Four Downs: Steelers wide receivers not separating themselves
1. No separating
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph had four interceptions and was 0 for 7 on passes that were intended more than 20 yards downfield during Thursday’s 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. It was, by any reasonable measure, an awful game for Rudolph. But it should be noted that by the end of the game his wide receivers were James Washington, Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones.
Jones was making his NFL debut, and Holton entered the game without an NFL regular-season catch in 23 months. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Washington during Thursday’s game had an average separation (yardage between him and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion) of 1.6 yards — that figure would be the worst in the NFL over the course of the season.
Washington’s average separation for the season is 2.4, coincidentally the same figure Steelers No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has posted. Only 17 NFL receivers among 115 who qualify have gotten less separation than those two.
Last season with Antonio Brown still on the team to help siphon coverages, Smith-Schuster was getting 25% more average separation (3.0 yards).
In Pro Football Focus’ ratings of 102 qualifying wide receivers, none of the Steelers top trio of Smith-Schuster (rated 62nd), Washington (72nd) or Diontae Johnson (78th) rate among the top 60 in the NFL.
The *entirety* of the Steelers WR corps available right now has a combined total of 79 CAREER receptions.
(or fewer than the Saints' Michael Thomas has in this half-season alone)
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) November 15, 2019
2. No passing threat
The struggles of the receivers, though, do not absolve Rudolph from blame for the Steelers’ recent offensive ineptitude (five offensive touchdowns the past four games).
PFF rates Rudolph 36th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks who have at least 82 dropbacks this season; his 6.3 yards per attempt is fifth worst in that group. ESPN (via its QBR metric) views Rudolph as the second worst of 32 fulltime QBs it measures. Footballoutsiders.com is the kindest to Rudolph; it rates him No. 20 among 33 passers it evaluates.
More objectively, only one quarterback (the since-benched Josh Rosen) has a lower figure for average completed air yards than Rudolph’s 4.3. Rosen is also the lone quarterback with a worse average air yards differential (the difference between average intended and average completed air yards), too (minus-3.6).
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) November 14, 2019
3. Loving Lamar
The equivalent of one regular season (16 starts) into his NFL career, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Texans is a showcase of another young QB MVP candidate in Deshaun Watson.
Each has at least 15 touchdown passes (Watson has 18) and five TDs rushing (Jackson has six) with a passer rating of at least 100.0 (Jackson, 101.7; Watson, 107.1) — no one in NFL history has topped those three figures through nine games of one season.
Jackson (702 rushing yards) and Ravens running back Mark Ingram (619) could become the first pair of teammates in NFL history to have at least 700 rushing yards through 10 games of a season.
— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 10, 2019
4. Bad Barron
Mark Barron had one of his worst games of the season Thursday. He was victimized on what was the touchdown that all but sealed the Browns’ win — one of five catches he allowed in coverage, per PFF — and had two missed tackles.
For the season, according to PFF, opposing quarterbacks have a 105.4 passer rating when throwing to a receiver who is covered by Barron, who was signed by the Steelers specifically with an eye for helping as a hybrid coverage linebacker.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .