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NFL Draft

Why Aren’t The Steelers Featuring JuJu Smith-Schuster?

  • The Draft Network
  • November 10, 2020
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By Brentley Weissman

One of my favorite stats that not a lot of people know or talk about is the fact that in 14 seasons, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, and that will not change this year. Yes, not even the year that is 2020 can knock Tomlin and his Steelers down as they have guaranteed themselves another non-losing season with the team winning their eighth game in Week 9. They are 8-0 and the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. 

The 2020 Steelers are a fun, yet stressful team to watch. On any given Sunday you really never know what you are going to get. They’ll look like the best team in the league one week, and then struggle to beat the Garrett Gilbert-led Dallas Cowboys the next. One thing that you can count on with this team, however, is that their wide receivers are going to get open and make plays. The Steelers’ receiving corps is arguably the best in the NFL, and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having fun in his age-38 season spreading the ball around to his playmakers. As I watch this team every week and study their tendencies and their players, I find it interesting how the Steelers have used arguably their best receiver, fourth-year starter and former Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

Smith-Schuster has had a steady, yet somewhat lackluster 2020 campaign thus far. He started out the season with a strong performance in Week 1 versus the New York Giants, hauling in six receptions on six targets for 69 yards and two touchdowns. However, in the weeks to follow, Smith-Schuster failed to top 50 yards in receiving in four straight games. In the past three games, Smith-Schuster seems to have found his groove, bringing in 22 receptions for 245 yards and a touchdown. While the numbers for Smith-Schuster aren’t bad by any means, he actually still does lead the team in receptions and is second in receiving yards and touchdowns. What is telling however, is his usage and target share compared to his fellow teammates Diontae Johnson and rookie Chase Claypool. 

Smith-Schuster has 57 targets so far this season, leading both Johnson who has 54, and Claypool who has 47. The interesting part, however, is the fact that he isn’t leading them by a bigger margin. Johnson, who is an excellent playmaker for the Steelers, has struggled with injuries this season, missing time with a concussion and a back injury, yet is still only trailing Smith-Schuster by just three targets. Claypool, a rookie who really didn’t start to see significant playing time until Week 3 after Johnson left the game early with a concussion, out-targeted Smith-Schuster last week in their win against the Cowboys and has clearly surpassed Smith-Schuster in the pecking order of playmakers. 

When I watch the Pittsburgh offense, it is clear that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner goes into the game with a clear emphasis on getting the ball in either Johnson or Calypool’s hands. With Johnson, it is with wide receiver bubbles or quick screens to let him use his rare stop-start ability to create yards after the catch. Claypool, on the other hand, is used on designed jet sweeps, or with schemed up deep shots to allow him to test the defense vertically. These designed plays have been missing for Smith-Schuster, who has been relegated to being more of a consistent possession receiver. My question is why? 

Not taking anything away from either Johnson or Claypool, as I think both are tremendous receivers—and honestly, when healthy, Johnson with the ball in his hands is special—but Smith-Schuster is still the team's best and most consistent weapon on the outside. Smith-Schuster can win in a variety of ways. He is fast enough to beat you vertically and create separation down the field. He has outstanding strength both at the catch point to make contested catches as well as with the ball in his hands as a runner to break tackles with ease. He is an extremely savvy football player and really understands how to use leverage to set defensive backs up and create separation at the top of his routes. Plus, his hands are outstanding, having dropped zero balls so far in 2020. I understand that the Steelers need to spread the ball around, but the fact that Smith-Schuster hasn’t led the team in targets in any one game is perplexing. 

I have read on Twitter that perhaps the Steelers are beginning to phase Smith-Schuster out of their game plan in order to prepare for life without him as he is set to be a free agent in 2021—and with Johnson and Claypool, some believe the team will not re-sign him. Now, I personally think that that take is wrong and borderline insane, as the Steelers are way too good this season to be concerned about a player’s looming free agency situation. But the tape doesn’t lie and compared to Johnson and Claypool, getting the ball into Smith-Schuster’s hands is not something that is a huge priority.

As the season progresses, I do expect this to change, and that when it’s all said and done, the team will look to Smith-Schuster when it matters most, and I expect he will deliver. 

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