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NFL Draft

Why JuJu Smith-Schuster Isn’t Putting Up Big Numbers Anymore

  • The Draft Network
  • October 28, 2020
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The Pittsburgh Steelers built a good passing offense with post-injury Ben Roethlisberger. It came at the cost of JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

That’s an oversimplification, but sometimes a thin slice can get us quickly to the core of an issue. Fantasy managers through the 2020 season have bemoaned the lack of production from Smith-Schuster, who has only produced more than 50 yards in two of the Steelers’ six games this year and hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 3. In that time, we’ve seen a Week 5 explosion from rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool, a heavy James Washington script in Week 6 against the Browns, and second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson produce two scores to Smith-Schuster’s 0 in Week 7 against the Titans, on a similar target share.

Now, touchdowns are situational, and teams care a lot less than fantasy managers about who scores the touchdowns—they just want to see them on the board. Paydirt will come for Smith-Schuster, and subsequently for fantasy managers. But beyond the variance of scoring, Smith-Schuster’s role has become more delineated, narrow, and particular in the Pittsburgh offense, and his opportunity for big plays has accordingly dropped.

How did we get here? 

Through the first 10 games of the 2019 season with Roethlisberger sidelined, Smith-Schuster was clearly ahead of both Johnson and Washington on the pecking order, before injuries sidelined Smith-Schuster as well. Back in 2018, even with Antonio Brown rostered, Smith-Schuster saw an equal share of opportunity with Brown, posting 166 targets and 1,426 yards. Smith-Schuster was the titular WR1 of this offense, even though his mold was that of a dominant big slot option who thrived in the middle of the field: over the past two seasons, he’s run more than 60% of his routes from that alignment, and in 2018, he was top 20 in Yards/Route Run from the slot, per PFF. Sure-handed across the middle, he posted a catch rate over 60% in each of the last two seasons. He had a modest, but still competitive depth of target (8.7 targeted air yards in 2018, 9.6 in 2019) and in both seasons was a high-performing YAC king, adding over an extra yard/target in YAC than the expected measure given his target distribution. 

This year? He’s taken 80% of his snaps from the slot, his depth of target has dropped all the way to 5.9 intended air yards, and he’s producing YAC just at expectation.

To be a WR1 in name, to produce like a WR1 from the slot, you have to catch everything, regularly produce big plays with your own YAC ability, and still see targets down the field to boot. That’s how you generate first downs, explosives, and yes, even touchdowns. But this year, besides still catching everything, the explosives aren’t there for Smith-Schuster. He’s cordoned off to the slot more now than ever, with Johnson serving as a movable Z receiver and Claypool and Washington dominating the outside snaps. No Pittsburgh receiver has seen a smaller percentage of his passing attempts come deep down the field than Smith-Schuster, while Claypool enjoys 20-plus air yards on 33% of his targets through the first six games of the season.

Smith-Schuster hasn’t gotten particularly worse at anything on film, nor does he seem to be nursing injury or have fallen out of favor with Roethlisberger. Rather, while he used to have to wear a lot more hats for a thinner Pittsburgh wide receiver core, the Steelers now have four wide receivers they’re comfortable putting out on the field, and accordingly, they can keep Smith-Schuster’s scope narrowed to what he does as well as anyone in the league: winning quickly, underneath, from the slot.

While this hasn’t been huge for Smith-Schuster’s individual output, it has been for the Steelers’ offense as a whole. No quarterback is distributing the ball quicker than Roethlisberger, who has struggled as a deep passer so far this season as his arm seems less than 100% in his return from a throwing elbow injury.

Combine this quick passing game with the Steelers’ sudden commitment to pre-snap motion, and you have yourself a spread offense, willing to give multiple wide receivers the lion’s share of the targets on any given week, willing to attack any mismatch the defense affords them, and willing more than anything else to keep their most talented receiver in the shorter, quicker areas of the field.

Smith-Schuster is now what the Steelers need him to be, and perhaps what they always drafted him to be before they fell out with Brown and had to reload at the position altogether. It is interesting to compare Smith-Schuster’s role with the Steelers to the role filled by A.J. Brown of the Titans, a player who many compared to Smith-Schuster when he entered the 2019 NFL Draft—it was a comparison that I myself liked a lot. Like Smith-Schuster, Brown’s ability to generate YAC on quick-breaking routes has been critical to the success of the Titans offense—Steelers fans themselves just saw the danger he poses on his massive catch-and-run touchdown against Pittsburgh last week. But the Titans’ offense isn’t a motion-heavy, spread-the-wealth passing game that looks for quick targets; it’s a play-action approach that wants chunk gains from its targets. Accordingly, Brown gets vertical in his route tree far more often than Smith-Schuster does, and generates far more explosive plays.

The skill sets are similar between the two players, but the asks are different—and for as long as Pittsburgh mollycoddles Roethlisberger successfully, the ask will stay the same for Smith-Schuster. Few are as good of a nickel-and-dime receiver as Smith-Schuster is, and while that may not be sexy, the Steelers are the league’s last unbeaten team for a reason: they’ve found a formula on offense that works, whether fantasy managers like it or not.

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