Skip to main content

Catching on quickly

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning after having missed all but six quarters of the previous season and undergoing elbow surgery, all eyes were on the Steelers' passing game heading into 2020.

Second-round wide receiver Chase Claypool's touchdown catch on a fade over cornerback Joe Haden on the first day in shoulder pads at training camp opened everyone's eyes even wider, including Haden's.

"He's going to be a PROBLEM!" Haden tweeted of Claypool last August.

Over the course of the campaign that followed Roethlisberger and his receivers created their share of problems for opposing DBs.

Following is a look back at a few of 2020s most memorable receptions:

Sept. 20, Denver: Claypool's 84-yard touchdown reception

Claypool ran under a deep ball from Roethlisberger on first-and-10 from the Steelers' 16-yard line and then walked a tightrope along the sideline for a couple of strides while in the process of traversing the final 47 yards on what became an 84-yard, catch-and-run touchdown.

Claypool maintained after the Steelers' 26-21 victory such plays don't happen by accident.

"I think that's something I've worked on for the last eight years, I'd say," he offered. "From the beginning of high school to now, just kinda going through little drills that you have to be aware where your feet are because having your toe on the sideline or not on the sideline can change the outcome of a game.

"I know how important that is so I've been working on that quite a bit. Now, it's kinda coming natural to me."

Nov. 1, at Baltimore: Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster's 2-yard catch for a first down

Smith-Schuster wasn't targeted in the first half but finished with a team-leading seven catches for a team-leading 67 yards receiving in the Steelers' come-from-behind, 28-24 victory over the Ravens.

Five of Smith-Schuster's catches produced first downs, including a 2-yard gain on third-and-1 from the Baltimore 41-yard line on which Smith-Schuster caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage and ran through cornerback Marlon Humphrey to move the chains on the drive that produced the eventual game-winning touchdown.

It was "good on good," as head coach Mike Tomlin often observes, a one-on-one battle for Smith-Schuster against one of the best in the business (Humphrey). And it occurred at a critical juncture (9:06 left in regulation).

A snapshot of what Steelers-Ravens often comes down to in one form or another.

Smith-Schuster won the battle and the Steelers ended up winning the war.

Dec. 27, Indianapolis: Wide receiver Diontae Johnson's 39-yard touchdown reception

The Steelers trailed, 24-7, and had just failed to dent the end zone on four consecutive cracks at it from the Colts' 2 or closer.

But after getting the ball back in favorable field position following a three-and-out registered by the defense, Roethlisberger went back to a play that had been there at the end of the first half but wasn't executed well enough to finish.

Johnson's diving catch in the end zone ignited a comeback and inspired what became a 28-24 triumph.

"We had a shot for it," Roethlisberger said of the play that got away, first-and-10 from the Steelers' 43-yard line with 14 seconds left in the second quarter and the Steelers trailing, 21-7. "We weren't quite on the same page. I mean, we were just a little bit off.

"It was something we talked about at halftime. I actually got on the board, drew it up, showed (Johnson) what I was wanting him to do. His touchdown in the second half was a very similar play, very similar coverage. He did exactly what we talked about. I just can't say enough about the adjustment that he made and the play he made in bouncing back and being spectacular on the play for me."

Dec. 7, Washington: Wide receiver James Washington's 50-yard touchdown reception

An example of the "catch short, run long" philosophy at its finest. Washington lined up as the lone wide receiver on the left side of the formation in a three-wide receivers set on first-and-10 from the 50 with 4:03 left in the second quarter and the Steelers ahead, 7-0.

One snap and an extra point later it was 14-0.

Washington caught a short, quick pass from Roethlisberger at the Washington 43, spun out of an attempted tackle by cornerback Kendall Fuller, eluded safety Deshazor Everett along the sideline at the 32 and sprinted the rest of the way into the end zone.

The Steelers ended up losing the game, 23-17, but the play would stand as Washington's longest reception of the season and the Steelers' second-longest connection in 2020.

Nov. 22, at Jacksonville: Tight end Eric Ebron's 20-yard touchdown catch

Just 6:46 remained in the fourth quarter of a game the Steelers were already leading, 20-3, when they faced a first-and-10 from the Jacksonville 20. But what made the fourth among Ebron's five touchdown receptions on the season memorable was how it highlighted the matchup issues Ebron created in his first season with the Steelers, particularly from running formations.

Claypool was the only wide receiver in the game. Fullback Derek Watt and running back James Conner were behind Roethlisberger. Offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins was deployed as an extra blocker/eligible receiver And Roethlisberger was under center.

The Jaguars countered with a single-high safety and 10 in the box to defend against an anticipated run.

But the Steelers opted for a play-action pass. Ebron ran down the seam between safety Andrew Wingard and linebacker Joe Shobert, hauled in Roethlisberger's pass at the 5 and waltzed into the end zone. It was, in retrospect, as easy a pitch-and-catch as the Steelers executed all season and another great example of how well the offense worked when it worked.