench. The 2022 route tree limited or eliminated his YAC ability and that’s the main reason his numbers plummeted.
Pickens is a different story. He was and was used as a vertical receiver, but that’s his skill. That’s how he wins. Therefore, it’s less egregious from Matt Canada and the plan shouldn’t draw as much blame. For his YAC numbers to improve, which will probably never be great, he needs to keep growing his route tree and become a more sophisticated and technical route runner. Proving speed and “little guy” skill for his body, he made progress towards the end of the season by getting more snaps from the slot (9.3 snaps per game before bye, 17.3 per game after bye). The stats weren’t there, his YAC pre-bye was 2.0, post-bye was 2.1, and doubling that number as a sophomore should be the goal.
As for Robinson, there probably isn’t much that can be done. He’s older, should be busy in the industry, and doesn’t have to be a big YAC guy. Sure his numbers can be better than 2022 but I don’t expect him to be a YAC machine. Other guns like TE Pat Freiermuth (who saw his YAC surge last year) and WR Calvin Austin, who should be carrying a healthy amount of YAC for the quick game/RPO options, can have an impact there between the numbers.
The good news is that it is a solvable problem. Pittsburgh should have a more stable and productive passing game compared to last year and the numbers should be up overall. Yards per game, touchdowns, along with YAC. But these numbers cannot just gradually increase. There must be a serious boost. To set a specific goal, her number should be at least 5.0, which is about the league average, but the higher the better.
If Pittsburgh repeats its 2022 numbers when they’re bottom in the YAC and their top receivers are all in the same group, that offensive will falter. This also applies to their season.