Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the Steelers most reliable playmaker, why isn’t he getting more targets?
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a big game in Week 1 of the 2020 season when he gained 69 yards and scored 2 touchdowns on 6 targets. Outside of his stats, he ran a beautiful rub route that freed up James Washington for a touchdown and threw a number of good blocks in the game. That earned him the focus of my first film room of the season.
The next week Smith-Schuster showed up on the injury report with a knee injury and would miss the Wednesday practice. He would show up on that report and miss the Wednesday practice the next 7 weeks, through Week 8.
In the last two weeks Smith Schuster has 160 yards and a touchdown on 15 targets, if you add that to Week 1’s numbers Smith-Schuster has 229 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 targets in those three games. In the 5 games in between he totaled 210 yards and 1 TD on 36 targets. JuJu Smith-Schuster is back, he is off the injury report, and while he found ways to be valuable without putting up good stats in those games he was nursing a knee injury, he is ready to be more than just a cog in the offense now, he’s ready to lead this offense again.
Week 9, 2nd quarter, 13:40. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Smith-Schuster started his production with a simple drag route for a first down. Notice his route being run exactly as deep as it needs to be to get the first down. He runs directly on the broadcast-added first down line. Even if he can’t get a few more yards, he’s going to get forward progress for the first down while he’s staying as far away from the linebackers as he can, keeping Ben’s window as big as possible.
Week 9, 2nd quarter, 3:46. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.
A simple 4 yard route and Smith-Schuster is sitting in the gap in the zone defense. He gets another 4 yards after the catch, taking a hit to get it. JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t have to be a deep threat, plays like these give the Steelers a new set of downs or a 2nd and short. With a 78% catch rate on the season (87% the last two weeks) he is the most reliable option in this offense right now.
These first two catches are examples of the Steelers taking what the defense gives them, and it is important to see what Smith-Schuster can do without the defense being willing to give him yards.
Week 9, 3rd quarter, 13:40. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top of the screen, the inside receiver in the bunch.
A wide receiver screen, the kind the Steelers have been running for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool a lot. Smith-Schuster shows his burst on this play, when he accelerates past the defense, getting 10 yards after it looks like he should have been pushed out of bounds.
Week 9, 3rd quarter, 1:28. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.
On third and ten the Cowboys play man with two deep safeties. Smith-Schuster starts with a release to the outside, then bursts to the middle of the field, swatting down the defender’s arm and creating separation for his second 20 yard reception of the game, right in the gap between the safeties.
Week 9, 3rd quarter, 0:14. JuJu Smith-Schuster is behind Chase Claypool in the stack to the bottom of the screen.
Another “take what the defense gives you” pass on a third and 15, but in a game with plenty of dropped passes, Smith-Schuster brings in a high ball and protects the catch.
Week 9, 4th quarter, 15:00. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.
Smith-Schuster scores a key touchdown on this play, powering through defenders to finish the play. The best part of the play is Smith-Schuster’s smooth execution of his route, as you can see below.
That slight turn outside followed by one of the better in-cuts you will see has his defender stumbling. Give #25 Xavier Woods credit, he recovers and is able to get position between Smith-Schuster and the endzone, but the Cowboys safety is no match for Smith-Schuster, and it’s a Steelers touchdown.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has shown many times throughout his career the ability to break big plays and take over games, he just has to have the opportunity.
Week 9, 4th quarter, 4:11. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.
This is the only incomplete pass Ben Roethlisberger threw to JuJu Smith-Schuster all game, and it was thrown at his feet. If Roethlisberger leads him on this play it’s another solid first down gain for the Steelers, and potentially a big gain with his defender diving and missing the tackle.
After falling behind other receivers during his stint on the injury report, Smith-Schuster is now only 5 receiving yards and 1 receiving TD behind Chase Claypool for the Steelers 2020 lead. In spite of his production on the day, Smith-Schuster’s 7 targets ranked third on the team behind both Chase Claypool and Diontae Johson in week 9, and just one above Eric Ebron’s 6 targets. In fact, despite Smith-Schuster leading the Steelers in receiving yards in 4 of the Steelers 8 games this season, he hasn’t led the team in targets in any game of 2020, something Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington and Eric Ebron have all done.
Perhaps it is time to change that. While Diontae Johnson has a 56.4% catch rate this season and Chase Claypool is gaining 4.74 yards per target in his last three games it’s time for a healthy JuJu Smith-Schuster with his ridiculous 87% catch rate and 10.7 yards per target the last two games to be the focal point of the passing game again.