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The Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-0 – surprisingly, only the second time in the franchise’s 88-season history they’ve gotten off to such a good start. (The 1978 Steel Curtain team also did it on the way to winning Super Bowl XIII.)
How have they turned things around after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time this century? Exploiting one of the league’s weakest schedules – their opponents own a collective .328 winning percentage – has certainly helped. The return of an elite defense, one that paces the league with 24 sacks, the past two seasons has been key. And, naturally, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s successful comeback from elbow surgery has been vital, too, after he missed most of the 2019 campaign.
But don’t discount this factor, either: Yet again, the Steelers are reaping the benefits of a talented youngster they found after the draft’s first round but who nevertheless appears destined to be a No. 1 receiver.
Chase Claypool, 22, a Notre Dame product – by way of British Columbia – selected 49th overall this past spring, leads Pittsburgh with six touchdowns scored and 335 receiving yards despite starting just once. He found the end zone four times in a 38-29 defeat of Philadelphia in Week 5. Only Hall of Famer Gale Sayers scored more TDs in one game among all other rookies in the NFL’s 101-season history.
“In regards to Chase, he is exactly what was needed here at this time at the position,” Pittsburgh wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard told USA TODAY Sports.
“A guy with the height-weight-speed combination that can do multiple things in the offense – obviously, first and foremost, the guy that can take the top off the coverage. He’s big. He runs fast. He’s a tough, smart young man.”
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And versatile. And productive.
Claypool’s 19.7 yards per reception – bolstered by his first NFL touchdown, an 84-yard bomb from Roethlisberger in Week 2 – also pace the team. The Steelers’ desire to put the ball into the hands of a 6-4, 227-pounder – Hilliard said Claypool slimmed down from 238 coming into training camp – with 4.42-second 40 speed and a 40½-inch vertical have also meant a role in the run game, where his six attempts have led to two scores and four first downs.
“He’s a tough tackle,” added Hilliard, noting Claypool is a threat on jet sweeps or inside runs.
“If you can find a numerical or competitive advantage, you put it in (his) hands in space. Advantage: Us.”
That mismatch factor is apparent, and Claypool’s impact has been virtually immediate. If he scores one more TD, he’ll match running back James Conner’s team-leading total from 2019.
He certainly appears to have the goods to fill the primary receiver role vacated in Pittsburgh when the team divorced itself from Antonio Brown following the 2018 season. Claypool’s build certainly doesn’t resemble the diminutive Brown, but Roethlisberger is already noticing refinement in the rookie’s skill set.
“He knows how to use his hands,” said Roethlisberger during the lead-up to this Sunday’s showdown with the Tennessee Titans, who are also unbeaten. “I think he is gaining a knowledge and understanding of route running and how to get open at the top of routes.
“I just think he is going to continue to grow and continue to get better, and I think we are all excited to see that.”
And pumped that general manager Kevin Colbert has apparently mined another gem at the position. Colbert, who’s been with the franchise for two decades, has an excellent track record drafting receivers, including first-rounders like Plaxico Burress and Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes.
But consider those Colbert plucked in Round 2 or later:
► Brown, a sixth-rounder in 2010, who developed into a record-setting four-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL’s most recent all-decade team.
► Emmanuel Sanders, Brown’s draftmate (though three rounds earlier), who’s still going strong in New Orleans and has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit.
► Antwaan Randle El, one of the heroes of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XL win.
► Mike Wallace, one of the league’s premier deep threats for nearly a decade.
► Martavis Bryant, for a time one of the NFL’s top mismatch weapons – think a slimmer version of Claypool – before his career was derailed by substance abuse.
The Steelers don’t currently have a receiver with a first-round pedigree on the roster … or one older than 24. Claypool is joined by the likes of James Washington and Diontae Johnson, who have offered impressive flashes in their brief careers, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, uber-productive in his first two seasons (169 catches for 2,343 yards and 14 TDs) but struggling lately to adapt now that he no longer serves as Brown’s sidekick.
“We have a bunch of talented young men in our skill group – it’s gonna be hard (for defenses) to look at one guy,” said Hilliard, now in his 10th season coaching NFL wideouts but first in Pittsburgh.
“You gotta obviously tip your hat to those in that (scouting) department. They understand how they want their team to be built. … That’s what they’ve been doing for years at a high, high level. I don’t think it’s gonna stop anytime soon.”
However, despite the credit Colbert often receives for keeping his receiving depth chart stocked, Hilliard points to another factor for the position’s near-perennial success in the Steel City.
“It certainly helps having the quarterback that we have here,” he said, touting Roethlisberger’s preparation and work with his young targets. “All of our young receivers benefit greatly from a guy like that.
“It’s really, really cool when you can have a quarterback that plays 10-plus years in the same place, and you can have that type of continuity. … You can change (the supporting cast) on a year-by-year basis, and you can have a chance because of that guy. It’s a recipe for success.”
That formula seems to be working especially well for Claypool, who’s erupted for 197 total yards and five scores over the past two weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, he currently rates as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 offensive player and grades sixth overall among all receivers league-wide.
“He’s carved a place in this offense for himself. It’s just been great watching him continue to grow on a weekly basis,” said Hilliard, while also complimenting Claypool’s work ethic and maturity.
“We’re all expecting great things from him.”
So are a lot of others. Claypool has been nicknamed “Mapletron” in some quarters for his physical resemblance – with a Canadian twist, of course – to former Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson.
“He’s not gonna sneak up on anybody,” laughed Hilliard.
“We know Chase has done really well for a young a guy in this league – it doesn’t usually look that easy, we know that.
“It’s really, really cool to be around these young dudes. I’m gonna do my best not to screw ’em up.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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