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

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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.

AGE-ADJUSTED PRODUCTION

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 Pro-Football-Reference.com: 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 Pro-Football-Reference.com: 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.

STICK TO THE SLOT

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.

PLAYING STLYE AND SKILLSET TO MATCH BIG BEN

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.

Steelers Now analyst. IUP Alum. Pittsburgh native. Steelers and Pirates critic, Penguins homer. Covers NFL. Follows NFL, NCAAB, NBA, MLB, and NHL. Writes about the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, and other relevant NFL news.

Analysis

Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside

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The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.

As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?

IMPRESSIVE TAPE

What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.

A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.

It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.

One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.

As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.

The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.

DOTSON’S OUTLOOK

There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.

Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.

 

 

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Analysis

Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed

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It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.

So, with McFarland now on the team what will the team be getting out of the former Maryland rusher?

The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

McFarland’s Film

The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.

This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.

Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.

This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.

That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.

This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.

McFarland’s Outlook

In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.

McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.

*You can also learn about McFarland by watching Mike Asti’s talk with Adam Zielonka of the Washington Times.*

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2020 NFL Draft

Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush

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The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.

All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.

Highsmith’s Tape

The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.

One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.

Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.

Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.

This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.

Highsmith’s Overview

The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.

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