Ryan Switzer working to perfect role as slot receiver for Steelers
Last season ended with New England’s Julian Edelman carrying his Super Bowl MVP trophy to Disney World.
When free agency opened, teams were quick to sign players such as Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder and Danny Amendola to lucrative, multi-year contracts.
The evidence has piled up for years. The case is closed. The NFL is in the midst of a golden age of slot receivers.
A movement that was the brainchild of Al Davis with the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and was popularized by players such as Wes Welker and Troy Brown with Tom Brady’s Patriots in more recent years shows no signs of slowing down.
“They’re getting paid now more than they ever have, I guess,” Pittsburgh Steelers slot receiver Ryan Switzer said with a laugh. “I think Wes kind of jump-started it. People saw the things he was doing on the field. They saw how quarterback friendly he was, and since then, there’s just been a plethora of guys who have come in.”
The Steelers, meanwhile, are in the middle of a transition year in the slot.
While Switzer and Eli Rogers generally are pigeonholed as slot receivers in the Steelers offense because they fit the stereotype better – smaller and quicker with good hands – Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster routinely lined up there last season. Only three NFL receivers ran more routes from the slot than Smith-Schuster a season ago, and Brown caught 33 balls on 44 targets when he was deployed there.
With Brown off to Oakland, it stands to reason Smith-Schuster will run more routes outside the numbers, leaving reps in the slot up for grabs. Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said that characterization might be an oversimplification of the Steelers offense, however.
He said Smith-Schuster, Switzer, Rogers, third-round pick Diontae Johnson and free-agent acquisition Donte Moncrief will play in the slot.
“The slot position is an accumulation of where we want to put a guy, what we feel like a guy can do, whether a guy can get open off a linebacker or work off a nickel,” Drake said. “With our offense, it’s so interchangeable.”
However the reps are handed out, Switzer is volunteering for duty.
The 5-foot-8, 185-pound West Virginia native entering his third NFL season has dedicated himself to perfecting the slot receiver’s craft.
“It takes a different kind of guy to work the middle of the field, be able to be on the same page as the quarterback,” Switzer said. “There’s a lot of different reads and a lot of different adjustments you’ve got to make in the middle of the field. I’m getting the hang of it. I’m, obviously, not there yet, but I’m working on it.”
Switzer said playing in the slot requires receivers to study film, know coverages, make correct reads before and after the snap and trust their instincts. Experience helps.
“The more reps that you get, the more game experience you get, the better the feel and the better you get,” Switzer said. “It helps when you’ve got a quarterback who’s done it for a long time and has a lot of experience in that area. He’s kind of molded me as the year went on. I’m learning from those experiences. Hopefully, we’ll put them to the test this year.”
Playing in the slot also requires courage.
Defensive backs might not try to decapitate receivers coming over the middle like they once did, but it still is a dangerous part of the field to play. The concussion Switzer suffered on a hit by San Diego linebacker Jatavis Brown in December is proof positive of that.
“Obviously, the rules have changed, but the rules have changed more so for after (the fact),” Switzer said. “Just because the rule changed last year didn’t take away from the fact that I had a concussion. They may have got fined or something like that, but the hit still happened.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .