The Pittsburgh Steelers Need for a Big, Red Zone Receiver is a Myth

Jerricho Cotchery scored 10 red zone touchdowns in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t efficient in the red zone during the 2013 season because they have small receivers.

This is a widely accepted ideal.

Widely accepted ideals aren’t widely accepted facts because they are not based on intensive research. They are based on simple logic that is gleaned from the most likely relationship between two facts. During the 2012 season, it was a widely accepted ideal that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith got a large percentage of his sacks on stunt plays. Smith had 22 sacks in total, but only four came after he carried out a stunt and only two saw him get a clean run to the quarterback because of a stunt.

Just like with Smith’s sacks, the perception of what the Steelers do in the red zone is inaccurate.

On drives when they had at least one offensive snap that was officially listed on the opposition’s 20-yard line or closer to the opposition’s goal line, the Steelers had a 53.7 percent touchdown rate. The Steelers scored 29 touchdowns on 54 attempts. This isn’t a horrible percentage, it appears to be somewhere around league average, but it could definitely be improved upon.

Bringing in bigger receivers wouldn’t solve the problems the Steelers had last season.

Theoretically, bigger receivers should be more successful in the red zone because they should have more opportunities to catch the ball. In the red zone, there is less space to work in so receivers need to make more contested catches and the quarterback needs to be more accurate. In jump ball situations or on fade routes, bigger receivers should be more successful because of their size.

Like most things in football, size is overrated.

The Steelers didn’t have problems creating opportunities to catch the ball in the end zone or in scoring positions within the five-yard line. They had problems taking advantage of those opportunities. The Steelers’ execution in 2013 was poor. The receivers dropped too many passes when they were open, the pass protection broke down too quickly and the quarterback missed too many open receivers.

By going through every single drive and assigning a key play or key moment that most determined the outcome of that drive, it was easy to see that the impact of big receivers was overblown.

Here is an example of how this analysis works. If the offense takes over with First-and-Goal at the 10 yard line, but on their first play the center snaps the ball over his quarterback’s head, then that is the key reason as to why that drive failed. However, if the defense blows an assignment on second down so the offense has a receiver wide open in the end zone and that receiver drops a well-thrown pass, then that play takes precedence as the key play.

Having bigger receivers is all about opportunities, so the analysis is all about opportunities. Falling too far behind the down-and-distance or failing to execute on plays that are in your favour are reasons why drives fail.

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As the above chart hints at, the Steelers’ main issues in 2013 wasn’t their inability to create opportunities, but rather their inability to execute. Had Ben Roethlisberger been more accurate, the Steelers would have scored a touchdown on 74 percent of their red zone drives. Had his receivers not dropped accurate passes, they would have scored 62.9 percent of the time. If both had happened, the Steelers would have scored on 83.3 percent of their drives.

Now, the first thought here is that the Steelers might have executed better with bigger receivers. Roethlisberger’s inaccuracy may have been less of an issue and the receivers may have been more comfortable if they were bigger.

It’s the right logic, but it’s not what happened on the field.

Here are some of Roethlisberger’s inaccurate passes:

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Against the New England Patriots, Emmanuel Sanders ran a perfect route to come free underneath. There was a huge amount of space between Sanders and the pylon, with no deep defender. Roethlisberger could easily have lofted the ball up for Sanders to run underneath it.

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This wasn’t a difficult throw. Sanders’ 5-11 frame didn’t play a factor here. Roethlisberger simply threw a terrible pass that didn’t give his receiver a chance at making a play on the ball. Even if Sanders had been 7-0, he would have had to make an exceptional play on the ball to come away with the catch.

Against the Detroit Lions, Roethlisberger missed a number of throws that he should have made.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 18.54.23The first came on 2nd-and-Six. The route combinations contrasted against the defense that the Lions were playing afforded LeVeon Bell a lot of space underneath. Bell was running an in route from the backfield that brought him across the face of his offensive line. Bell is a very good receiver who would have had an easy first down and likely a touchdown if he got the ball in his hands in this situation.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 18.53.13However, instead of putting the ball out in front of his intended target, Roethlisberger threw the ball high and behind his head. Bell was unable to catch the ball, but even if he had his forward momentum would have been stopped and he would have been less likely to get the first down.

Roethlisberger’s next pass is slightly better, but it still asks too much of his receiver and makes a routine reception unnecessarily difficult.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 19.11.516-5 tight end Heath Miller runs down the seam. He is left wide open by the Lions secondary. Roethlisberger locates Miller quickly and throws a high pass in his direction. Miller isn’t a receiver, but he is a very impressive receiving tight end who shows natural hands on a consistent basis. Miller actually does brilliantly to adjust to Roethlisberger’s overthrown pass and he snatches the ball out of the air at full stretch.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 19.12.03However, because he had to go up for the ball, Miller was forced to expose his midsection. This created a greater hitting zone for the defensive back and it also meant that Miller needed time to bring the ball down to his chest. Before Miller could get the ball back to his chest, the defensive back hits the ball perfectly with his shoulder. This knocks Miller sideways as he falls to the ground and the ball comes out at the last moment.

On the final play, Roethlisberger was again throwing to a bigger target. This time, his intended receiver was left in even more open space.

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Bell, who is a very impressive short-yardage back, draws the defense forward here on play action. Tight end David Paulson, who is 6-4, is running in behind the defense from the right. The Lions blow a coverage as two defenders follow Heath Miller into the flat. Paulson is wide open and Roethlisberger finds him, but again his pass is unnecessarily high.

If Paulson had turned quicker and located the ball quicker, he may have had a chance to adjust, but instead he fell made futile grasps out of desperation as the ball was thrown high and behind him.

Roethlisberger isn’t a precision passer. He has never excelled with his ball placement and in recent times it has begun to worsen. He isn’t the kind of quarterback who is going to consistently throw the ball to a spot where only his receiver can catch it and he won’t excel throwing fade routes on a regular basis.

He is a quarterback who excels at locating the open receiver, throwing on the move or throwing to space. For that reason, quickness is often more valuable than size at every area of the field for the Steelers.

Roethlisberger and Jerricho Cotchery had a very impressive relationship in the red zone last season. Cotchery caught 10 touchdowns last season and every single one of them came in the red zone. The former New York Jets receiver is 6-1, but he has a slight frame and he relies on his quickness rather than his size to be successful.

Cotchery is adept at finding space with his route running and his intelligence. Two of his touchdowns came when he faded towards the pylon, but on both plays he created space behind the defensive back with his initial movement. He didn’t rise above the defender for the football. Two more came on pick plays, two came on underneath routes where he ran into the end zone and one came on a fake screen. Three came down the seam as he exploited the space in the defense and Roethlisberger found him by throwing to space.

Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders were targeted on a regular basis because they were able to routinely create space with their quickness underneath. Sanders caught five red zone touchdowns, two of which came on plays where Roethlisberger extended the play outside of the pocket. Sanders is 5-11, but he has long arms that have the ability to pluck the ball out of the air. While he has the ability to make tough receptions, he struggled catching the ball all over the field in different situations during 2013. The red zone was no different.

The focal point of the Steelers passing attack, Antonio Brown, was only involved in four key plays in the red zone during 2013.

One was that incredibly poor play call against the New York Jets when he was asked to throw the ball on an end around. Another was his touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals that came after Roethlisberger extended the play. The other two plays were drops. Both plays could easily have been touchdowns but one definitely should have been.

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 19.41.43Being bigger in this situation doesn’t make you more likely to catch the ball. Brown simply dropped it. Not because of his size or because of the presence of the defender, but rather because he simply didn’t execute the play. Execution and consistency was lacking for the Steelers throughout their offense in 2013.

Brown is a short receiver, but he is very strong and he has excelled at making tough catches throughout his career. He plays much bigger than his size suggests he should. Brown was underused in the red zone during the 2013 season for whatever reason. It didn’t appear to be because he couldn’t get open, it appeared to be more a philosophical preference.

The Steelers did bring in rookie Derek Moye to run two fade routes, one of which turned into a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals and the other was a drop against the Baltimore Ravens.

Moye could be a useful red zone receiver moving forward, but that is only if he can consistently catch the ball and run his routes accurately. It’s easy to think that being tall is the most important thing for receivers in the red zone, but players such as Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson and Alshon Jeffery don’t excel just because they are tall, they excel because they have outstanding ball skills and they consistently execute when given opportunities.

If the Steelers want to improve their red zone efficiency in 2014, then they need to improve their execution. They don’t need to get bigger. They especially don’t need to spend a high draft pick or give a big contract to a tall receiver to specifically diversify their offensive capabilities in the red zone.

Re-signing Cotchery and inserting Markus Wheaton into a bigger role should suffice.

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