Steelers’ Ryan Switzer hopes to emulate Julian Edelman’s slot production
As pass after pass ended up in Julian Edelman’s hands during Super Bowl LII, Ryan Switzer watched it unfold on television with equal parts admiration and envy.
For an NFL slot receiver, what Edelman did in the New England Patriots’ 13-3 win against the Los Angeles Rams — catching 10 passes for 141 yards while being named Super Bowl MVP — was the equivalent of a climber scaling Mt. Everest.
For an NFL quarterback, the way Tom Brady featured Edelman so heavily in the gameplan provided a road map for picking apart a defense that other passers could emulate.
And so it was Ben Roethlisberger picked up his cellphone that February night and fired off a text to Switzer, the Steelers’ young slot receiver.
“Why can’t we do this?” Roethlisberger asked.
On a team that employed Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, it seemed like an odd question at the time. Brown and Smith-Schuster had combined for 50% of all the Steelers passing targets last season. Switzer, in his first season with the team, was the fifth-most targeted player at 6.5%.
“I just wanted to reach out to him and let him know what he could do, what he means to this team and to me, and the potential that I think he has,” Roethlisberger said Thursday.
With Brown being traded to Oakland a month later and the Steelers looking for creative ways to replace his record-setting levels of production, Switzer indeed might take on an expanded role within the offense.
How much so will be determined over the course of the next 16 games, with the first test coming Sunday night at New England.
Standing on the opposing sideline, of course, will be Edelman.
“Obviously, he’s kind of at the pinnacle of the slot receiver position,” Switzer said. “I’d certainly like to emulate some of the things he’s done with kind of my unique style. He has set the bar really high for slot receivers.
“He’s given us a platform to get paid and catch a lot of balls and make a lot of plays.”
In nine seasons, Edelman has 499 career receptions and a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. He is the most experienced receiver in the Patriots system, slot or otherwise.
“He’s the go-to guy inside,” Steelers slot corner Mike Hilton said. “They are going to find different ways to get him the ball. It’s an exciting challenge.”
Where Edelman is 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, Switzer is two inches shorter and reported to training camp at 178 pounds, his lightest weight since his senior year of high school.
Roethlisberger, though, said Switzer’s lack of size shouldn’t be taken as a negative.
“He’s strong, he’s not shy,” Roethlisberger said, “and he plays big.”
Switzer’s first full NFL season as a slot receiver resulted in 36 catches on 44 targets for 253 yards and one touchdown while playing just 27% of all offensive snaps. Edelman played 67% of the Patriots’ snaps last year and that is factoring in four games he missed because of a suspension.
With the Steelers keeping just five receivers on the 53-man roster — they cut their other slot candidate, Eli Rogers — Switzer could see increased playing time. He was among the starters when the Steelers played their first-team offense in the third preseason game against Carolina. He also handled punts and kickoffs, much like he did last season.
“Ryan is very headsy, a very sharp player,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “He has roles for us and a lot of that role is on special teams. He’s exciting because he doesn’t rattle. He doesn’t rattle when it gets tough. He doesn’t rattle when you have to make changes.”
The goal will be helping the Steelers make up for the 168 targets, 104 catches, 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns that Brown provided last season.
“Everyone is going to get a lot of chances,” Switzer said. “That’s kind of how we prepared throughout camp and the preseason. Everyone has to know every spot. Everyone has to know all of the signals, and I’m just another piece in the puzzle of that.”
Roethlisberger will help determine how big of a piece Switzer can be this season. He is open to getting the ball to his slot receiver more frequently, whether it’s Switzer, rookie Diontae Johnson or another receiver taking snaps inside.
“We’re an offense that doesn’t shy away from the inside guy getting the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “That goes back to Hines (Ward). There are a lot of opportunities there.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .