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3 Reasons JuJu Smith-Schuster Will Continue to Ascend in 2019



Quite possibly the biggest question of the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers season will come down whether JuJu Smith-Schuster is able to stand in for the enormous shoes that Antonio Brown left when he was traded out of Pittsburgh. There are strong cases to be made on both sides. On one hand, Smith-Schuster out-produced Brown last season. On the other, fans are quick to point out that coverage always shifted to Brown, who is considered the top wide receiver in the NFL.

Still, with or without Brown, the team was slowly shifting to Smith-Schuster as the face of their offense anyway. Without Brown, it is going to come faster than expected, but it was likely to happen nonetheless. These are the three reasons why Smith-Schuster will only ascend without Brown.


One of the biggest strengths to drafting Smith-Schuster in the second round was his age. At age 20, he was the youngest player in the entire NFL draft. Age is an extremely important factor from baseball to basketball, but somehow gets underplayed in the NFL. That is mainly because the draft eligibility rules put every player in a similar bucket. However, every once in a while a player such as Smith-Schuster will pop up and play ahead of his age group.

It is one thing to beat your peers. It is another to do it at a younger age than them. Especially considering the physical and mental development that takes place between 18-22 years of age.

Considering Smith-Schuster’s age and production in the NFL, he is well ahead of his peers in the learning curve. Smith-Schuster is just five months older than first-round rookie Marquise Brown and is younger than second-round rookie Deebo Samuel. While it was rare for Smith-Schuster to get the coverage looks he did thanks to Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster is rare in himself that he has been this productive at this age. Last year he held the Steelers in receiving with 111 catches and 1,426 yards.

Below is list of every NFL player in the history of the sport to record 1,400 yards in a season before turning 23 years old.

Games Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt
1 Josh Gordon 2013 22 2-1 CLE NFL 14 14 159 87 1646 18.92 9 117.6 54.7% 10.35
2 JuJu Smith-Schuster 2018 22 2-62 PIT NFL 16 13 166 111 1426 12.85 7 89.1 66.9% 8.59
3 Randy Moss* 1999 22 1-21 MIN NFL 16 16 137 80 1413 17.66 11 88.3 58.4% 10.31
4 Larry Fitzgerald 2005 22 1-3 ARI NFL 16 16 165 103 1409 13.68 10 88.1 62.4% 8.54
5 Allen Robinson 2015 22 2-61 JAX NFL 16 16 151 80 1400 17.50 14 87.5 53.0% 9.27
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/13/2019.


At age 22 Larry Fitzgerald was ascending over Anquan Boldin, and Randy Moss was taking stats away from Chris Carter. When those potential Hall of Famers moved on, the production only picked up from there. Of course, Josh Gordon has off of the field questions of his own, and Allen Robinson suffered an unfortunate ACL injury before rebounding his career last season.

Even rarer than Smith-Schuster producing that many yards was being as involved in the offense as he was. Below is the list of players in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a season before their 23rd birthday. It is not a long list.

Games Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt
1 JuJu Smith-Schuster 2018 22 2-62 PIT NFL 16 13 166 111 1426 12.85 7 89.1 66.9% 8.59
2 Larry Fitzgerald 2005 22 1-3 ARI NFL 16 16 165 103 1409 13.68 10 88.1 62.4% 8.54
3 Christian McCaffrey 2018 22 1-8 CAR NFL 16 16 124 107 867 8.10 6 54.2 86.3% 6.99
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/13/2019.


Antonio Brown or not, Smith-Schuster is currently in uncharted territory that only some of the best to ever do it can resemble.


Something that kept Fitzgerald’s storied career lasting well beyond a sidekick in Boldin was his ability to move into the slot. It can be argued Fitzgerald helped change the game by introducing a full-time “big slot” player. This player is physically bigger than slot cornerbacks. He is not the best route runner, but with a free release is able to use his size, smarts, and spacing to create with and without the ball in his hands.

This foundation from Fitzgerald opened the door for Smith-Schuster to be what he is. Smith-Schuster fell into round two because he is not the sharpest route runner, and press coverage gave him fits. In the slot, he is bigger than his opponents, and cannot get jammed because he is lined up off of the ball. Smith-Schuster is able to use his smarts to find soft spots in the middle of the field, and use his size to break tackles after the catch.

Many claim that without Brown, defenses will double-team Smith-Schuster. However, double-teaming a player in the slot is easier said than done, and will likely have a team exposed on the deep outsides. So, without Brown, the question is less about how often will Smith-Schuster see bracketed coverage and more about how often can the Steelers exemplify his skill set by keeping him in the slot?

The Steelers did not make flashy moves this offseason, but they did act quickly to replace Brown both in the draft and free agency. In signing Donte Moncrief, the Steelers added a player who has played both the “X” and “Z” role as a receiver. He can line up in either spot, but he will always align on the outside.  James Washington is a “Z” receiver with a limited route tree but the ability to stretch the field. To match that, they drafted Diontae Johnson in round three. Johnson primarily lined up as an “X” receiver, the same spot where Brown lined up, and Johnson is the player who stylistically matches Brown the most.

In a perfect world, the Steelers see Johnson step into Brown’s role as the “X”, Washington ascend in year two into the “Z” and JuJu Smith-Schuster can continue to make magic in the slot. However, if Washington does not take that step, or if the jump from MAC to NFL is too much for the rookie Johnson, Moncrief can play either outside spot. The moves were not headline-worthy, but they were made to keep Smith-Schuster in the slot where he is at his best.


We can argue the merits of Antonio Brown’s gripe with the Steelers another day, but it is clear that the chemistry between Ben Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster was stronger than it was between Roethlisberger and Brown by the end of the 2018 season.

While Roethlisberger used to be known as the gun slinger who tested all areas of the field, he calmed down quite substantially last season, which helped lead to his extension this offseason. Last year Roethlisberger led the NFL in time between snap and throw. He was getting the ball out quick, and was getting it to Smith-Schuster, who took his free release in the slot, caught a quick pass from Roethlisberger and led all wide receivers in the NFL in yards after the catch.

That is going to be tough to defend regardless, but Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster have also developed a chemistry for when the play breaks down, and Roethlisberger has to resort to his old ways. Smith-Schuster was the most targeted receiver on the Steelers when Roethlisberger was under pressure.

His ability to extend the play and remain on the same page with his quarterback at such a young age is uncanny.

In the play below, you see Smith-Schuster lined up on the right hash. He blocks on the edge, extends into the open field and cuts his route inside towards space to haul in the pass.

Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger have been on the same page since his second career touchdown.

In the quick game, Roethlisberger is looking for Smith-Schuster. When the play breaks down, Smith-Schuster breaks free and Roethlisberger has eyes on him.

Did Brown help the development of Smith-Schuster? Absolutely. However, Smith-Schuster is a budding star of his own, and the loss of Brown does not change his ability enough to predict any drastic drop off. Instead, his age, role and development into a go-to option for his quarterback should bring questions about what Smith-Schuster may ascend into in 2019.


Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense



The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start



The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way



The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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