By Matthew Marczi
Jerricho Cotchery was coming off his best statistical performance yet in his three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers entering Sunday’s game against the New York Jets. Two weeks earlier, he recorded five receptions for 103 yards for a 20.3 yards per catch average while also bringing in a touchdown, his second of the year.
This past game? Cotchery was not even targeted a single time, and this was despite the fact that rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton was inactive for the game—as he will be this week—after having an operation on his finger, which he injured in the loss against the Minnesota Vikings.
Additionally, he also saw his lowest snap count of the season, both in numbers and percentage, as he logged just 19 snaps in the 67 offensive plays run by the Steelers. His previous low was the 33 snaps in 66 plays against the Chicago Bears.
In the first four games of the season, Cotchery had been targeted a total of 25 times, including five times in the last game, in which he caught all of his targets. Yet in his 13 routes run that afternoon, not a single ball went in his direction.
The fact of the matter is that the passing game plan against the Jets was pretty narrowly defined, with nearly all the action directed toward Antonio Brown (11 targets), Emmanuel Sanders (six targets), and Heath Miller (six targets). The other three targets—Le’Veon Bell, Felix Jones, and Will Johnson—combined for six targets.
It must have been something that Todd Haley saw in the Jets’ defense that caused him to shape his game plan in this way. One also wonders if Wheaton would have been involved in the game plan had he been available, with his ability to execute screens and end-arounds against an aggressive front.
Nonetheless, Cotchery was averaging nearly four receptions and 62 yards per game through the first four games, at a clip of 16.5 yards per, and owns a third of Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown passes, so it certainly seemed unusual for the team’s slot receiver to be so underutilized in a game.
Part of this could be attributed, of course, to the fact that, for once, the Steelers were actually winning, and were not forced to run so much 11 personnel, which explains Cotchery’s low snap count. Miller played every snap, while three other tight ends combined to log 43 additional snaps (some of them in three tight end sets). Additionally, fullback Will Johnson also saw a season-high 21 snaps, including eight snaps in the passing game.
Even so, it is not the norm for a Ben Roethlisberger offense to spread the ball so thin amongst just six targets. There are games in which he hits nine or ten different receivers over the course of the night. Expect the snap count between the slot receiver, the fullback, and the second tight end to balance out over the course of the season. The next time Cotchery does not even receive a target, it will probably be because Wheaton has passed him on the depth chart.