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.
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.
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.
JuJu Smith-Schuster extends route pic.twitter.com/VDoP5PBaoM
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) September 5, 2018
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.
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
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.
Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback
Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.
So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?
Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.
The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.
This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.
There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.
However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.
Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers
It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.
For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.